Chocolate-Chocolate Cookies for the First Snow

It’s snowing today. The first snow here in St Petersburg and my second first snow this autumn after Chelyabinsk. I will soon tell you all about this city and my attempt to find out whether the legend of rough & tough Chelyabinsk was a legend or sheer truth. You will learn about my adventures in the upcoming post.

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Before I leave for Kaliningrad, my next destination, and before we’re all snowed under here, just a tasty comforting recipe. Turn on your favourite music, pour yourself (‘another cup of coffee…’) something hot to drink and bite into this truly chocolaty cookie! The world will appear much better as the chocolate melts in your mouth : )

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A year ago – Autumn Leaves and Karelian Pies

Two years ago – Khachapuri, I’m addicted!

Three years ago – Some Soviet Things for a Change and Bread is the Head for Everything

Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Cookies from neohomesteading.com will make big chewy cookies with melting chocolate inside. Oh-oh-oh! Visit the website to get the entire recipe.

My changes: Mixed butter with some sunflower oil, used plain sugar instead of brown sugar and instead of chocolate chips crushed a chocolate bar. I thought about adding some cinnamon but in the end I added just the vanilla.

I made really big cookies and it took them more than 15 minutes to bake.

Remarks: The recipe can be doubled or tripled, says the author plus suggesting other options like freezing the cookies before they’re baked (actually I freeze just about everything…) or turning them into a cookie-cake or cookie-bars.

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Result: See this melting chocolate in the middle? That’s the main point! These cookies are chewy and even brownie-like. Perfect for the cold autumn.

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More melt-in-your-mouth and addictive chocolate recipes could be found here. But beware! : )

G.

An Autumn Day in Lappeenranta, Finland

where's St Pete, I say?

Where’s St Petersburg, I say? I thought it was somewhere in the North-West of Russia, right? Well I don’t see it! It’s been fun trying to distinguish the city in all this mist looking out from the 23rd floor in the morning – and to fail. =) This post will interrupt for a bit the Greece series and tell you about the autumn in … no, not in St Petersburg but in Finland. It’s my second time this year that I travel to one of the nearest cities in Finland (and the EU), Lappeenranta.

Lappeenranta

I was there in April when everything was decorated for the Easter. I think I liked the appearance of the city more in spring but this time I could also enjoy the trip. Notwithstanding the minor things like going there with a bus full of hard-core shoppers and seeing cars with St Pete numbers on their plates everywhere. I mean the nature, the port and the old fortress, the things that filled the three hours we had to spend in the city.

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I had more luck with the weather for sure this time – now that I’m reviewing the photos from that day in April. This time I avoided even looking into the shops – to save some nerves when seeing the crazy Russian shoppers all over the place :) Well, I used to go to Finland for that purpose too (but at least not for the shopping ‘business’, when you buy things there and then resell them in Russia) but now that we have almost all the brands a common shopping mall would have in Europe…

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So we’re in the fortress now, the place which defended the city from Swedes and where there’s an Orthodox church. And lots of buildings converted into various art workshops, shops and museums. The fortress stretches down to the port where there are more of the disused buildings turned into restaurants and a pottery.

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The view from the place was especially… special that day as there were dark clouds in the sky with occasional sun peeping through them – and all that was hanging above the woods dressed in the already fading colours of autumn.

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Compared to St Petersburg and its region, Finland is a much more rocky place – some of its roads are literally cut into the stone. The nature is tough-looking with rough weather conditions but the particular clarity of the colours creates the sophisticated beauty of the place. Our region called Karelia has a similar landscape. And similar traditional rye pies : )

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And well you know, those Nordic people just KNOW how to fit in all these tiny details to make their rough-looking living place into their comfort zone. i don’t like the modern urban architecture anywhere in the Finnish cities but I do like how they reconverted all these old wooden and brick houses into a cozy art & culture center.

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As I said, Lappeenranta is just several hours away from St Pete so there’s no surprise when you see signs in Russian rather than in the second official language in Finland – the Swedish. I was glad to find another language in the city:

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 It’s from this ‘thingy’ in case you were wondering.

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The fortress has this very strange aura about it – it looks a bit abandoned and yet there are people working there, also constructing something. There are tables and chairs and there are essentially Russian tourists walking around at leisure.

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I probably have to explain to you that the Finnish visa is the easiest way to get to the EU (Shengen zone) countries. But in order to be on good terms with the country, you have to have Finnish customs stamps next to your visa. Otherwise you will have to find another EU country to get the access to travelling throughout Europe.

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Meanwhile I descended into the port area, enjoying the small boats and the view on the Saimaa lake. They say Finland rents a part of the lake which now belongs to Russia for over a million euro a year and it also assumes the responsibility to do all the road works. Ha, and then Russians go to Finland and spend all these euro in the malls and come back again.

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I like this boat – it even has a bike in the same dark blue and white colours.

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Lappeenranta means the shore of Lapps people. Yes, those who live in Laplandia, the land of Lapps (aka Sami).

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I was standing on top of a small look-out tower enjoying the sun, the view and home-made sandwich (rye bread seems very appropriate for these Nordic places).

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Reaching the other end of the port I decided to walk through the fortress once more.

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I like this large white house (compared to the rest of the buildings) and the tiny stone ‘tower’ on the ground.

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This building looks very Russian to me (and yes, we used to rule Finland…)

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In spring there were buckets of yellow flowers everywhere – this time there were brown leaves and pots with autumn plants.

Lappeenranta

And there was this angel praying for something. I wonder what for exactly?

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Last glimpse of the city before we hopped on our bus and were off to the border, to get our exit stamp on the visa and enter the Russian territory rented by Finns. Such a globalised world we live in! : )

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I’m off to Chelyabinsk this time, that very meteorite city far away from St Petersburg. Let’s see what impression it will make on me!

G.

Aegina, Greece: Island of Enchanted Places

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Last time I told you about Aegina Island‘s village called Agia Marina and the warmest and dearest feelings I have towards this place. Someone might call it tourist-oriented, some might say it’s so deeply old-school they forgot it’s 21st century out there. But I don’t mind (and my family joins me here), on the contrary I just wish it would really go on like this: we would come back there and each time find the dear old details and people. As my sister has put it, there’ll be no other place like this for us anymore cause a child’s perception of the place is unique.

Aphaia Temple, Aegina Island

We’re now heading from the small seaside village Agia Marina on top of the hill above – which houses on of the most visited and no less enchanted places of the island – the ancient temple of Aphaia, one of the best preserved ancient temples in Greece. Aphaia means transparent in Greek and there’s this beautiful (could it be ugly?) legend about the goddess fleeing from Minos’ lust. Anyway, the temple is very … I don’t know, I cannot call it beautiful but it is so much matching the place, standing on top of the hill from where one can see Piraeus and even Acropolis if the weather allows. They say that the temple creates a magical triangle with Parthenon and Sounion. You can take photos of the temple from all the angles and still its … beauty (for the lack of a more appropriate word) escapes you. I like the colour of the stone and the silence around it – even if the place is crowded with tourists, there’s this majesty and power about it, the silent knowledge and detachment. The sculptures from the temple are in Munich by the way.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

In fact Aegina has it all: beach, ancient temple and a column (ex-temple of Apollo), medieval fortress and a hill full of old churches, a house-size camera obscura, the monasteries (among which the one built by one of the most recent Greek Orthodox saints), the house of Kazantzakis (yes, the one who created Zorbas), the oldest trees in Europe (olives – still have to see them!), the mountain peaks, the wild-life hospital, ex-military base, pistachio & olive groves and what not, really! It even has its own pistachio festival to celebrate the tastiest pistachios in the world. A list can be found on this website.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

It also has the ruins of a wanna-be largest hotel on the island which was abandoned in 1974 and from then on has never been finished. Its ruins (cause it’s gradually dilapidating) can be seen close to Agia Marina and they make part of almost all the panorama photos of the village (see the first one). The taverna guy told me the hunta regime wanted to create a resort there for themselves but they never did. The hotel is gaping with its open windows and has a more powerful effect on me than any other building on the island. It’s surrounded by a (also dilapidating) wall which is covered with impressive graffiti. The church from the photo above is right at the wall.

Paleochora, Aegina Island

In this picture you can see both the medieval church and the most recent church built on the island – the ex-capital of the island called Paleochora (old town) and Agios Nektarios church. I love the fact that they are situated so close (although it takes some time and strength to get from one to the other on foot!), just opposite each other. From the monastery of Agios Nektarios (he died in 1920 and is considered to be saint, healing people and whispering them words from his shrine) you can see the imposing hill where Paeochora is (and it is essentially a hill with loads of old churches scattered around it + topped with a fortress and 2 churches), ochre in colour and as if made from ancient stones. From the hill itself the monastery looks like a ceramic house from a souvenir shop. They do match each other!

Paleochora, Aegina Island

Paleochora is a magic place. You need to go there in the morning before it gets too hot. Because I assure you you will regret it if you do not climb the slippery stones right there to the very top of the hill (at this point it will seem more like a mountain…) to feel the wind all around you and see this:

Paleochora, Aegina Island

And yes, do not step on the ruins! Although ruins are just everywhere :) The Greek phrase actually warns you against climbing on the ruins, which is just the same thing.

Paleochora, Aegina Island

Before you reach the top you will take several dead-ends, by this I mean quite dangerous paths that seem to be leading somewhere but in fact just ending sharply with no chance of getting further. Even the Greeks get lost there. We by chance found a ‘guide’ just when we arrived at the foot of the hill – he said his father found relics of three saints on Paleochora and then built a church there.

Paleochora, Aegina Island

And when you feel tired, take out that tiropita which has been emanating the delicious tiropita smell in your bag all the way up the hill and down, up and down! The view is amazing too.

Paleochora, Aegina Island

And if you’re in the mood for a Greek party – join in the festivities in the church yard, with considerable amounts of (obviously not vegetarian) food and wine to be expected once the mess is over. They all gathered round the loud speaker, listening to a transmission of some Greek Orthodox chants.

Paleochora, Aegina Island

We then went on to the monastery, which is another place of power on the island. This is actually a convent and it’s beautifully decorated with flowers. The church is still under construction.

Agios Nektarios Monastery, Aegina Island

The sisters of the monastery support the island people in need, they prepare food and also help at the old people hospital. Greeks from all over the country come to this place to ask Agios Nektarios for something. Once on a stormy day my father saw a bottle in the sea, reached it and found a note inside, asking to order some church service for someone. We did – we brought it to the monastery.

Agios Nektarios Monastery, Aegina Island

And if you’re more into town – then do visit Aegina’s capital – well, Aegina. It’s a place for those of you out there who enjoy Greek style and decadence : )

Aegina, Aegina Island

This cafe was closed on Monday so we sat there and ate our second Italian breakfast – bread with jam. Then we carefully placed the chairs back in order and went on to explore the narrow streets of the town.

Aegina, Aegina Island

It’s the island’s most important port so what else would you expect to eat there rather than fish? Fish (and just) market is also famous for its mezedakia places where you can drink your ouzo and enjoy some saganaki…

Aegina, Aegina Island

The ever-present cats in Greece must be dreaming of this:

Aegina, Aegina Island

Once you got yourself loads of pistachios and pistachio brittle and pistachio honey, leave the market to see some of the old buildings and signs.

Aegina, Aegina Island

In Aegina the streets are narrow and winding as if trying to get all the pirates (who were never scarce on the island) lost and never found :)

Aegina, Aegina Island

I wish I had more time to walk up and down the streets. Decadence!

Aegina, Aegina Island

Decadence is more visible with every year, unfortunately. So when you get a bit stifled with it, go out in the open, to the port. There’s a tiny white-washed church and a new church and that imposing but now completely degraded building at the beginning of the port. There’s also a woman selling fruit right on the seafront. She once  had no change and so gave us a banana =)

Aegina, Aegina Island

I love the small boats, look so much better than the hi-tech yachts. And I love the blue colour in Greece. They just know how to use it!

Aegina, Aegina Island

Photography and art =)

Aegina, Aegina Island

And some more blue…

Aegina, Aegina Island

And then you get hungry before getting on the hydrofoil – and you eat your last gyros with Haloumi cheese (which is actually a Cypriot cheese). I’ve discovered this nutritious vegetarian version of the – usually – meat gyros and I loved it! Here’s the place on Tripadvisor, and here is Pita Tom, the best place for (vegetarian) gyros in Agia Marina, celebrating its 20 years this October!

Gyros me Haloumi, Aegina, Aegina Island

I couldn’t have NOT ended this post without food ,)

Love this island. Will come back.

That’s about it for today!

G.

Aegina, Greece: Island of Sea, Food and Sunrise

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

I think I’m going to have another post on Aegina, this one will just not fit in even few of the things this island means to me and evokes in me each time. In one of my previous posts I mentioned the pistachios from Aegina, the super-fragrant pistachios that are so addictive and create such warmth (!) you want travel to the place where they got all these wonderful flavours. Pistachios from Aegina are my ‘madeleine de Proust‘.

Arriving

This magic place is more than just sea & beach, although it was the first place I ever met these in my life.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Aegina is the first in lots of things. First foreign place, first restaurant, first hydrofoil, first pizza, first pistachios, first white wine, first time on motorcycle, first time in a hotel,… Well, all things considered, that was the first time I went abroad on a plane. And that was back in 1996.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

And back in 1996 the place was crowded like hell with tourists, especially the popular touristic village called Agia Marina where we stayed along with people from Germany, UK, Netherlands and Russia.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

When we came after an almost 10 year gap we discovered the village and its tourist places so much run down and deserted. Also the things seemed so much smaller (cause I visited the island first ‘when the trees were taller’).  Less than 20 years later and here I am coming there for the 6th time in my life.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Each time I come here I notice yet another hotel or shop shut down or the level of neglect the things are left in. Cause the locals (or those who run the hotels and shops) seem to be really Greek in the way they resist anything new.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

And I thank them for this decadence, although I can’t stop comparing it to what I recall from 1996, nor can I escape the thought that this just cannot continue too long.  This bar shut down for lots of years already has all the things abandoned there inside with an impressive wall of photos with the fading faces, smiles and memories.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

I recognize that Greek attitude even in the best and most brand new things they do. They always leave some space for letting the things flow and even better – stay as they are, the good ol’ way. The Greek way. It’s very-very close to our Russian heart, I guess.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Probably that’s why each time I think about Greece, I dream about the first place I went there (apart from the airport and seaport). And I do not regret coming to this place for the 6th time : )

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

And I already think about the seventh…

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

I just cannot stop taking photos of the same places on Aegina. And I hear Haris Alexiou in my head, cause that first time in Greece was when we first listened to her songs. And fell in love with Greece even more.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

This same rope on the rocky beach where we spent most of our time can be seen on our photos dating back to 1996. I just love this conservative attitude :)

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Thanks to which the sea is clean and there are no enormous all-inclusive hotels around. The largest hotel there should have been is the one that has never been finished and is left there in its unfinished state from 1974.

Tiropita and Ayran

And of course if you want the best good ol’ breakfast on the rocky beach of Agia Marina – get yourself a Tiropita (white cheese pastry) from my favourite bakery (ex-crafts shop where we used to get our souvenirs) an the magic (!) Greek milk (or Ayran, the substitute for kefir)!

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

And then saganaki (fried / grilled) cheese with Greek salad for dinner, oooh! I think I liked it more than the Bulgarian Kashkaval version. Out of the limited number of tavernas that I think I already know by heart this time we chose On the Rocks, right in the port of Agia Marina:

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Next to it is another tasty place – Lighthouse taverna. There usually all the ducks gather to get their traditional meze of the day =)

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

I took photos of  these tavernas at the sunrise, the most emotional time of the day. Just before the sun rises there are small insects buzzing frantically around white flowers, there is this freshness in the air, the changing light. Love those moments.

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

With the sunrise and sunset photos you never know which one is which. These are all of the most impressive sunrise – when the bright golden disk of the sun appears somewhere from the sea behind the rock. With all my inclination towards decadence I prefer this special time just before the sunrise… or before breakfast ,)

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

I made my sunrise walk each morning, getting early thanks to the hour difference with Greece. And as soon as the sun rises, the world around – as if it was just holding its breath – gets on its usual carousel ride, the sun gets so hot, the crazy cicadas start ‘singing’ with maddening volume and… the shops open.)

Agia Marina, Aegina Island

Next time will surely do two things – swim before the sunrise and after the sunset when the sea is dark and a bit menacing.

Part two with shots of the rest of the enchanting places we managed to visit within the three days on Aegina is coming soon.

G.

Layered Applesauce Walnut Cake

Super-ripe apples from dacha

Apples, apples, apples, well, you know! The neverending story of this autumn. My Mother is making apple puree and apple varenye and I’m baking apples raw or in cakes, muffins and scones because my teeth just wouldn’t take it anymore. =)

Autumn in Kolpino

Before sharing with you yet another apple recipe, here are some more shots from that misty-morning-turning-into-a-sunny-day. When I walk past all these colourful leaves I want to seize the moment and get this decadent beauty on my camera but it just wouldn’t work. It’s all about this fleeting autumnal light:

Autumn in Kolpino

And now on to apples and walnuts. There was a jar of leftover apple jam gone-not-the-way-it-was-planned on the table so I had to use it in baking. There was also a bowl of freshly made apple puree and lots of raw apples. Plus some toasted walnuts were waiting for their turn… I’ve decided to use them with the jam and the puree so my choice fell on this recipe:

Applesauce Walnut Cake from heatherchristo.com

A year ago – Cinnamon-Roll Pull-Apart Loaf with Apples

Two years ago – Autumn Colours and Karelia (with another misty picture)

Three years ago – Creamy Peach Tart and Kitchen Reborn

Applesauce Walnut Cake adapted from heatherchristo.com will suddenly make a full-fledged layered cake, super-soft and super-walnut-fragrant! Follow the link for the recipe.

My changes to ingredients: As I had that super-sweet apple jam (with apple bits) instead of applesauce I actually did not add any sugar to the batter at all. I mixed in some white rice flour and used considerably less nutmeg for sure. Instead of buttermilk I mixed some milk with sour cream. I used apple puree to fill and top the cake.

Applesauce Walnut Cake from heatherchristo.com

My changes to procedure: The recipe will actually make two cakes. So when I ended up with two round cakes they were just asking to get turned into a nice layered cake. With all the apple puree that we have (we’re running low on glass jars, who would believe that?), that was just the most appropriate idea – to cut each cake in two and then fill and glaze the cake with lots of apple puree. I also decorated the cake with walnut pieces.

I had to bake the cakes longer than 30 minutes.

Applesauce Walnut Cake from heatherchristo.com

Remarks: If you don’t like the taste of walnuts or would rather have it less distinct, add some other nuts cause WALNUTS! is what every bit of the cake is screaming : ) I don’t know how this recipe will work with other sorts of filling / glazing, I just find this apple puree a perfect filling for lots of cakes (see some of them here).

Applesauce Walnut Cake from heatherchristo.com

Result: The walnuts are chewy and the cake is soft. Cool! A very fragrant cake even if you leave it as it is, without building up the layers. The author suggests dusting the tops with powdered sugar. And yes, the fact that my cake had no sugar added to its batter and still was sweet proves that you can use the leftover apple jam in baking alright!

Applesauce Walnut Cake from heatherchristo.com

Will soon get back to my Greece shots and memories.

G.

Sourdough Bread with Pistachios from Aegina

It was so misty yesterday morning that when I was jogging in the park near the river I could see neither the opposite bank nor the rest of the park. I had no camera with me and an hour later here’s what was left from that thick Medieval mist (don’t know why but I have this connection in my head!).

Mist in Kolpino

After crossing the bridge the picture got ‘enhanced’ by the smoke coming from the Izhorsky Plant. It adds to the picture I say, not to the well-being of the citizens.

Mist in Kolpino

The mist lingered for some more time also above the island called Chukhonka (where the Finnish tribe chukhna used to live). It is such a famous and popular place with Kolpino people that I could have made an entire post just on that. It looks really nice in autumn:

Mist in Kolpino

Just half an hour later – no mist, lots of sun and the ever-present smoke from the factory chimneys. I will soon continue my Kolpino architectural series, there’s yet much to be told about it.

Mist is gone

The sun also gave me the opportunity to take photos of the freshly baked sourdough bread with pistachios I brought from the recent trip to my beloved Aegina island. A post on that is to come soon.

pistachios from Aegina

The mere taste of the toasted and salted pistachios bring back the memory of our first encounter with Greece back in 1996. I know it sounds weird but I had never tasted pistachios before we travelled to Aegina for the first time. And those Aegina pistachios are famous at least all over Greece.

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

So I though I could finally make some of the recipes I keep for baking ‘later, when I will have pistachios’. And here’s what I’ve decided upon:

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

A year ago – Cinnamon-Roll Pull-Apart Loaf with Apples

Two years ago – Autumn Colours and Karelia (with another misty picture)

Three years ago – Creamy Peach Tart and Kitchen Reborn

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread adapted from zestysouthindiankitchen.com will make a very soft and moist sourdough bread with bits of pistachios and lots of fiber. Visit the link to see the original recipe. ATTENTION: requires time (overnight levain and proof time the next day).

Changes to the ingredients: When I was making the levain the night before baking, I had to put more water to make it less dry. The same happened when I was mixing the final dough. My sourdough culture is made of rye so the bread turned out darker. I did not use raisins and consequently skipped all the prep procedure. I also omitted the yeast completely, relying solely on the strength of my sourdough. I did not have any cornmeal so substituted it with rye flour.

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

Changes to the procedure: I left the dough rising for 3 hours but also made several folds during this time (as I didn’t add any yeast). I felt lazy to make two loaves so made a large one instead. I had to proof it in a glass bowl which I use as my ‘proofing basket’ and after an hour or so it started growing in size considerably. I inverted the loaf on the silicon mat and baked it for 39 minutes. As I went out rollerskating during this time, it’s obvious I ‘forgot’ to rotate the loaf! When I came back I could easily tell the characteristic smell of the sourdough bread and the already burning flour.

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

I actually love this sourish smell and that of the burning flour too… Too much baking : ) I think the crust got really great and even this strange ‘ear’ that appeared after I inverted the loaf from its ‘basket’ added up to the look.

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

And yes, those specks of light green pistachios in the crumb! When I was taking the photos the bread was hot, just out of the oven, so the crumb looks too moist. I know that you’re not supposed to slice sourdough bread right after baking but the setting sun was hurrying me up : )

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

Remarks: You can add the raisins if you like them in your bread, my family just tend to avoid them in the ‘black’ bread. Also do add some yeast if you’re not sure in your sourdough. At first the dough start spreading out in the oven and I thought that was it, I was going to have a flat loaf but then the process stopped and the loaf puffed up a bit. I think I would rather make two loaves just as the recipe suggests, so that it takes them less time to bake. Moreover, it’s more handy when you have two smaller loaves instead of one large super-loaf.

Pistachio Raisin Sourdough Bread from zestysouthindiankitchen.com

Result: Crusty bread with fragrant pistachios. I love the amount of bran in it and the fact that it’s at the same time both ‘black’ and ‘white’ bread as it doesn’t have that much rye flour in it. Overall, very fragrant!

I’ll have yet another apple cake recipe for you to share soon!

G.

Bulgaria: Blagoevgrad, Sofia and the Language

Photo number 1

Traditional start and end of my travel photos – a picture of the sky seen from the airplane. This journey to Bulgaria and Greece called for four flights and I enjoyed those from Moscow to Sofia and back the most cause I could see a real patchwork of fields, so colourful and diverse. I could imagine something really tasty growing there, mmm : ) Like these tomatoes grown in the center of Blagoevgrad, my first Bulgarian city ever visited (not counting the ugly suburbs near Sofia airport). The city is more like a town and it’s situated in the south-west of Bulgaria.

Blagoevgrad

I can only say that the landscape is beautiful, the nature is gorgeous, the fields are everywhere. But as soon as it comes to a city, it sucks. Sorry, but it does. It’s as if people KNEW how to build lovely towns and then they forgot. In their rush towards everything fast and more more more they just lost the ability to create not simply a house but a beautiful house. Thanks God there is an old city center and even a small town within the city in Blagoevgrad, where I could enjoy the walk.

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My friends know that I have this weird appetite to decadent old towns which I prefer to glossy or not so glossy new districts. I think that these parts of the city just tell you more about its life, especially about its past. Somebody some years ago took pains to build and decorate hoping that will last for years.

Blagoevgrad

Blagoevgrad is a hectic mixture of very ugly Soviet buildings and nice though decadent neo-classical buildings, interspersed with much older traditional two-storey houses. I could not really make head or tail out of this town.

Blagoevgrad

Talking about ugly Soviet buildings, here they are. Bulgaria never belonged to USSR if you’re wondering but it has gone through its own let’s-build-communism period. Here are some of the adjusted remains of the era:

Communist building, Blagoevgrad

And this one was pretty ugly (haha, pretty ugly…). And to think that someone some years ago could design all this being totally convinced this was to be oh so modern and beautiful…

Communist building, Blagoevgrad

And probably this was the ugliest building, set along the river Bystritsa (literally ‘rapid’ river) running through the town. Again, someone thought that would be the most appropriate building to decorate the riverside…

Communist building, Blagoevgrad

Let’s leave the ugly side and see how contemporary citizens are trying to adapt the cityscape to their liking. I did enjoy these decorations of electrical control units (or whatever these things are called in English) which I also spotted in Sofia:

Blagoevgrad Art

The tag says 2014, I wonder if this is a new fashion or they re-paint the units each year?

Blagoevgrad Art

There were lots of such decorated units across the city, like this food-related one:

Blagoevgrad Art

And yes, this journey to Bulgaria was a culinary one too – I tried some typical Bulgarian food and I ate a lot. In general. We had such copious lunches and dinners at the university canteen, which just cannot be referred to by a Russian word stolovaya. The food is proper food there and you do enjoy it (whereas a stolovaya has such a derisive Soviet connotation stuck to it irrevocably!).

Lunch, Blagoevgrad

And don’t tell me your university canteen had such pretty dishware, eh? The white cheese in the photo is the traditional white brine cheese sirene, something that we call brynza in Russia. Oh this salty cheese was so nicely counterbalanced by fruit!

Vitaminozny Salad, Blagoevgrad

But actually the first Bulgarian thing I tried in my Blagoevgrad hotel’s cafe was this salad called Vitaminozny in Bulgarian (its Russian counterpart ‘vitaminny salat‘ is never so large nor so tasty!). Fresh veggies, salty olives, tasty fresh baked bread with seeds, I was full already with that! The quinoa salad in the background was my colleague’s choice. And then came this…

Fried Kashkaval Cheese, Blagoevgrad

Fried cheese called Kashkaval in Bulgarian (as far as I understand this is the Bulgarian rendering of the Italian caciocavallo). It was different from the fried/grilled/baked saganaki cheese in Greece, cause it was a yellow type of cheese but also quite rubbery and cheesy, if you know what I mean. I find such cheese dishes the best choice for vegetarians – even a small piece of fried cheese can quench your hunger alright!

Sunset in Blagoevgrad

By the way, we enjoyed a great view from the university canteen’s balcony that very first evening in Blagoevgrad. Such a tremendous sunset that was! And such a tasty chocolate cake for the dinner (could not eat more after the fried cheese!).

Blagoevgrad

And now back to the city which I gradually explored during the three days spent in Blago (as the locals call it). The name comes from the family name of a Bulgarian communist, the previous name sounds more interesting – Skaptopara (somehow reminding me of skales, a Greek word for stairs).

Taxi advertisement, Blagoevgrad

This tractor is advertising a taxi company titled Atlas. We live in such a funny world… And yes, Bulgarian language sounds quite funny to my Russian ears, although I listened to various audio courses before coming to Bulgaria. Some words are tricky – they sound the same yet mean something either completely different or opposite to Russian. How about Bulgarian stol which means chair in English but which is identical to the Russian for table? Or how about the adjective skyp which means dear or expensive and means ‘mean’ in Russian? A similar thing happens to Russian speakers when they read Ukrainian – the words are so familiar but either obsolete in modern Russian or bring back the original meaning of the word. There’s this feeling of the old Slavic language in Bulgarian which we’ve lost in Russian.

Theatre, Blagoevgrad

I’ve made a series of photos of just these ‘funny’ Bulgarian words – but they do require the knowledge of Russian. Instead let’s see what the city has yet to offer. The two previous photos show some Soviet-like art on the wall of the youth center and the local theatre. This is a view from the theatre when looking at the green hill (with a newly added cross dominating the city) above the old town.

Blagoevgrad

The third day I did get to the old town. And that walk made me at least get the notion of what Blago looked like when it was still a nice place to live in, for me that is :) Cause sure there are people who will not complain.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

The old town called Varosha welcomes you with Macedonian like white-washed houses. I was there in the evening just before all the souvenir shops were closed, with children playing in its narrow streets winding up and down the hill. Well, those were very tiny streets cause the district is really small.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

The art studios seemed to be all closed too.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

But no one prevented me from enjoying the decadence at its full there.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

Some of the houses are (being) renovated and look very nice, though the ones up the hill are quite run down.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

The weather was perfect for such a walk and the autumn leaves added to the experience. As did all the local cats (just like in the old city of Thessaloniki).

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

There was even a Math House, a unit of the Bulgarian Academy of Science. And this church which – they say – looks very much like the nearby Rila Monastery (I hope I will visit it one day).

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

The church is not that super old (there are even some later Soviet-like additions to it) but the icons painted on the walls are washed down quite a bit.

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

There are several tavernas and hotels in the district as well as some small crafts clubs or something. This is how a traditional restaurant is decorated:

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

And here is the entrance to the district (which was the exit for me, a typical thing!). I hope they do preserve this jewel, it really helped me solve the puzzle of the city – if you ignore this district you will most probably call Blago a nothing-to-see town. And ironically most of the people I talked to could hardly tell me where Varosha was…

Old Town Varosha, Blagoevgrad

Cause most of the abide somewhere in these parts – which made me shudder really. What’s this ugly thing has to do with a place where people are supposed to live and enjoy living? =) Oh my…

Blagoevgrad

I did not linger near those fountain, making my way back to the city pedestrian area, with this 1/2 Blue House shop and 1/2 yellow house building:

Blagoevgrad

Walking back to the river I saw this traditional Bulgarian eating place (mekhana) in an old house rising above (or rather crawling up?) the riverside. The weird cement circles down there at the river were possibly added thanks to – again – some other 20th century great idea : )

Blagoevgrad

The last day in Blagoevgrad ended with a dinner at a mekhana outside of the city close to a park which I unfortunately did not have time to visit. This mekhana word reminds of the Georgian word for a taverna – dukhan. I had to get back to the hotel even before the main dish was served as I had to catch my overnight bus to Piraeus, Greece (spoiler: next post!), but I managed to take these photos of the place:

traditional Bulgarian Taverna, Blagoevgrad

Traditional Bulgarian dress and decoration in red-and-white colours (just like the colours of martenitsa – a decoration made from strings that celebrates the coming of spring, I remember making some when I was little!), some parts of the taverna reminded me of the Ukrainian restaurants:

traditional Bulgarian Taverna, Blagoevgrad

On my way back from Greece where I travelled after Blagoevgrad I had to return to Sofia airport and so I decided to spend the morning in the capital. Not much to tell you or show you here. I had all my memory card full with Greece, my mind and heart were full with it too and on top of it all it was rainy and moody.

Sofia Art

More of the crafty redecoration of the units scattered across the city. More ugly Soviet-like constructions and imperial-like buildings. And more of the super-modern somethings which just look out of place.

Sofia Art

Ne pipay means do not touch. And zhivot (last word) is ‘life’ in Bulgarian and in old Russian but means stomach in the modern Russian language. A phrase which sounds funny and at the same reminds me of the real roots of the words I pronounce.

This is Sofia

And this is probably how I imagine Sofia – a weird mixture of Soviet things (I lived just close to the park commemorating the Soviet soldiers liberating the country in the WW2), McDonald’s sign reigning above some indescribable new buildings, the golden domes of the Russian cathedral and other things all together. It was also the city day when I was in Sofia which prevented me from seeing some places in the city (lots of police everywhere).

Red House, Sofia

The thing which I did like in Sofia was my artsy hotel called Red House (ex-residence of an architect), which IS a house with several rooms and a common kitchen and bathroom. If you’re planning on going to Sofia (which is currently invaded by Japanese tourists mostly), do stay there. The breakfast in the pseudo-Russian cafe complements the experience =)

Somewhere in Bulgaria

So far all I could tell you and show you about Bulgaria. I’ve crossed the country’s south-west part twice and I can tell you that the scenery is amazing. It’s just that you tend to rush through the landscape in a bus and then get stuck in the cities, which as I have told you already leave much to be desired. Do try to see more of the nature in Bulgaria, it’s so much more pleasing and even enchanting!

And I will surely come back. I haven’t tried so many cheese & baked things there! : )

G.

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