In the cradle of desperation that Hurricane Sandy created in Coney Island lies a newly reopened fountain of abundance. On the corner of the Neptune Avenue subway stop on the F line, one can find what my grandma lovingly calls “The Russian.” By this she means the Russian Market. Grandma, who has lived in Coney Island for the past 60 years, just celebrated her 84th birthday and I thought, what better way to celebrate than to come bearing my favorite cake of all time, the Russian Spartak!
This cake is heavenly. It’s a seven to fifteen layer cake (chocolate or vanilla) with a butter/cream cheese layer in between each one. I cannot begin to describe how wonderful this cake tastes. The first time I had it was in the summertime on the boardwalk in Coney Island with my family at a Russian restaurant, appropriately called Volna, the Russian word for wave. My great grandparents were mostly from Russia so learning this culture has always been important to me, even though I often feel like a foreigner in this land. This cake melted in my mouth. I almost got up and gave a round of applause.
In trying to figure out just where this cake originated and how it got its regal name, Спартак, I did not find much. I did happen upon an enterprising young woman with a blog I only could dream of creating who makes two versions of this cake. I am not quite an advanced baker yet and defer to her for the recipe.
Russian food and culture is so much more than the blithe consumption of caviar and vodka, though in this store there is no shortage of very expensive, boatloads of either caviar or booze. Russian cuisine is as diverse as the people who comprise the vast nations of the former USSR. At the higher end, the cuisine grew through nineteenth and twentieth century contacts with French chefs.
Walking through Net Cost Market is a tutorial in Russian cuisine. Everywhere the eye can see is potential for a veritable feast. There is borscht bubbling over cast iron cauldrons, fish of all colors both filleted and smoked whole. There are cured meats of all forms beckoning you near. The most fascinating part is the prepared food section, a buffet of grilled fish, fried whole fish (halibut, salmon, mackerel, trout, sea bass, cod, herring, smelt, bluefish and so much more. There are chicken cutlets of all sorts and meat in stews with herbs.
The pickled salads (mostly made with beets and dressed with mayo) get their own row, though they share with egg salads farfal, barley, green salad, beet salad, carrot salad, cabbage dill salad and any other kind of salad you could possibly imagine…and some that you cannot.
There is now a dumpling section: Pelmeni (Russian dumplings in semi-circles, no yeast and stuffed, which is what differentiates them from pirogi-which have yeast), Kolduny (crescent shaped dumplings), Vareniki (bigger Pelmeni) and Lazanki (square dumplings) to name a few.
There are aisles upon aisles of Russian candies and chocolates, some even in the shape of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. There are hundreds of types of cheese from soft, semi-soft farmers cheese to tofu spreads and hummus spread. There is an aisle of beer from Russia, but also from all over the world; teas and coffees; every type of produce imaginable, blintzes, blinies, knishes and oddly, a jewelry store tucked into the back underneath the flat screen TVs playing Russian commercials.
The spartak is in the freshly baked cake section next to still-warm cookies, breads and other cakes (like the skaska “fairy tale” cake I got for grandma last year–I love the names once I figure out what they mean) and breads that were being set out from the oven trays to the display (rye, white, fruit, whole grain, whole wheat, honey etc.) They serve the spartak by the pound. No one in the store speaks English very well so when the baker greeted me in Russian, I just pointed and signaled to him how big I wanted the piece and he was able to help me.
After paying in Russian, nodding and smiling when it felt appropriate–thank goodness numbers are the same in every language– I ran with my spoils to Grandma’s house because the breeze from the ocean in December is so cold it hurts. I opened the door to the hallway and was enveloped by the unmistakable aroma of Grandma’s cooking, the best smell in the world. Walking down the hallway, I made sure to put my foot in the single black tile that has the missing piece in the shape of the top of a man’s shoe, something I’ve done since I was a small child. I always thought for some reason the it was my father’s footprint. I rang the doorbell and when Grandma opened the door smiling in her house-dress, telling me I’m too thin and showering me with loud kisses, I knew I was home.