Things Have A Way Of Working Themselves Out
I have been back in New York a little over a week, after spending eight wonderful days in Moscow. (As in the capital of Russia, not the town in Idaho.) I hadn’t been back to Russia since 2004, when I spent about six months studying Russian in St. Petersburg, and I’d never been to Moscow at all.
It happened that an old friend of mine I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade was in Moscow the same week I was. And so my last day in the city was spent mostly in his company, with a short break between our Uzbek lunch at Tamerlane and Franco-Russian dinner at Jean-Jacques (yes, the same Jean-Jacques that has lately been raided by the police and is one of the preferred hangouts of Russia’s middle-class opposition movement; as for “Franco-Russian cuisine,” well, think cod brandade with dill in it) to permit my husband and me to stumble to Novodevichy Convent and back. Our epic reunion saw to it that I got about two hours of sleep before leaving for the airport, and maybe half that in the course of the ten-hour flight, so that by the time we touched down in JFK I was starting to think that maybe this whole “celebrity exhaustion” thing and the associated hospital stays weren’t completely, entirely frivolous after all.
That said, I survived the ordeal without the aid of an IV drip, and was my regular self again after a day or two, but it was short-lived. Within hours of my resurrection, I received an invitation that any other day of the year I would have accepted without hesitation, but on this one felt like some kind of cosmic harassment: Would I like to accompany X. to Brasserie Pushkin? That very night?
One of the last things my Muscovite friend said to me on the eve of my departure, or at least one of the last things I remember him saying, was that Moscow’s celebrated Cafe Pushkin had just opened a branch in my own city, and I simply had to try it. Now, unless my husband happens to surprise me, as he did this past Valentine’s Day, by whisking me off to Caviar Russe, I don’t make a habit of dining à la russe above 50th Street–but it didn’t seem important to explain this to my friend. I promised that I would, and settled it with a clinking of glasses. And here I was, 48 hours later, weighing serendipity against cirrhosis. Of course, I knew what I had to do.
The meal at Brasserie Pushkin isn’t really mine to write about, so I won’t. All I’ll say is that it wasn’t very good. But I was tempted as I was leaving by a gold-dusted pryanik, and am relieved to report that Pushkin’s pâtisserie is doing a better job than the hot kitchen.
This pryanik is kind of a big deal; allow me to explain. While I was in Moscow, another friend had urged me to visit Tula, about three hours by train outside the city and home to two important things: (1) Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate, and (2) the toponymous tea-time confection known as the “Tulsky pryanik.” Everyone knows all about Tolstoy, of course, but the tea-cake isn’t well-known outside of Russia. (I hadn’t heard of it myself.) It turns out that Tula’s pryanik–there are many pryaniks–is a sort of gingerbread pocket with a condensed milk filling, notable for its intricate embossed patterns. Back home, they look like this:
Brasserie Pushkin’s version, as you can see, is a little more fantastical. Instead of the traditional sugar glaze, they’ve used edible gold dust, and the surface is raised in flourishes and ferns. But it still has that condensed milk filling, something like a tart dulce de leche, and made a lovely breakfast the next morning with strong, milky tea.
The thing is, I never made it to Tula. (After seven years, my Russian still works for some things, but, coward that I am, I didn’t fancy investigating whether missing the last commuter train back to Moscow and getting stranded overnight in a town with no tourist infrastructure was one of them. My husband, who can just about say the words for “beer” and “please,” could have lent only moral support.) While I remained in Moscow, I told myself that there was still time to pop into GUM, the historic department store on Red Square, and pick up a souvenir pryanik, but then vodka happened, and I never made it back there either.
I think it’s pretty wonderful that fate made sure I got my pryanik anyhow. You know how I know it was fate? As I was riding the 2 train to the brasserie, the woman sitting next to me was reading War and Peace on her iPhone. This is a true story.