This week, I remembered my Russian friend, Olga (so many of my tea memories seem to be about people and conversations). Olga and I were colleagues in a tea company a few years ago. For nearly a year, we exchanged nothing more than a hello. And then one day we got talking in the pantry as we each made our cup of tea. She had just returned from a trip to Sri Lanka, where she had attended a Vipassana course. We chatted a bit and I told her about the Baba Yaga stories I used to love as a child—if you grew up in the 1980s, you will recognize Baba Yaga as the scary witch from Russian Fairy Tales. Olga was a bit homesick, I think, and the words Baba Yaga opened a portal of sorts. She was thrilled that I knew something of her culture, of her childhood. That—and 10 days of being silent and meditative perhaps—broke the ice (“imagine seeing the same people every day for 10 days and not even knowing their names,” she said a bit indignantly).
From then on, we chatted often. We talked at great length about a great many things. We spoke of adventures in other countries (hers, not mine), of ambitions, of Tsarveich Ivan (the third son who features in Russian fairy tales), and tea (not vodka).
Their way of making tea reminds me of the noon chai. For they make a black tea concentrate, zavarka, that is diluted with water in accordance with individual preference. Russia is, in fact, the largest importer of tea from India.
I learnt from Olga that Russian teatime sees people gathering around the samovar to drink tea, eat and talk. Sweet dishes usually accompany the tea. Olga’s favourite, she told me, is a layered sour cream cake, smetannik. We roped in another colleague to bake it one day—and it made all of us very happy.
I leave you with Olga’s smetannik recipe.
For batter: 3 large eggs, 150g sugar, a pinch of salt, 250g sour cream, 275g whole-wheat flour, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tbsp cocoa powder
For the cream: 800g sour cream (cold), 220g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Line and grease two circular, 8-inch baking tins.
Whisk eggs with sugar and salt until light and airy. Add sour cream. Whisk till combined. Continue whisking while adding flour and baking soda. Divide the batter into two parts. To one, add cocoa and combine. Pour batter into the tins. Bake at 190 degrees Celsius for 15 minutes. Cool and slice each into two layers. Whisk sour cream and icing sugar till light and fluffy (about 3 minutes).
Assemble by alternating the light and dark layers, spreading cream between each layer. Cream the outside of the cake. Refrigerate overnight. Top with fruit, nuts or chocolate. Serve with black tea.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.