The City of Thieves (Viking/Penguin, 2008 ) by David Benioff (a screen-writer, novelist, producer, and one of the co-creators of The Game of Thrones) dramatizes the adventures of two Russian ephebes –one a diffident Jewish boy, the other the epitome of a confident, blue-eyed, blond-haired Aryan—who wander the frigid and starving city of Leningrad 5 months into its siege searching for eggs. It is January of 1942. Lev, the narrator of the novel, repeatedly recalls the idyllic days of June 1941. The novel opens, “You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier—all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages—eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates…In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.”
At the end of the first few chapters, these two half-starved boys, Lev and Kolya, dreaming of last June, are rounded up at night by Russian soldiers for petty infractions and await execution in the city’s prison. In the morning, believing their lives are forfeit, they are taken away from the prison by the Russian Secret Police to a once opulent mansion which is now the working residence of a colonel who gives the two boys a curious ultimatum: either they find a dozen eggs in the next 5 days so that a wedding cake may be made for his daughter, or they will be executed:
He looked at us each in turn as if there were something momentous about the word cake and he needed us both to understand.
“This is the tradition, says my wife, we need a cake. It is terrible luck, a wedding with no cake. Now, I’ve been fighting all my life against these peasant superstitions, the priests used them to keep people stupid and afraid, but my wife…she wants the cake. Fine, fine, make the cake. For months she’s been hoarding her sugar, her honey, flour, all the rest.”
I thought about this, the sacks of sugar, the jars of honey, the flour that must have been real flour, not moldy salvage from a torpedoed barge. Half the Kirov could probably survive two weeks on her batter alone.
“She has everything she needs, all except the eggs.” Again the portentous look. “Eggs,” said the colonel, “are hard to find.”
Lev and Kolya initiate into adulthood as they sojourn through the city’s landscape and beyond into German and Einsatzgruppen A- held territory searching for the impossible. There are many dangers in the city—confidence tricksters, frost, hunger, the secret police, German air raids, cannibals. One old peasant woman they encounter in a stall in the Black Market area of town hawks gray patties of suspicious meat. When asked if they can buy eggs from her, she responds, “Eggs?…Not since September…You can pay a million rubles…there are no eggs…I have meat. You want meat, it’s three hundred for two patties. No eggs.” When every lead they chase down in “Piter” (short for St. Petersburg) comes up short, the daring Kolya suggests another plan, to which Lev responds, “That’s our plan? We’re going to walk fifty kilometers, right past the Germans, to a poultry collective that maybe didn’t get burned down, grab a dozen eggs, and come home?”
Outside of the city in the quiet of the snow blanketed forests, nature’s peaceful, quotidian realities (squirrels scampering among the trees, the stars as thousands of points of light in the black, night sky) co-exist with the total destruction of rural villages, the enslavement of survivors, and the mass murders of Jews and Communists.
The food shortage crisis in war-torn, Stalinist Russia shapes nearly every scene of the novel. Food substitutes, such as “library candy”—made from the binding glue of books boiled down and re-shaped into bars—are bought and sold on the Black Market. Rationing cards provide ‘flour’ that has little or no wheat or food grain in it, but mostly sawdust. Captured Soviet and Ukranian women who have been forced to submit to sexual slavery by the Germans console themselves in the fact that at least they have firewood and food. Morsels of real rye bread secretly given to them by a remarkable woman-sharpshooter keep Lev and Kolya alive in captivity by the Einsatzgruppen. Each morsel of food that Lev and Kolya manage to find, each warming fire is set against someone else’s starvation, someone else’s death from frostbite, cold, or the enemy.
City of Thieves is an exploration of what humanity there is within us when survival seems as remote and disinterested as the stars in the January night sky or as the memories of abundance of June, 1941. The author manages to weave surreal humor into a crescendo of horror and insanity. Kolya is an amiable confidence-trickster whose charismatic effulgence rescues Lev time and again from the paralysis of terror, compelling the shirking Lev to meet danger head-on. The novel draws to a close in a death-march of captivity, as Kolya turns on his boldness and charm to arrange a high-stakes game of chess for Lev to play (sans queen) with the sadistic Sturmbannführer of the paramilitary death squad. If the sadist wins, their immediate death. If they win, freedom and a dozen eggs.
In celebration of the abundance of food that many of us in the 21st century have the privilege of being able to take for granted, I offer, dear reader, mini-Russian honey cakes. Honey. Sugar. Flour. And, of course, eggs. Like the wedding cake that sets Lev and Kolya off into a war-torn landscape of cold and starvation, there is not much else in these cakes—just the addition of salt and baking soda for leavening. These cakes take a little bit of time and effort, a safe-guard against “eating with disregard, swallowing without tasting.” I cannot take credit for the recipe, which I have adapted from the marvelous Deb of Smitten Kitchen, who painstakingly researched it and worked it to perfection. I have modified her recipe in two small ways: (1.) mini-cakes seemed to me to be more in spirit with the novel—a celebration of decadent morsels rather than the gluttony of a 9-inch cake; and, (2.), I have modified it to incorporate little reminders of June in the dead of January—dried lavender in the cakes and honey and Elderflower liquor in the sour cream frosting.
Russian Honey Cakes
Thin layers of delectable honey cakes made moist by honey, sour cream frosting. Each 4-5 inch stack can serve 1-3 people. I was able to make 4 cake-stacks total. Make it at least 6 hours ahead so the cakes can soak up the frosting. Overnight in the fridge is even better.
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 3 1/2 cups all purpose white flour or cake flour
- 1/2 tsp dried lavender flower
- 1 14 ounce container sour cream
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1/3 cup sweetened, condensed milk
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/3 cup Elderflower liquor (such as St. Germaine)
- 1 pinch sea salt
- dried lavender flower for garnish
To make the Mini-Cakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a cookie sheet with plenty of parchment paper.
In a large pot, mix the honey, sugar, vanilla, and butter, and cook on a medium heat until all the ingredients are melted, bubbling, and fragrant. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
Add the baking soda and continue stirring, and turn off the heat. The mixture will get bubbly from the baking soda. Do not be alarmed when the mixture emits a curious smell.
Add salt and flour, a little bit at a time, stirring with a heavy wooden spoon, until all of the flour is incorporated into the honey/sugar/butter/baking soda mixture. The dough-batter at this point will have the consistency of something between caramel candy and pie dough.
Lay out a layer of parchment paper on the counter, lightly dust it with white flour, and pour/spoon the dough-batter into the center of the parchment paper. Lightly dust the top of the dough-batter with flour and cover the top of it with another sheet of parchment paper.
Starting in the center and working your way outward with a good rolling pin, roll the dough into a rough circle until it is about 1/4 inch thick. You may wish to insert more parchment paper under and over the edges if it begins to spill out the sides.
Gently peel off the top layer of parchment paper. Now, you will cut the individual cakes. Dip a small bowl, glass, or biscuit cutter into some of the surplus flour that has probably spilled onto your counter. Use this lightly floured cutter to cut individual cakes out of the dough-batter. Use a metal spatula to gently pick up each circle cut-out and place it on the parchment-lined cookie sheet. You should be able to fit about 4-5 4-inch dough circles onto a standard cookie sheet.
Bake the cut-outs for 6-7 min. (they should be lightly golden and firmish when you take them out of the oven) and place them upon cooling racks. Then, cycle through cooking the next 2-3 batches of dough-batter cut-outs in the same way. You can re-use the parchment paper for all cycles. I was able to get about 14 little 4-inch cakes (pre-cooked) out of this batch. SAVE the SCRAPS of the dough-batter.
As each batch is cooking, let the finished cakes cool for a couple of minutes. Then, using the same cutter, press down in the center of the individual cakes to make them uniform circles. SAVE THE SCRAPS.
After the last batch of circle cut-outs is finished baking, cook the unbaked scraps in the same way. You'll use these to make cookie crumbs to spread over the sour-cream frosting.
Place all of the cooked scraps in a food processor on high and make crumbs. Any left-over crumbs that you have can be stored in the fridge or freezer for the next time you want to make a cookie/graham cracker crust.
Make the frosting
Once the little cakes are made and shaped, it's time to make the frosting.
Mix all of the frosting ingredients with a Kitchen Aid or mixer. The frosting will be slightly more pour-able than standard frosting. You want it to be a bit more liquid than standard frostings so that the cakes, which are thin and have the consistency of cakey cookies, soak up some of the frosting and become more moist.
Assemble the cakes
Place a large piece of parchment paper (or, re-use from the rolling) onto your cooled baking sheet. Place 4 healthy dolops of the sour cream frosting onto the parchment, with a good 6 inches between them. Place one cake onto each dolop. Gently press each cake into the dolop of frosting.
Spoon healthy dolops of frosting into the center of each cake. Don't be stingy. Then place on another cake on top of the frosting, press the cake slightly, and continue to layer until all cakes have been used. Each stack will have 3-4 cakes. If the cakes have baked slightly unevenly, you can place the thick part of one cake on top of the thin part of the cake below it, and in this way keep the stacks fairly even in size all the way round them.
Spoon a generous dolop of frosting onto the top of each stack and allow the frosting to pour over the sides of the cake. Place the whole baking tray in the fridge for at least 6 hours to allow the cakes to soak up the moisture from the frosting. Save (refrigerate) the remainder of the frosting--you'll need it for the next step.
Just before you are ready to serve, take the cookie sheet out of the fridge. Touch up the sides and tops of the stacks with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle cookie crumbs all around the frosting of the cake-stacks.
For garnish, drizzle with honey, lavender flowers, and a strawberry or two.
Using a clean metal spatula, gently and carefully lift each stack onto your serving platter. Each stack can be cut into thirds, halves, or served whole. If you wish to cut the stacks, it's best to use a sharp knife that has been wet with hot water.