Food! The eternal unifier, facilitator of conversations, an excuse to gather friends and let the good (Moldovan) wine flow.
As the largest city in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, Comrat is a food-lover’s dream and deviates from the “standard” Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience. In my first few weeks’ exploration, I (naturally) toured any and all locations where I could find ingredients.
We have an impressive bazaar, and people come from many Gagauzian towns to sell their wares. Products are seasonal, and prices vary.
The produce is no joking matter: we have honey, bee pollen and “перга” (known in English as “bee bread”); pears, peaches, pomegranates and plums; cabbage, beets, fat carrots and tomatoes – and much more besides.
There is a large room where butchers arrange their unpackaged meats on long wooden tables and hang ham-hocks and pig-heads from intimidating hooks (and, at times, a pig snout may serve as a hook of its own right: some butchers suspend plastic bags filled with intestine from an ungulate muzzle or two).
Here you will also find brinza, a national prize and an essential food in any Moldovan family’s kitchen. You can learn more about brinza and its production here: http://miras.md/new/e/index.php?newsid=197.
Just this past weekend, I went with my host mother Ana Nikolaevna and the two French volunteers I am currently living with to pick up veggies for the winter, while prices are still low. We ended up calling a taxi to haul the four bushels of potatoes, a bushel of onions, a bushel of peppers and a fat pumpkin back to our home. My host mother stores all of the vegetables in her “подвал,” the cellar where she also stores other home-canned vegetables and fruits.
(But about that pumpkin… Ana Nikolaevna’s “friend” at the bazaar, the lady hawking squash and fresh spices, pulled her “хорошая подруга” aside for a moment, chatted her up… and then proceeded to sell me a 5-lei-per-kilo, 25-lei stud-pumpkin. [The lei is the Moldovan unit for currency, for all you curious coin collectors out there.] 25 lei is slightly more than a dollar – not bad, eh?! AND SO I THOUGHT, until… right round the corner, my host mother caught sight of another squadron of squash, going at one–lei-per-kilo. Fleeced, like a Spring Lamb! Hoodwinked! Bought-and-sold! Ah, even under the guidance of a wise Moldovan “бабушка” such as Ana Nikolaevna, those foxy market ladies are too sly to be trusted…)
And what a delight to have access to four supermarkets! We may choose between Fourchette, Linella, Gastronom and Fidesco (not including the smaller locally-owned markets) when seeking ingredients outside the bazaar norm. Prosciutto, caviar, mozzarella cheese, dried cranberries, smoked mussels, rabbit, kiwi fruit, Ramen noodles, nori, shrimp, halva…. Produce in the markets vary (it’s more seasonal than what you might experience in the United States), but I can always find that sweet Costa Rican pineapple.
When in the mood, I like to cook for my friends and house-mates. I made the following cake one Saturday night (WARNING: this was a 5-hour cake, though I’d argue that juicing two pomegranates with a garlic crusher [oh yes we’re resourceful here] stretched the hours a fair bit).
Pineapple Pomegranate Apple Cake
Applesauce for Batter:
- 4 medium-sized apples, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons raw honey
- ½ cup sugar
- Water as needed
- 5 eggs
- 2 cups flour
- 1 ½ cups white sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon melted butter
- 1 large can sliced pineapple
- ½ cup butter
- ½ cup white sugar
- Juice of 2 fresh pomegranates, or 1 ½ cups pomegranate juice
- Juice of ½ large lemon
- Pineapple juice reserved from canned pineapples, or 1 ½ cups pineapple juice
- ½ cup white sugar
- Sliced almonds for topping
- Mix sliced apples, honey and ½ cup water in a medium-sized pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring infrequently and adding water as necessary to retain moisture. Cover pot with lid when not stirring. Cook until apples are caramelized and the consistency of applesauce (between 30 and 45 minutes). Set aside to cool for later use.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C).
- Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
- Separate the eggs into two bowls. In a large bowl, beat egg whites just until soft peaks form. Add granulated sugar gradually, beating well after each addition. Beat until medium-stiff peaks form. In a small bowl, beat egg yolks at high speed until very thick and yellow.
- With a wire whisk or rubber scraper, using an over-and-under motion, gently fold egg yolks and flour mixture into whites until blended. Fold in 1 tablespoon melted butter or and vanilla extract. Finally, fold in applesauce mixture; set aside batter for later use.
- Melt 1/2 cup butter over very low heat in a small skillet. Stir in ½ cup of sugar and cook, whisking quickly, until mixture begins to bubble. Add pineapples to skillet and cook, approximately 5 minutes on either side. Remove pineapples and place them in a 9-inch cake pan. Pour remaining syrup from skillet over pineapples, then spread half of the cake batter evenly over the pineapples.
- Bake until surface springs back when gently pressed with fingertip and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes. Loosen the edges of the cake with table knife. Cool the cake for 5 minutes before inverting onto serving plate. Clean the cake pan and butter all sides; pour in the remaining batter and cook as before, approximately 30 minutes. When finished, remove from pan and let cool.
- For cake topping, combine pomegranate, lemon and pineapple juice and sugar in a medium-size pot and bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Pulp or pinkish scum will form on top – this is normal. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 to 50 minutes, until the syrup has reduced to 1 cup. It will produce glossy pink bubbles that are hard to stir down. The syrup will also thicken as it cools.
- Place the second cake layer on top of the first so that the pineapples form the middle layer. Pour the fruit syrup slowly over the top of the cake. As you pour, use a spoon to spread the syrup; some will spill over the sides.
- Optional: Once the syrup is spread, top the cake with almond slivers as desired.
BONUS: The entrance to my home in Comrat