One of the culinary rites of passage for foreigners in Russia is the first time they experience a “chocolate potato”, one of the signature dishes of Soviet cuisine. It was served in restaurants and student cafeterias, and often homemade. Made up of crushed dry biscuits or breadcrumbs mixed with butter, condensed milk and cocoa, these incongruously named confections are delicious. Today, for millions of people in the CIS, they are the taste of childhood.
Most people think that the chocolate potato is a Soviet invention. Recycling leftover cake crusts to produce culinary happiness at a lower cost was surely the idea of the party bosses. But it turns out that this Soviet classic was actually born earlier.
But even though it was invented earlier, the restaurant industry loved this dessert for its convenience. “Recipes for pastries and cakes did not take into account the cut pieces. We had to use the leftovers in one way or another, for example to make chocolate potatoes, to compensate for the missing weight of the large cakes,” wrote Robert Kengis, author of many Soviet confectionery books. The wide distribution of this dessert is therefore due to the standard economy and quality control practiced in Soviet canteens.
Home cooks didn’t have to worry about leftovers or crumbs, so we made this dessert with Jubilee cookies or vanilla rusks. Recipes passed from hand to hand, and each home cook had, as usual, her own recipe which she considered the best.
This delicacy was truly a household favorite throughout the Soviet Union. But where does this popular recipe come from? Recipes, as we have seen, rarely come out of nowhere. There must have been an earlier version that inspired the Soviet recipe.
Today, when the chocolate potato recipe is discussed in the print media, it is often mentioned along with Runeberg cake. Some culinary experts claim that this Soviet candy was invented by the Finnish poet, writer and journalist Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877).
Some sources attribute the recipe to him personally, others to his wife Fredrika. Still others suggest that the poet looked over the shoulder of a Porvoo town chief to see recipe. It is true that a book published in the 1850s by Fredrika Runeberg contains a similar recipe. However, according to historians, his recipe is the same as a recipe originally (in 1840) published by confectioner Lars Henrik Astenius.
“For 6 cakes: 100 g butter/margarine, 100 ml caster sugar, 1 egg, 50 g crushed almonds, 150 ml finely crushed rusks, 150 ml wheat flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon of cardamom, 100 ml whipped cream, raspberry jam, icing sugar, water, lemon and orange juice, punch. Beat the softened margarine or butter with the sugar until fluffy and add the egg while continuing to mix. Combine the dry ingredients and add to the mixture. Add the cream and, if desired, a little punch. Butter cake molds and fill them with batter. Place in preheated oven at 200 degrees for about 20 minutes. Spoon a little raspberry jam on top of each cake. Mix the powdered sugar with water to form a glaze and make a ring around the raspberry jam with this glaze.
Runeberg’s pastry (or cake) was very popular in Finnish restaurants and bakeries. We know, for example, that it was served in the years 1860-1870 in Helsinki by the famous pastry chef Edward Fredrik Ekberg. But note: it was baked and not made from leftovers, butter and other ingredients.
But, you might reasonably ask, how is it similar to the chocolate potatoes of Soviet childhoods? Well, it’s not, except for the use of crushed crackers. Any analogy is approximate. But even though the Finnish recipe was the ancestor of the Russian chocolate candy, the Soviet recipe was innovative.
The main innovation is that the Soviet chocolate potato was not baked, but simply made from leftover cake and other baked goods. They were mixed with butter, sweet cream (or condensed milk), raisins, nuts and anything a cook could think of. In the Finnish recipe, the cake is baked.
Some food historians claim that the use of crushed cakes and cookies was also an innovation. But here we disagree. The use of crushed rusks in Russian desserts was nothing new. For example, here is a recipe from Vasily Levshin’s “Dictionary of Cookery”, published in 1796:
“Wheat rusk cake. Grind a pound of almonds, mix with 3 eggs in a mortar. Add grated lemon zest, cinnamon and 7 eggs. Add half a pound of sugar and half a pound of grated wheat. Bake in a cake pan.”
So, fifty years before Fredrika Runeberg’s recipe was made, we find a very similar recipe in Russia. The idea of using rusks, crumbled biscuits and cookies certainly didn’t originate in Porvoo’s kitchen (no offense to the culinary skills of his cooks).
But back to our “potatoes”. When did this Soviet specialty appear and what makes it Soviet?
The earliest references to the recipe are found in the early 20th century as a way to use up stale cakes (two or three days old), sponge cakes, and other baked goods. It could therefore not have appeared in any 19th century cookbook. It was not a culinary discovery but a commercial decision to use products whose expiry date had passed.
Confirmation of this can be found in the memoirs of Olga Shatunovskaya, who was an important figure in the Communist Party during the Soviet years. She writes: “In Baku before the revolution, the first day a pastry cost one kopek. The next day it cost half a kopeck. And on the third day, if it wasn’t sold, all the pastries were gathered together to make pastry potatoes. ”
In other words, this dessert probably originated as early as the late 19th century or early 20th century in public catering establishments — inns and teahouses — as a way to recycle unsold pastries. Of course, famous establishments did not use this method, but in collective catering everything was possible.
The Soviet innovation of this dessert transformed it from a “second-rate” confection associated with stale leftovers to a dessert that was in itself very popular. Remember Lenin’s slogan: “Socialism is accounting and control. Every crumb had to be counted, so sweet potatoes were truly a salvation for cooks in state cafeterias and restaurants in the 1930s and 1980s.
But this dish goes far beyond the boundaries of catering. It is Soviet for another reason: it is the product of chronic food shortages, shortages, and sometimes hunger and deprivation. In this sense, it is a real creation of Soviet cuisine. The memoirs of Boris Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida, dating from the autumn of 1941, are a striking illustration of this. For the November Revolution holiday, she managed to make sweet potatoes.
“I only had rye flour, and spent all night trying to make something out of it. Finally, I grabbed it in a dry pan, mashed it, added eggs, honey and white wine. The result was a delicious Patate.”
Today, we no longer need the food shortages of the Soviet period to prepare this treat. In the 1970s and 1980s, potatoes were usually made from Jubilee cookies, which were crumbly and sweet. Since you may not be able to find this type of cookie outside of Russia, we offer you a chocolate potato recipe that includes homemade sponge cake. For the full historical experience, you can pretend it’s leftovers, not a cake you baked the night before…