Cake Weighs Heavily in Russian Life

"So, what will your treat be today, since you've been such a good boy?" Galina Salnikova asks her son as his eyes wander over the multitude of appetizing pastries in the glass case of the Praga pastry shop, the favorite of Moscow's sweets lovers on Old Arbat.

"Could I please have Ptichye Moloko [bird's milk]?" quickly answers 6-year-old Sasha.

A minute later, his mouth covered with chocolate and his fingers sticky with cream, he says that Ptichye Moloko is his favorite cake because "it doesn't have that beady stuff inside."

The creator of this famous cake with the funny name, Vladimir Guralnik, 58, has been a pastry chef at the famous Praga restaurant for 42 years.

Guralnik says the origin of the name is "an old Russian saying about people who live in plenty. The only thing they are lacking is bird's milk, they say."

Guralnik, a tall man whose athletic build does not make him look like a stereotypical pastry cook, says the idea for creating the cake came to him in 1975 after the Krasny Oktyabr candy factory developed the Ptichye Moloko candy.

"So, I was inspired to make a huge candy," he smiled mischievously as the aromas of vanilla, chocolate and nutmeg wafted through his narrow, second-floor office above the Praga pastry shop.

Developing the recipe for this flourless souffl? cake covered with dark chocolate took the Praga pastry team six months and many sleepless nights, recollects the chef. "When we finally solved the problem of the consistency for the filling, we were in business," he said.

The bakery started with trial batches of 20 to 30 cakes. "People had to get coupons to purchase Ptichye Moloko and get in line at six in the morning. Several times when I was walking to work, someone offered me a coupon. I just said that I had one already," Guralnik recalled.

The demand for Ptichye Moloko was so high that, within a year, the shop was producing 500 to 600 cakes a day. Since the concept of intellectual property did not exist in the Soviet Union, Guralnik's recipe became the possession of the Soviet people, while he got a 100-ruble bonus. And the most posh Moscow restaurants frequented by the Soviet political elite and foreign diplomats -- Moskva, Budapest and Ukraina -- started making the cake in their own pastry kitchens.

In the 1980s, the food ministry had to build a Ptichye Moloko factory in Novye Cheryomushky in south Moscow to satisfy the country's love for this culinary masterpiece. Even though the factory produced 2000 pieces a day, the cake was still defitsit, or hard to find.

Born into a Moscow family of pastry chefs, Guralnik did not dream of becoming one himself. Like most young men in the post-war era, he wanted to become a metalworker or a lathe operator at a big industrial enterprise. "But after working at the factory with all the dust and noise, I decided it was not for me. Instead, I ended [up] adding a few more kilograms to the expanding waistlines and generous derrieres of my compatriots," Guralnik said.

The confectioner has satisfied sweet cravings of Russian politicians from former general secretary Leonid Brezhnev to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, as well as regular citizens. "I remember making a 15-kilogram sponge cake for Brezhnev's 70th birthday. I don't know if he really liked sponge cake, but that's all he could eat with his constantly slipping dentures," Guralnik said.

Guralnik confesses to making his sweet contribution to the portly stature of Luzhkov. "Luzhkov's wife frequently orders the Praga cake from us," Guralnik said, "especially when they entertain at their dacha."

The confectioner is proud of his long association with the 95-year-old Praga restaurant, a preferred spot for diplomatic banquets and parties during the Soviet era. The restaurant has been under reconstruction since 1994, and the workers keep finding special eavesdropping equipment installed by the KGB to hear the revelations of tipsy Western diplomats.

The rejuvenated eatery will reopen in September, in time for Moscow's 850th anniversary celebration. It will offer visual and culinary variety to the jaded Moscow elite -- an imitation of the Kremlin's blue dining room where Yeltsin hosts his guests, the first Brazilian restaurant in Moscow, a near eastern restaurant, an ale-house, a nightclub and more.

Most of the 25 bakery employees, who still make 200 orders of Ptichye Moloko -- and a dozen other cakes -- by hand each day, are surprisingly slender women. "They get plenty of exercise working with heavy dough-mixing equipment [the only work done with the help of machines at the bakery] and do not eat sweets," Guralnik said.

Nadezhda Nikhalyova, who has worked at the bakery for 20 years, said that she had the worst sweet tooth when she came to the bakery and sampled everything in sight. "Now I do not eat cakes even when I go out. But I miss the smell of the bakery and working with cakes when I am on vacation," she admitted while decorating a specially ordered, two-tier Ptichye Moloko cake with pink cream swirls and white roses.

The confectioner says that special orders are the most challenging part of his work today. The most dangerous special order Guralnik remembers was a 15-kilogram cake in the shape of an oil rig.

"I was petrified this chocolate tower would collapse during delivery. And since a New Russian placed the order, it could suddenly make my profession dangerous," the chef joked.

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