Ilya Voznesensky. ‘Fort Ross Colony, 1841’. Watercolor on Paper.
Few people realize that a portion of the northern California coast was once a part of the Russian empire, controlled directly by a trading entity called The Russian American Company, but ruled of course ultimately, given Russia’s autocratic system of government, by Tsar Alexander I and then his successor, Nicholas I, in their faraway capital, St. Petersburg. Between 1812, when the colony was begun in hopes that it would prove useful in supplying the more northern Russian possessions in Alaska with food and other necessities, and 1841, when it was sold to Captain John Sutter, the Fort Ross Colony, as it became known, was a rather precarious but determined little outpost of Russia on the Pacific coast of North America.
Travelers along that section of coastline today little suspect that some of the more important road signs they see would today bear their older Russian names had the Russians not withdrawn from the area in 1841. Because Bodega Bay was once Zaliv Rumyantseva (Rumyantsev Bay), for example, and the Russian River was once the Slavyanka (the Slav). Fort Ross itself (Krepost Ross in Russian) was named not after a person but after the Motherland itself, ‘Ross’ being a variation of an ancient name for Russia which many believe derives ultimately from the red-haired Scandinavian or Varangarian Vikings who passed from the Baltic deep into the Russian interior in long ago centuries and played such an important role in the history of that era. The section of the California coast which was once part of the empire of the Tsar stretched from present day Bodega Bay to Point Arena, and included a few isolated ranchos in some of the adjacent interior valleys.
In honor of the Fort Ross bicentennial, celebrated this year with all manner of colorful pageantry, religious and secular, at Fort Ross itself, which has for several decades now been a very picturesque state park, I have created what I have decided to call the Fort Ross Bicentennial Pie. It is really a variation of a very traditional Russian dessert, very reminiscent of the days when Russian cooking came directly from peasant kitchens and had not yet been influenced by the French chefs whose arrival in aristocratic and imperial households after the time of Peter the Great brought about so many changes in the national cuisine. In Russia this pie would be called a ‘vatrushka’, an open-faced tart to be found at any festive gathering in that country, from the humblest peasant table to the most exalted palace banquet. The filling is distinctively Russian, and in Russia would be made with ‘tvorog’, what we might find sold as ‘farmer cheese’ or ‘quark’ in the United States. Since the latter will be difficult to find for those who don’t live near significant communities of emigré Russians, Germans or Eastern Europeans, I’ve adapted my recipe here to American conditions. I’m not sure even a Russian could tell the difference.
Fort Ross Bicentennial Pie
1 unbaked pie shell
16 oz. thick Greek-style yoghurt, quark, farmer cheese or Russian tvorog
4 oz. sour cream
3/4 cup sugar
8 tablespoons (1 cube) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/4 cup white flour
Mix filling ingredients until thoroughly blended. If you use farmer cheese or tvorog and there are lumps, you will want to use an electric blender to make the filling smooth. Pour into pie shell and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, or until filling is golden in color and just set. Watch carefully to make sure edges of pie shell don’t burn. Remove from oven and allow to cool thoroughly.
1 can sour cherries, drained (reserve juice)
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch or arrowroot
dash of salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
Cook cherry juice, sugar, corn starch and salt together until mixture thickens, remove from heat and add almond extract. Add reserved cherries. Use as sauce for pie when serving.