Yablochniy Spas is the popular vernacular for the formal Christian holiday of the Transfiguration of the Lord, one of the more significant events in the life of Jesus from The New Testament. Source: Getty Images/Fotobank
The dog days of summer are dwindling and there is more than a hint of autumn in the air. For students and teachers, autumn heralds a new school year. For cooks all over the world, autumn is synonymous with apples, and in Russia, August 19 marks the official opening of apple season with the celebration of “Apple Saviour” or “Yablochniy Spas.” Rooted in traditions that are both pagan and Christian, Yablochniy Spas, like so many of Russia’s ancient holidays, has not only religious, but deep agrarian and culinary significance as well.
Yablochniy Spas is the popular vernacular for the formal Christian holiday of the Transfiguration of the Lord, one of the more significant events in the life of Jesus from The New Testament. The Evangelists recount that Jesus and the Apostles Peter, John, and James climb Mount Tabor, a site sacred to Jews from the time of Genesis. Exhausted from the climb, the apostles fall asleep, and wake to find Jesus clad in shining white garments, surrounded by a heavenly light. They hear, the words of Matthew 3:17, “…a voice from heaven, saying, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” For Christians, the Transfiguration underscores the divine nature of Jesus, foretells his resurrection, and gives the apostles a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an affirmation of that essential tenant of Christianity: the promise of life everlasting in the world to come.
Few peasants living in the pre-revolutionary era could read or write, but they were deeply in touch with the rhythms of the agricultural seasons and observant of the celebrations of Church saints days feasts, and fasts. Over the centuries, these two important threads of their lives became interwoven to such an extent that peasant lore directed the planting and harvesting of certain crops on particular fixed points during the liturgical calendar. There is much historical evidence to suggest that these Christian holidays and feast days merely replaced far more ancient pre-Christian pagan rituals and celebrations. Soviet leaders tried to discourage all liturgical holidays, but Yablochniy Spas, the day on which apples are ripe and ready to be picked, proved a tenacious fixture in the Russian calendar. Happily, post-perestroika society has enthusiastically embraced a return to the full flung celebration of this harvest festival, which spotlights apples in all their glory: made into jam, pressed into cider or kvass, dried, preserved, made into pies, or just baked in the oven with sugar and nuts.
Devout Russians bring apples and other autumnal fruits such as plums and grapes to church on the eve of Yablochniy Spas to be blessed, and the day itself is spent in a lively holiday atmosphere of street fairs, dancing, and other harvest celebrations. A potent symbol for both pagans and Christians, apples represent life, immortality, and bounty. On Yablochniy Spas, apples contain special powers – one who eats an apple on the holiday and makes a wish will have it granted. Yablochniy Spas is also associated with a more sober reverence of the dead, and to this day, many pause to take the time to visit the graves of those who have died, bringing edible tributes, most especially apples to represent the Transfiguration, as well as honey and nuts.
No celebration of Yablochniy Spas is complete without a traditional Russian apple cake. While other cuisines separate pastry dough from fruit in cakes and pies, in Russia, the two are mixed together, which I find is a delightful way to experience the contrasting flavours of tart apple and creamy dough. This cake is easy to make and flexible in terms of ingredients. Topped with a spoonful of ice cream or whipped cream there really is no better way to usher in the flavours of autumn!
Russian Apple Cake:
This recipe, adapted from Lesley Chamberlain’s “The Food and Cooking of Russia” is a quick and easy one I’ve made many times, but each time is different since I like to play around with the fruit ingredients. Apples are wonderful, but I find they really benefit from being paired with other fruit flavours, as I have done here. The re-hydrated dried apples are optional, but I find they give the cake a very deep apple flavour that is hard to achieve from fresh apples by themselves.
1 cup of dark rum or Calvados
75 ml (1/3 cup) of cherry, plum or other berry preserves or jam
50 grams of dried apple slices
50 grams of dried cherries
50 grams of raisins
750 grams of tart apples, peeled, cored, and diced into small pieces.
3 ripe plums, stone removed, chopped roughly
1 tsp of cinnamon
1 tsp of ground cloves
1 tsp of ground ginger
1 tsp of salt
100 grams of sugar
150 ml of sour cream
60 grams of flour
10 grams (1/2 tablespoon) of butter
5 Tbl of fresh breadcrumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Adjust the oven rack to the middle level.
2. Place the dried fruit, jam, and rum or Calvados into a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, then lower heat and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for at least 20 minutes. Set aside.
3. Butter a 9-inch spring form pan or bundt mold and coat with breadcrumbs.
4. Separate the eggs.
5. Toss the fresh apple and plum pieces with the stewed dried fruits and rum.
6. Beat the egg yolks and sugar in a standing mixture at medium speed until slightly thickened and creamy (2 minutes). Add the sour cream and beat for an additional 20 seconds at medium low speed.
7. Add the flour, spices, salt, and apple mixture to the batter.
8. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff, shiny peaks.
9. Gently fold the batter into the egg whites until just combined.
10. Pour the batter into the spring form pan or bundt mold. Twirl the pan sharply to the left and right a few times to release any air pockets.
11. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes until puffed and golden. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve, topped with ice cream or whipped cream.
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