The word “potato” in Russian can mean both a vegetable and a type of cake. To be fair, the cake does look like the vegetable, hence the name. In Russian you call it kartoshka.
It’s neither fancy nor does it have a sophisticated flavor profile but I, like many Russian people, am very fond of it because of the childhood memories it brings back.
I remember standing at a grocery store in front of the window case with cakes and pastries as a little girl, and there was nothing in the whole world I craved more than kartoshka. Well, except for, maybe, Napoleon.
When I grew up, I realized that my favorite cake is nothing more than cookie crumbs mixed with condensed milk and butter. That simple and unpretentious but, nevertheless, delicious.
History of Kartoshka Cake
The first mentions of this dessert can be found in the beginning of XX century. It doesn’t mean that kartoshka was never made before, only that the written recipes would be impossible to find in cook books. Initially, it was a way of utilizing old, unsold pastries. Olga Shatunovskaya wrote in her memoirs:
“Before the revolution in Baku, today’s pastry cost a kopeck [Russian for cent]. The next day that same pastry would cost half a kopeck. On the third day, if it wasn’t sold, all those pastries would be used to make kartoshka-cake.”
Later, in Soviet Union, kartoshka turned into a self-sufficient dessert. It was not prepared of old pastries anymore. Instead, it was made of bread crumbs and cake cut-offs.
In other words, it was a perfect way for Soviet canteens to utilize leftovers as every crumb in the kitchen was on account and cooks couldn’t afford any waste.
Kartoshka quickly gained popularity among Russians and found its way into every household. The recipe calls for simple ingredients which was perfect for housewives in the times of food deficit and ration cards. When women started making this cake at home, there were no leftover crumbs or cut-offs, of course, so they used biscuits instead.
Biscuits used for Russian kartoshka should be neutral in taste, something like Marie biscuits. Some recipes call for making a sponge cake from scratch to mimic the original kartoshka made of cake cut-offs. If you have time on your hands, give it a try. But it’s really not a must.
Kartoshka is meant to be a simple cheap treat that one can make in 20 minutes. Baking a cake from scratch just to crumble it afterwards definitely adds some work. Store-bought biscuits work just fine.
The easiest way is to use Nestle’s Milkmaid or any other brand of condensed milk you can find. But if you are willing to go an extra mile, you need a tin of Russian condensed milk made according to GOST standards.
GOST is a certification system developed in Soviet Union that guarantees the highest quality. Even today GOST condensed milk is the only one Russian women use in their kitchens. You can find it in International or Eastern European grocery stores.
- 320 g biscuits
- 150 g butter
- 190 g condensed milk
- 2 tbsp cocoa powder + 3 tbsp cocoa powder for coating
- 50 g nuts of your choice (I use walnuts or hazelnuts), toasted
- 2 tbsp cognac (optional)
1. Melt butter in a sauce pan.
2. Place biscuits and half the nuts into blender and pulse until they turn into fine crumbs.
3. Chop the rest of the nuts with a knife.
4. Mix biscuit crumbs with cocoa powder and chopped nuts.
5. Add melted butter and condensed milk into biscuit mixture. Mix well until you get dough-like consistency. You can add cognac for added flavor.
6. Take a scoop of dough (I use ice cream scoop) and roll it into a ball or oval shaped “potato” to make it look more like a classic version.
7. When all the balls are done, place them in refrigerator and let them cool for 15 minutes.
8. Sieve cocoa powder over the balls turning them several times to make sure they are covered on all sides.