Bliss in a Blue and White Tin: Sweetened Condensed Milk in Russia
written by Marin Ekstrom, edited by Jacqueline Dufalla and Kelly McMasters. This article was originally published on the blog of Russian in Translation, an volunteer-run organization that provides Russian-to-English translation for Russian institutions. If you are interested in learning more about Russian in Translation, please visit its website at http://ritpitt.weebly.com/
[The iconic blue-and-white tins of Russian sweetened condensed milk. Picture Credit: http://englishrussia.com/images/boil_your_milk_right/1.jpg%5D
They say that ambrosia and nectar are the foods of the gods, but I think sweetened condensed milk has to be pretty close to the top of that list as well. In the United States, this sticky-sweet concoction is only occasionally consumed, and even then, it is primarily reserved for baking purposes. However, sweetened condensed milk is much more widely consumed throughout the world and enjoys particular popularity in Russia. Russians have invented all sorts of creative and delicious uses for sweetened condensed milk (or sgushenka/ sgushyonnoye moloko): they pour it over over blinchiki, spread it in between waffle-like wafers, use it as the “glue” that holds muraveinik anthill cakes, mix it in for honey cakes, use it as fillings for various commercial cakes and candies…the list goes on and on. An especially popular use for sweetened condensed milk involves boiling it – in the can itself – for a few hours, which transforms it into a caramelized spread called varyonoe sgushyonnoye moloko similar to dulce de leche. However, this can prove to be a daunting challenge with potentially dangerous (and messy!) results if the can explodes! Yet no matter what the usage, sweetened condensed milk is a beloved mainstay in kitchens all over Russia.
[Caramelized sweetened condensed milk explosion- AHHH! Picture Credit:http://bashny.net/uploads/images/00/00/13/2013/05/02/2d5c202c7c.jpg%5D
How did sweetened condensed milk garner such popularity in the first place? First, let’s look at how sweetened condensed milk was originally developed. Marco Polo noted that Tatar groups perfected a precursor to condensed milk: “they have milk dried into some kind of paste to carry with them, and when they need food they put this into water…[it] dissolves, and then drink it.” However, sweetened condensed milk in its current, most well-known form was invented in the nineteenth century. Nicholas Appert first “evaporated and preserved milk by heat in a sealed container” in 1810. In 1856, Gail Borden patented a sweetened condensed milk process that utilized heat, sugar, and vacuum pressure that made milk portable, storable, and long-lasting; his invention was an effort to combat food-borne illnesses that stemmed from poor refrigeration and food storing methods at that time. Sweetened condensed milk sales had their first major boost during the American Civil War and quickly gained a reputation as a wartime staple. At the same time, it spread out to international markets, where it also helped alleviate problems with food preservation and distribution. In the case of Russia, its first sweetened condensed milk-producing factory was constructed in Orenburg in 1881. Its popularity really took off during the tumultuous wars that characterized Russia in the first half of the twentieth century (particularly World War II), when supplies of food ran short, resulting in a demand for long-lasting, durable food products. It remained a common treat in Soviet times, especially when chocolates and candies were in short supply. Gradually, it became an endearing symbol of blissful sweetness throughout the USSR. Today, sweetened condensed milk has lost some of its edge due to the wider variety of goods available in Russia’s post-Soviet open markets, but it is still enjoyed by young and old in the country.
[Blini smothered with sweetened condensed milk. Picture Credit: http://www.zastavki.com/pictures/originals/2014/Holidays___CarnivalPancakes_with_condensed_milkon_Shrove_Tuesday_059243_.jpg%5D
Sweetened condensed milk has earned a well-deserved place as one of Russia’s most beloved treats. Many reasons can be attributed for this status: given that the Tatars first created condensed milk, and the fact that the Tatars and Russians have had a long and rich history of cultural interaction, perhaps Russians view themselves as “pioneers” of the product. Perhaps it is a symbol of wartime hardships or a consistent sweet spot in times of uncertainty and depravity. Whatever the explanation, I think all can agree that condensed milk is delicious, and it will continue to sweeten up Russians’ lives for years to come!
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