LiterEature 101: Anna Karenina

russian tea cakesIt’s been a long time since my last Lit entry, but I needed time to find not only an amazing book to present but also the inspiration to create something for it. As it happens, my friend and I decided to read Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina for our “Classics” book club and by the time I actually finished it (admittedly far too many months later) I knew this would be the next, as inspiration struck quickly. I admit I ought to have read this book in college, but … fine, we all have our “college” moments, and I never did; thus the added motivation to finally complete and actually talk about.


Oh my. I admit I fell so far in over my head with this novel that all I could do was float down the outer layers of storytelling and enjoy that ride. So, I won’t be discussing my impressions, reactions, or analysis of Tolstoy’s depiction of the agrarian society versus urban socialites, the issue and problem of “progress” as it is presented and reflected on within the text, or even the themes of faith, fidelity, and hypocrisy. Rather, I’ll direct primary focus upon the juxtaposition of the two main characters. At the heart of it all we have the eponymous Anna Karenina and Konstantin (Kostya) Levin, both battling with finding love, family, and direction. They are the two most submerged in intense emotion, the ones who battle against their solitude. Yet apart from that, they couldn’t be more different.

Everyone I’ve asked who has read AK states without a doubt they cannot stand Anna, finding her whiny, needy, almost pitiful, self absorbed, and far too paranoid. While I agree on some counts – her interior monologues completely dismantle all the outward reasons everyone is so enamoured with her – I also pay immense respect to a woman who follows her heart and dares to defy Russian convention. That it ultimately leads to her breakdown and eventual demise leaves open the discussion of what Tolstoy is telling us about making such choices. But for this little post I am veering away from that simply to ruminate on the woman herself, her strengths and weaknesses, her purity of heart and intention despite her infidelity, her pursuit for something above carnal desire rather than the hypocritical behaviors of the rest of society (most notably her own brother who is forgiven if not lauded for his meaningless promiscuity). It must also be understood that divorce in Russia in the late 1800’s was no easy matter to handle religiously let alone legally. For Anna to dare to dream that she might have a divorce from an unloving matrimony and also keep her beloved child… well… good luck there.

Levin on the other hand is a prime example of an upstanding citizen, well-respected if not himself repulsed by the goings-on of urban society.  He struggles with finding meaning down the conventional road of marriage and hard ethical work. Whereas Anna chooses to follow her heart alone, Levin rationalizes, thinks, spends so much time analyzing every given action, and ultimately goes along with the norms of society, finding his own niche within it. His primary struggle I think is with God and faith, a religiously ambiguous man who finally finds clarity by the end (in clear contrast to Anna completely shattering in a fog of misunderstanding). I admit I was lost at some points during Levin’s moments because within his storyline we find the critiques and assessments of what role progress (by that I mean technological, political and social) is playing on Russia’s development. Nevertheless, he also is a primarily solitary character, and also governed by passionate fits (mostly due to his temper).

I’m beginning to ramble, but even without a critical eye, I could see the contrast between these two, and found it challenging to understand but no less captivating to experience.


Despite not fully understanding what this novel truly offers, I loved reading it. Tolstoy’s writing style is enchanting in its simplicity, his characters are irritating but riveting nonetheless, and the portrayals of Russian life—the high society, the politicos, the farmers, the poor, the intellectuals and the shunned—breathe and dance with vivid color. I want to go back and read every scene that ever took place at a train station because the train as a symbol for distress, instability, or general upheaval becomes clear even before the tragic death of Anna. I’d love to further analyze the settings and instances where food is involved (from dinners to tea parties) to compare how Tolstoy considers the superficial aspects of some versus the true passion and culture of others…

Despite it being one of the larger novels I’ve read (nothing will ever come close to Remembrance of Things Past though), and while there were some difficult philosophical moments, I think anyone could enjoy this given a little patience, and I would recommend it.  AK can simply be taken as a tale of marriage, family, and happiness, or lack thereof. Tolstoy’s prose is among the best I’ve ever read, and was a welcome respite from popular novels that lack any distinct style or writer’s caress. He stimulates you, and that for me is remarkably key.  Anna’s last scene was particularly beautifully crafted in my opinion.  Read it and let me know what you think.

The Food:

I wanted to create a dish that purely reflected what Anna is to me: beautiful, exotic, completely captivating to everyone who meets her, never flamboyant, and yet deep within, that girl is a hot mess. There’s no denying that. Her descriptions always refer to the fact that she never overdresses but shines like a bright evening star in elegant black frocks that speak louder than any gaudy glittery ensemble her peers might adorn. She appears not to ever try hard, and keeps well hidden the thoughts that bubble and writhe within. She is seductive but not ostentatious, a heavenly sight but sinful to love. A dense, rich, complex soul. To me, Anna embodies a molten chocolate lava cake.delicioso

It’s so simple to make, but concludes with the brilliant complexity of warm cake on the outside, and deep, gooey, steaming and scintillating melted chocolate on the inside. It felt fitting, especially as the dessert itself is dressed in nothing but the rich darkness of chocolate, and perhaps a sprinkling of Powdered sugar to add that extra sparkle. Honestly the more I think about it, I could not find another dessert that speaks as much about Anna’s character than the Lava Cake.

It was a treat to make, and even more to eat… although I couldn’t muster more than a few bites at a time—too much drama for my simple soul. (btw I baked them in individual cupcake wrappers, makes for easy serving).

I wanted to make something else though too. A lightness against the dark troubles of Anna’s soul. A treat with a simple conclusion, if perhaps a few nutty ingredients. A closer reflection of Russian culture. A dessert that counters the lava cake by exhibiting (at least externally) modest and rustic characteristics yet also harnessing an intertwining of various flavors–much like Levin, who thrives in his agrarian homestead yet harbors a marvelous mesh of thoughts and emotions, more convoluted than anyone realizes.

This all seems rather dramatized when I say I settled on the classic Russian tea cake (aka the mexican wedding cookie among other identities). But as far as dessert treats go, it does in my eyes fit, especially because these cookies are deceptively weighty and overwhelming in their own way.  (I must add I was motivated to make something for the husband, who is not really a chocolate fan.)

Both recipes are quite simple actually, and I’m happy to share.

Anna’s Molten Lava Cake

Ingredients (I cut this recipe in half, which created 6 cupcake servings)

  • 10 tbsp (1 1/4 stick) butter
  • 8 oz chocolate/chocolate chips–milk, dark, semi-sweet chocolate, whatever you prefer
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks (additional to the 3 eggs)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Quick and easy.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Prepare 6 small ramekins by greasing lightly; alternatively you may use cupcake tins, with or without wrappers (I used them).  In a double boiler, slowly melt your chocolate and butter together. Once melted, let cool slightly and add the flour and sugar to it, mixing slowly.  Stir in the eggs and the additional yolks until smooth (make sure the chocolate mixture has cooled enough else you might scramble the eggs, not pretty). Add the vanilla and mix everything gently until fully combined, a thick smooth batter at your fingertips.  Divide evenly into cups/ramekins/pan and place cups or cupcake tin on a cookie sheet, baking for 10 minutes.  NO MORE than 10 minutes, else the lava-ness will be a moot point.  The edges will be firm but the center hot and smooth.ready to eat

Serve as you choose–invert cups onto dessert plates, serve directly in ramekins, or as individual cupcakes.  Sprinkle some powdered sugar for a touch of beauty, and eat slowly because this will drag you down into the netherworlds without proper supervision.ready to sleep

Russian Tea Cakes  (courtesy of Dulce Dough)

Ingredients  (again, I did this by half, garnered a little over a dozen cookies, depends on your size of course)

  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup nuts, finely chopped (I used a mix of walnuts and mostly almonds, blasted  in a food processor for a few seconds)
  • smidgen of salt
  • extra powdered sugar, for rolling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix the butter, powdered sugar and vanilla in a large bowl.  Once combined, add the flour, chopped nuts and salt. I ended up with a soft crumbly dough that could easily be worked together and shaped into round balls. So… do just that, into roughly 1 inch balls and line them onto a cookie sheet (ungreased).  Bake for 8-9 minutes, until the cookies have firmed up and set, but haven’t browned. They ought to retain their pale exterior.

Remove and toss in powdered sugar, setting aside to cool completely.  Once they have, roll once more in the sugar…the first layer becomes almost a glaze, and the second leaves them looking powdery delicious!


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