You are a prince. Not just any old prince among a bunch of other princes, but The Grand Prince of Kiev Rus, the very first one holding this title. Don’t worry, ladies, there is a princess in this story, too, Princess Olga, a formidable ruler and warrior in her own right. But let’s return to the beginning – the beginning of tenth century, when Rus is terrorized by the nomad raids. Prince Igor, like every self-respecting prince, mounts a campaign to protect his lands and his subjects from the savage Polovtsians, the khans.
Igor “tensed his mind with battle-strength, quickened his heart
with valor, and, swollen with the spirit of war,
Led out his brave troops
into the Polovtsian steppe for the land of Rus.“
Both Igor’s brother and his son and heir Vladimir went with him. Princess Olga was left in charge, to rule in his stead. Unfortunately, the campaign was ill-fated from the start.
“Then Igor looked up at the bright sun and saw all his warriors
darkened from it by a shadow.
And Igor said to his retinue:
“Brothers and companions! It is better to be slain than taken captive.”
Even though at first Igor’s army seemed to be victorious, “the devil’s children” swiftly and brutally retaliated. Many Rus warriors were slain in that legendary battle, including Igor’s brother, the Fierce Bull Vsevolod. Prince Igor and his son Vladimir were, after all, taken captive. At some point during the battle, Khan Gzak’s chief archer could have easily stricken Vladimir down with his gold -tipped arrow. “If the falcon flies to his nest, -said Gzak to Khan Konchak, – let’s shoot the falconet with our golden arrows!” But Konchak was a wily diplomat, “Oh no, my brother, let’s snare him with a beautiful maiden.” And the captive princes were treated as visiting dignitaries.
I am sure you’ve heard this music before but perhaps haven’t realized that it is a scene from an opera “Prince Igor” by A. Borodin which depicts the process of seduction. You can see that Igor is quite distraught, but next to him, young Vladimir is practically salivating. No wonder – Khan Konchak has just offered “the falconet” his own daughter! “Let’s be allies, dear Igor, – he says, – all in the family, forget Princess Olga, forget those other Rus princes who are squabbling and fighting their own brothers! Stay here and be my second-in-command.”
“Dad,- begs Vladimir, – can’t you see, this girl and I, we are in love! Come on, let’s stay!”
“Not for any kovrizhki!” – growls dad, and eventually manages to escape, dragging the unwilling youngster home with him.
Now, you are a prince. You have just lost a major battle, a brother, and most of your army. You are taken captive. Instead of death or torture, you are offered an executive position and an opportunity to join the family of your captor. But you are a brave and honorable man, so your unequivocal response is… “not even for a honey cake“! Honey cake? Yes, that’s what a kovrizhka is, the oldest known Russian recipe of a honey cake. Apparently, Prince Igor considered it the most valuable thing in the world!
So the falcon flies the nest and triumphantly comes home where his valiant and true wife greets him with a “tzarskaya kovrizhka” – a royal honey cake, about 1,5 – 2 meters (5 – 6 ft) in diameter decorated with his crest. This is the earliest recorded mention of this cake, and even that is uncertain, since “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” quoted above (translation is © 1992 J. A. V. Haney and Eric Dahl), an epic poem by an unknown author, appeared two hundred years later. Most of it is, understandably, a legend, but kovrizhka has remained a favorite to this day.
With all its venerable reputation, it is surprisingly easy to make. There are many different variations, but the basic cake is simply a combination of honey and flour, with whatever else you want to add to make it interesting. I put my own tropical twist on it by substituting agave for honey, flavoring the batter with a combination of coffee and cocoa powder, and topping the cake with shredded coconut. Since I also used whole wheat instead of white flour, I thought that baking powder would help it rise a little.
You whisk agave or honey with coffee until it foams, then add unsweetened cocoa powder and whisk some more. Then you gradually add the flour and baking powder and mix it all together. That’s all there is to it!
A real kovrizhka, royal or not, still should be round, so you’ll need a round cake pan. Even round bread in Russia was called kovriga, and in a bakery, you would ask to cut a half-a-kovriga of rye and a quarter-a-kovriga of pumpernickel, for example. Huge kovrizhkas were baked and sold by piece, always cut as wedges. I didn’t, of course, make one of those monsters. I simply used a pie form and baked it first for ten minutes, then sprinkled shredded coconut on top, and baked for twenty more minutes.
My kovrizhka is soft and chewy, a bit chocolaty, with a subtle nutty flavor of toasted coconut. It doesn’t spoil and doesn’t go stale. In truth, it doesn’t have a chance because it disappears faster than Prince Igor “flying from the nest.” And now you know that the most emphatic way to refuse in Russian is to state,”Not for any kovrizhkas“!
- 1/4 cup agave or honey
- 1/4 cup liquid coffee
- 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 cup white whole wheat floor
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 cup shredded coconut
- Preheat oven to 350 F.
- Whisk agave or honey with coffee until foams. Add cocoa, whisk together.
- Gradually add flour and baking powder, mix thoroughly.
- Bake for 10 minutes, top with coconut shreds, bake for 20 more minutes.
- Cool on rack, serve cut into wedges.