Shocking Discovery

Russian tea biscuits are about as Russian as hot dogs and ketchup. This startling fact came to me courtesy of  my Russian born friend Tatayana Rehn, co-owner of The Stone Oven Bakery and Cafe . She makes and sells wonderful tea biscuits- I am especially partial to the poppy seed variety- but insists that the pastries are not and never have been eaten back in the old country.   Their name is a mystery to her. Maybe, she speculated when we spoke about the question recently, it’s because the classic version has a raspberry filling and that’s the fuit of choice (and all that’s usually available) for jam in Russia.

My thought- they’re big pastries, Russia is a big country- perhaps there’s a connection. On the other hand, using that reasoning why don’t we call them Texas Tea Biscuits which has a more appealing alliterative ring?

Curious, I turned to the internet for an answer and much to my surprise there was none to be found.  In fact someone from Cleveland went on a similar quest back in 2006 and posted about it on an eGullet forum. Like me, he too seems to have come up empty handed when he tried to research the topic himself. And in a further layer of intrigue, the search term Russian tea biscuit brings up a number of Cleveland links.

So  now in addition to wanting to know how Russian tea biscuits got their name,  I’m wondering if they are a local, Cleveland thing. Who can shed some light on this culinary conundrum? Does anyone out there know anything about this?

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Shocking Discovery

  1. Laura, this is one of the great mysteries of bakery in Cleveland. Products such as Russian Tea Biscuits and Coconut bars are like many foods that traveled both from the old world in time and place to the wonderful new world of American consumer creations. Back in the old country many baked goods started as home baked and were varied as to each baker,town, part of a country etc. here in the USA over the years many products were turned into standard retail bakery items morphed is more like it. i think regional tastes took over and the real origins are lost in the melting pot that is this country.By the 50’s and 60’s most retail bakery products were standardized and modified for a variety of reasons. i can tell you my mother’s recipe came from the Ukrainian past of her mother. hope this helps you somewhat with the riddle.

    • Thanks for your input Michael. But I sure would like to know more of the story behind this pastry. My friend Marilou Suszko suggested maybe they were something served at The Russian Tea Room in NYC. I keep poking aroung the internet and found this intriguing bit of poetic nostalgia by someone named Phil Terman, which leads me to think maybe they’re a Jewish thing.

      Sunday mornings my mother and I would walk up the corner
      to Davis Bakery where the old Jewish women behind the counter
      wore red schmattes speckled with vanilla splotches, faces patched
      with rouge and lipstick, filling the room with kibbitz-song and spinning
      around and around the perfect circles of their famous creations:
      the egg, the onion, the raison, the plain, still warm and waiting
      to be opened and spread. It was all pastry: the coconut bars,
      the Russian Tea Biscuits with their layers of strawberry and walnuts,
      sugar and dough, the loaves pregnant with rye, pumpernickel, even
      the challahs they’d place on request into the ancient silver slicer,
      its rusted blades rattling like my grandfather’s junktruck along
      the cobblestones of Hough Avenue. But we would only buy a box
      of matzo, the bread of our suffering, to crumble and fry with an egg, dip
      in grape jam with our fingers, smooth the crumbs away with our tongues.

      • michael feigenbaum

        the russian tea room did not have them, like i said they evolved here to the size and look from the old rugala and other names from poland,russia,ukraine,hungary etc. but here the idea expanded to what we have today, i think the new look is from the late 30’s and after the war when all the great bakeries expanded and developed modern technology, we will look further into it. i will try the experts at the bakery mags i get there are some old timers who know alot of history.

  2. aha- now I get it. Russian tea biscuits are pumped up rugala, a little pastry that grew! thanks for sticking with this question. let us all know if you come up with anything more

  3. Ohiogirl

    I’d love to know more about the russian tea biscuits too!

    I’m a Clevelander living in Los Angeles, and I miss the tea biscuits dearly. There is ONE place I can get them in Los Angeles, a place called Bea’s Bakery in tarzana. They also have coconut bars, and a true corn rye. Rumor has it that one of their bakers is from Davis Bakery, but I’ve never had the courage to ask : )

  4. You must ask! What have you got to lose? At worst,maybe they’ll look at you funny. And wouldn’t it be cool to know you’ve got a Cleveland connection!?
    Check it out, and come back to let us know if there’s a little bit of Davis in your new home.

    • Ohiogirl

      Laura,

      I asked, and what do you know, there IS a Cleveland connection. (Bea (of Bea’s Bakery) said that she is from Cleveland and her dad used to have a bakery there, off of North Blvd. Her dad made both coconut bars and the russian tea biscuits, so, so does she.

      And yes, they did have a baker who worked at Davis Bakery in the 50’s, but it sounds like he might be retired by now.

      Anyway, now I know why her stuff tastes so “right” to me : )

  5. michael feigenbaum

    dear laura i found this reference for the question of history on these unique pastries

    Russian tea cakes

    The typical Russian Tea Cake recipe calls for butter, eggs, flour, salt, vanilla, nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts) and confectioner’s sugar. This particular combination of ingredients essentially dates back to the Jumbles baked in Medieval Europe (minus the vanilla).

    Noble Russian cuisine (along with every other facet of noble life) was influenced by prevailing French customs during the 18th century. Tea was first introduced to Russia in 1618, but the Russian tea ceremony of samovars and sweet cakes was a legacy of Francophile Catherine the Great in the 18th century. It is interesting to note that A Gift to Young Housewives, Elena Molokhovet [1870s popular Russian cookbook] contains plenty of recipes for a variety of small baked goods, none specifically entitled Russian tea cakes. There are, however, several recipes which use similar ingredients. If you want to examine these recipes you are in luck. Gift fo a Young Housewife has recently been reprinted [in English with extensive notes provided by Joyce Toomre] by Indiana University Press (1992). Your librarian can borrow a copy for you.

    If you want to contribute sweet treats for a traditional Russian tea ask your librarian to help you find The Art of Russian Cuisine, Anne Volokh. If you need something right now check out these recipes.

    About Russian tea

    • Wow Michael. Thanks for sticking with this and coming up with such interesting information. You’re not only a great baker but also a good culinary historian and researcher.

      • sue

        Ah, now if only someone can determine the origin of the famous Cleveland Coconut Bars. I have never seen them in NY where I have lived most of my 49 years, although it seems everything else makes its way here eventually. Oddly enough, a cousin of mine who lived in Melbourne, Australia for a few years spotted something similar to coconut bars there — they are called lamingtons. So, is it possible an Australian immigrated to Cleveland and passed this recipe on? Or vice versa?? Strang though that in all the places between Cleveland and Melbourne, they dont’ seem to exist! All I know is whenever I make coconut bars, friends and fmaily members come running. I should start a business here selling them!

      • I have a friend who gets a Coconut bar every time she visits the west side market!

  6. Ohiogirl

    Sue,
    From my hunts, I’ve found that coconut bars do exist in Columbus as well – and Chicago. Both cities with a strong Eastern European population, with Cleveland contacts. (Although in some chicago bakeries, the newer trendy ones, they do call them lamingtons.)

    The mystery deepens…!

  7. Jim

    I always thought they looked like big rugala. I lived in Cleveland for a few years in the late 1990s, but 11 years later I still travel back there from Buffalo once in a while for the Stone Oven tea biscuits.

    • Stone Oven’s poppy seed ones are my favorite (and lucky I live within walking distance!). Which ones do you buy when you come? Maybe. if you beg, they’ll ship them to you.

  8. Jim

    I love all of them. But there are other reasons for me and my wife to visit Cleveland from time to time: the Cleveland Orchestra, the other restaurants, the Metroparks….

  9. amy boswell

    COCONUT BARS originally called Lamingtons
    One claim says they were named after the town of Lamington, South Lanarkshire, Scotland.
    Lamingtons have also been popular in Cleveland, Ohio, for many decades. There, they are usually called coconut bars. Some Jewish bakeries in cities with many former Clevelanders, such as Los Angeles, also make them, under various names, such as Cleveland bars and rum bars (when a bit of rum extract has been added to the chocolate icing).
    Will be attempting my 3rd try to replicate them today. Found a great recipe and w/a little tweaking……………………………………!!

  10. GaryinDenver

         I’m a Cleveland-area native, and when I moved to Colorado, I discovered that the bakeries out here did NOT have Russian tea biscuits! Well, I would always have them as a treat when I would visit Cleveland. The one thing that surprised me is that I couldn’t find a recipe ANYWHERE for them, either in cookbooks or on the internet.  Well, one day, my cousin gave me a copy of a recipe for them that had been in her husband’s family for years, and I was able to make them.     I have a friend out here in Colorado who is a native of Cleveland Heights, and we were talking about Russian tea biscuits, and I mentioned that a long time ago, I used to like the ones from Davis Bakery, but then it seemed that they had declined in quality…he told me why…he said “My grandma died”—she had been the one baking them for Davis Bakery all those years!     I have a theory as to their possible origins based on something he told me.  When I showed him my recipe, he said it was correct except it called for butter and he said his grandma ALWAYS used margarine in them.  Now, they DO look like a rugalach, which is a Jewish pastry made with a lot of butter and cream cheese.  BUT the dough for them is made with NO dairy ingredients if margarine is the shortening (the liquid in the dough is orange juice, rather than milk or buttermilk)—so I THINK that they are probably a non-dairy version of rugalach that could be served as a dessert after a meat meal in a household that kept kosher.

  11. Janice

    Seeking where to buy Coconut bars for my pregnant daughter who lives in NY and is craving them! Anyone know of a west side cleveland place to buy them?

  12. We just returned to Cleveland for Christmas, after being away for 15 years. Wanted to find poppyseed Russia. Tea biscuits from Lax and Mandel. L&M had moved but we found it, bought some then stopped at stone oven for coffee, where we started talking about tea biscuits and whether they are unique to Cleveland. We thought they must be. So, I got out my IPhone to see if I could find any information, imagine my delight to find this discussion! Thanks!

  13. Pingback: Tea Biscuits and Beyond- How it all Began « Urbane Cleveland

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