New Russian cookbook offers recipes, tidbits about culture

From Georgian cheese pies in the West to the meat pies of Siberia in the East , the Russians have an extremely diverse menu. In her new book, ''A La Russe'' (Random House, $16.95), Darra Goldstein covers it all. Dr. Goldstein, a professor of Russian literature at Williams College, has written a cookbook with a literary slant, full of food scenes from Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov.

Her literary approach makes the recipes a delight with tidbits of Russian culture. A brief history of the Potato Mutiny of 1842, for example, introduces the recipe for a Casserole of Mashed Potatoes.

Most Russian food is made up of things you probably already have: potatoes, cucumbers, sour cream, butter, beets, cabbage, carrots, beef, chicken.

Over the years, Russian women have learned ways to make their food tasty, and ''A La Russe'' tells these secrets.

''To a Russian, dinner is unthinkable without zakuski . . .,'' writes Dr. Goldstein, who devotes an entire chapter to the history of the zakuska table - a custom dating back to the czars.

While pate of meadowlark and wild boar's jaws aren't part of today's proletarian diet, Dr. Goldstein's eggplant caviar - also called ''poor man's'' caviar - is inexpensive. Caviar in its various forms is of course, a favorite zakuski.

A Russian picnic is a fine way to enjoy Russian fare, so after sampling various recipes from ''A La Russe,'' we compiled this menu that might be ideal on a warm spring day: Eggplant Caviar On Black Bread; Pirozhkis, which are pockets of dough stuffed with a spicy meat; Salat Oliv'ye, a Russian potato salad potpourri including chicken, apples, oranges, and peas tossed in a sour cream dressing. For dessert, a festive torte called ''Mother-in-law'' Torte, a delicious dessert served on special occasions.

Here are some of our favorite recipes, which we adapted from the book. 'Mother-in-law' Torte (Svekrukha) Cake Layers 14 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 3/4 sticks) 5 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 cup walnuts, ground 2 tablespoons sour cream 2 cups flour Filling 4 tablespoons unsalted butter 1/4 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 small egg, slightly beaten 1/4 cup sour cream 1/4 cup walnuts, heated slightly to release flavor, then finely chopped Chocolate Glaze 2 tablespoons milk 1/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder 1 tablespoon unsalted butter To make cake layers, melt butter, pour into a mixing bowl. Stir in sugar, salt, walnuts and sour cream, mixing well. Stir in flour until well blended. The dough will be loose.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread 2 baking sheets with greased aluminum foil.

Divide dough into 4 parts. On the foil, pat out 4 rounds, each 1/4 inch thick and 8 inches diameter. Bake rounds about 15 minutes, until browned around edges.

Cool rounds before removing from foil, since they are very fragile.

To make filling, cream butter and sugar until light. Gradually stir in vanilla extract, egg, and sour cream. Add nuts and beat well. Filling will be very loose. Chill for at least 10 minutes.

Spread buttercream filling between cooked cake layers. To prepare glaze, pour milk into small saucepan. Mix together sugar and cocoa powder and add to milk. Bring to boil and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Immediately spread glaze over top layer of torte.

Chill for several hours before serving.

Yield: 12 servings. Eggplant Caviar (Baklazhannaya Ikra) 3 small eggplants, about 2 1/2 pounds 2 medium onions, finely chopped 1/2 cup olive oil 1 green pepper, finely chopped 4 cloves garlic, crushed 3 large tomatoes, peeled and finely chopped 1 teaspoon honey 1 tablespoon salt Freshly ground black pepper to taste Juice of 1 lemon Black bread or dark rye

Place eggplant in a baking dish and bake in a preheated 375-degree F. oven until tender, about 45 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, saute onions in olive oil until soft but not brown. Add chopped green pepper and garlic, and cook until starting to soften.

Peel baked eggplant and chop pulp finely. Add to frying pan with chopped tomatoes, honey, salt, and pepper. Bring mixture to boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer about 1 hour.

Remove cover and continue to simmer until excess liquid evaporates and mixture is thick but not dry, about 20 to 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Stir in lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Add black pepper liberally.

Transfer to bowl and chill, covered, in refrigerator several hours or overnight. Serve on thick slices of black bread.

Yield: 8 generous first-course servings or more as a zakuski.

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