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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Savor Russia's Ancient, Spongy Sweet

You may have seen the strange, white, pinkish-beige and cream-colored chunks that are reminiscent of large pieces of chalk. This is the Russian version of marshmallow or nougat, called pastila.

These sweet, spongy bricks also have been compared to nougat or a cross between frosting and meringue. In fact, pastila is a confection made from mashed fruit, whipped egg whites and sugar.

Its name is related to the verb postelit, or to spread out, and comes from the way pastila is prepared. Since the 14th century, the most famous pastila has been made in Kolomna and Rzhev in Central Russia.

In the olden days, pastila was unique in that it was made of sweet-and-sour Antonovka apples, which weren't grown anywhere else in Europe. Later, pastila makers discovered that berries, such as currants, rowanberries, cowberries and raspberries, could be used to make the sweet.

These berries are rich in pectin, a substance that is the basis of fruit jam and is a necessary ingredient for pastila, giving the sweet its spongy consistency. These berries also made the pastila more colorful when they were placed in alternating layers with the apple layers of pastila.

Before the 19th century, another major pastila ingredient was honey, which was later replaced by sugar. Since sugar crystallizes better than honey, it mixed better with the pectin. In the last century, pastila was exported to Western Europe as a traditional Russian sweet.

The third ingredient -- whipped egg whites -- was introduced during the 15th century to improve pastila's color. Apple-based pastila turned an ugly brown, as sliced apples left out on a plate do, and the egg whites stopped them from changing color.

During the 19th century, the secret of pastila was discovered by French chefs who added more egg whites to the recipe. The result was zephyr, a French marshmallow or meringue, which is more solid and chewy than pastila. Today zephyr, which is sold in bakeries or confectioneries, is crunchy on the outside with a buttery filling inside, and it's sometimes coated in chocolate.

Pastila-making techniques are simple, but making the sweet requires a lot of work. Since most people don't use Russian brick ovens, it's impossible to make the treat at home. Pastila must sit in a slowly cooling oven, which stays warm for two days, so the apple, sugar and whipped-egg-white paste will dry and bake properly. First, the paste is spread in thin layers on cheesecloth in wooden boxes and baked. Then layers of pastila are laid on top of each other and dried once more in the stove so that they melt into each other. Finally, they are cut into pieces.

Until inflation hit Russia this decade, pastila's cost hadn't changed for nearly 1 1/2 centuries. In the mid-19th century the sweet cost 1.20 rubles per kilogram. Nevertheless, if that was cheap a few years ago, for many ancestors it was often unaffordable.

Before the industrial revolution, pastila was very labor-intensive. Several people, typically serfs, took turns beating the the ingredients until they turned white.

Today, pastila is manufactured at Moscow's Udarnitsa confectionery factory. Udarnitsa employees claim that the ingredients used in pastila and the method of cooking hasn't changed, except that machines have taken the place of the serfs to mix it.

If you are puzzled over Russian food items , please e-mail Julia Solovyova at