Thursday, 28 November 2013

Christmas is Coming

Surprisingly for someone who grew up in a Russian village, my babushka was not religious at all. Her lack of faith cannot even be fully explained by the fact that she was a post Communist Revolution child. Back then religion was "opium for the masses" and children were taught atheism rather than Christianity.

Still I would have expected to hear more about Christmas celebrations in the village. Especially as there are some serious traditions associated with it and the food which should be served. But nothing. I heard no stories of Christmas. Shrove Tuesday (Maslenitsa) - yes, Easter - plenty, but not Christmas. Maybe because for the Eastern Christians, Easter is a much bigger celebration than any other.  

Everything I learned about Christmas was through my university course in Kiev. You see, Western Ukraine, which was only annexed to its Soviet Eastern and Central bit in 1939 after the infamous Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, preserved all the Orthodox and Greek Catholic festive traditions. So Ukrainians, certainly western Ukrainians, and we had plenty of them at my university course, were well versed in this big tradition.  
To start with, as the Orthodox and Greek Catholics still follow the Julian calendar, our Christmas falls on the 7th of January. And unlike their fellow western believers, Eastern Christians have another Lent for a few weeks before Christmas. No one is allowed to eat meat till the Christmas day itself. 

Which made it all rather difficult for the Soviet Christians, as the Soviet secular equivalent of Christmas, the New Year, was the biggest holiday of them all. And festive meals back home meant one thing - lots of meat! 

But a true believer had to fast till the very last day, so no festive food for the New Year's.

Instead on the Christmas eve a traditional meal of 12 dishes (to symbolise the 12 apostles) was served. No meat: just fish, salads, meat-free borsch, vareniki (a type of ravioli), uzvar (a sweet non-alcoholic drink make of dried fruit) and of course kutya.

Kutya - is a sort of sweet cous cous made of cooked wheat, honey, poppy seeds, raisins, nuts and dried fruit. 

I never really liked it. Probably because for some reason everyone was supposed to pass a bowl of kutya around and eat it from the same spoon. It always felt yuk-y to me. But I may try to make it this year, as it sounds much more tasty than I remember. 

There was supposed to be no alcohol and the festive eating could only start after the first star became visible in the dark winter sky. 

And then the singing would start. Kolyadki are traditional Ukrainian Christmas songs (not unlike carols) and they are sang by people going from house to house performing a mini Nativity show. 

My late Ukrainian literature professor used to do the proper Christmas meal at his flat, inviting any students who could be bothered to spend an evening singing kolyadky and then sharing the festive meal with him and his family. I never went. Now I wish I had... 

Here is a kolyadka for you. Slightly home-made and rather beautiful.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Oladushki. Or what you call Blini.

Let me make this clear. What you lot call blini (those small panfried cakes) are actually called oladhushki. Blini are the pancakes you make on Shrove Tuesday.

Now that’s sorted, let me tell you, oladushki were as much part of my life as toast and marmalade for the most of you. It is a very traditional breakfast. Served with sour cream and preserves (raspberry or strawberry are best, but works with any fruit  really, jam would do too), they are a typical weekend treat. Sometimes babushka made them midweek too - yum!

We love sweet things back home. So mum made oladushki for all of us when the kids and I went to Mariupol during this autumn half term. She claims one cannot make decent oladushki with yoghurt, which I’ ve been doing. Only sour cream would do. And you know what, I agree. Hers were very much more superior.

Unlike the stuff you get in the supermarkets, babushka’s (and mum’s) oladushki are yeast free and take minutes to make.

They must be thick but light. There was this mysterious auntie Pasha (babushka’s older sister from the village), whose oladushki were so good, mum always compared any oladhushki to hers. ‘Nice and light: just as auntie Pasha’s!’ - she’d say.  I never met the woman, but she is an integral part of our family’s cooking folklore.  

Oladushka are delish served with smoked salmon, dill and sour cream, or with red caviar too!

Oladushki (or blini, if you must)
Makes about 20-25.

450g sour cream
3 eggs
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 heaped tablespoons flour (big heaps)
3-4 teaspoons sugar
a pinch of salt
Sunflower oil for frying


Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. The batter should be tick but liquid enough to pour. It will be thicker than batter for pancakes.  

Heat the oil in the frying pan. Take a tablespoon of the mixture and pour it onto the frying pan. You shluld be able to fit 3-4 oladhushki in a pan.

As soon as bubbles (little holes) start appearing in the edges, turn the oladushki over. They fry quickly, so keep an eye on them!

Serve with sour cream, honey and fruit preserves (or jam) for a sweet flavour or with sour cream, dill and salmon (sour cream, dill and red caviar) for a savoury snack/starter.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Giving an Old Woman New Tits

Former Karl Marx Social Club
My mother gave me a surprisingly new insight into my late babushka. It was when we were looking at the newly sprung 'architecture' in central Mariupol, dismaying at the clumsy addition to the beautiful and now sadly derelict vodka factory, when suddenly mum said: 'As your babushka would say they gave an old woman new tits!'

Now, wait a minute, 'tits'?! That's not the language I associated with my babushka! She was way too polite and proper!

It turns out, her and our other prim and proper neighbours were talking about this building: a social club named after Karl Marx which was a stone throw away from our old house. It was also a historic building which was given a new extension. We would think nothing of it now, but back then it caused a furore and lead to the 'new tits on the old woman' comments.

Siemashko street, on the way to our old flat
The sign has changed. Previously it had a Karl Marx bas-relief on it, which always made me think of babushka's grandfather.

We went to a bit of a tour of our old neighbourhood. It changed and didn't change at the same time.

Our old house is located next to one of the biggest metallurgical plants in Ukraine Illich Steelworks. And it seems to have spread - pipes crossing streets and running alongside alleys. Practicality seems to always take precedent over aesthetics back home.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

How Does One Eat Kholodets?

Back from Ukraine and full of recipes and stories. I am starting with the long promised kholodets. In a nutshell, it's meat in aspic - a much loved East European festive dish. It takes a long time to prepare, so it is made for really special occasions. My mum and babushka, when the latter was still alive, made it in honour of my British husband Tim coming to visit for the first time.

I've been raving about the dish to him for ages. The table was set, Tim and I, mum and dad, babushka and uncle Valera were at the table, chattering away. When suddenly uncle Valera shouted: 'Look at the Englishman! He is spreading kholodets on a slice of toast!'

The hilarity! Needless to say, my husband did not like kholodets. He was trying to be polite and eat it in the least offensive way for his palette. Spreading it on a slice of bread seemed like a good idea,

I suspect, the majourity of you won't like it either. It's acquired taste. But if you are feeling adventurous...

Makes 14-16 portions

There is no point of making a small batch of it. It takes ages and keeps for long time. It's a winter festive dish, as people tend to set it on their balconies, which requires cold temperatures. You can set it in the fridge too. The dish is served cold with mustard and horse radish.
Russian horse radish is coloured with beetroot juice which gives it a slightly sweeter taste and that bright pink colour. (That red stuff on the photo is horseradish).


1-2 pork legs (yes, I am not kidding. Pork legs minus hooves, washed and scrubbed)
2kg beef shank with bone - the bone will help the aspic set.
1 small rooster - for some reason you really need a rooster and not a girl chicken - they are leaner and musclier, which is what we need.
2 carrots
1 onion with skin on
12-16 black peppercorns
1 heaped teaspoon of salt
Ground pepper
3-4 bay leaves
6-7 garlic cloves
Various large, deep serving dishes



Scrub and wash pork feet. They are a very important component of the dish - they provide gelatin for the stock and chewy texture for the final dish.
You will probably only get beef shanks already in pieces - make sure you keep the bone. Or ask your butcher for the bones separately.
Cut the rooster in large-ish pieces.
Wash all the meat nicely.

Cooking two stocks:

Now put all the meat in a pan, cover with water, bring to the boil and boil vigorously for 5 minutes. All the scum will raise to the surface.
After 5 minutes of boiling. Take the meat out. Discard the stock and wash the meat in fresh water again. Doing this will ensure that your second stock is clear, which is what you need.

Now put the washed meat into a large pan. Pork legs first, followed by the beef and the rooster.
Add one onion - quartered with skin on - and roughly chopped carrots.
Add the bay, peppercorns and salt.

I was surprised how little salt goes into the dish. Only one heaped teaspoon. Normally, Ukrainians and Russians love salty stuff. But it seems to work.

Cover generously with fresh water- it needs to cover the meat by at least 1-2 inches.
Bring to the boil, put on low heat, cover and cook for 6 hours.

Assembly and setting:

After 6 hours of cooking, the meat will be falling off the bones.
Take the meat out, leaving the veg and spices in the stock.
Put the stock through a fine sieve and set aside. Let it cool a little and skim as much fat off the top as you can.

When the meat cooled down, take all meat off the bones. Down to the tiniest bits. Make sure no bones are left.

Roughly chop the meat (including that gelatinous meat from the pork feet).  

Place the chopped meat 1 - 1.2 inches deep in the serving dishes. Spread it on the bottom so it covers it all. Pour the stock on top of it. Now crush garlic cloves and add to the stock - you will kind of need to sprinkle it all over. Sprinkle with the ground black pepper.

Leave kholodets in a cold place (in the fridge or on a cold balcony/conservatory) to set. Serve cold with mustard and horse radish, as part of a celebratory mezze.

This recipe is courtesy of my mummy. She has now truly taken the cooking baton from my babushka and her kholodets was every mouthful as good as granny's. I loved your kholodets!

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Live From Ukraine

I am flying to Mariupol tomorrow and will be bringing you some of my babushka's finest cooking as interpreted by my mum. The cold season's favourite, kholodets, will be on the menu. It's meat served in aspic, which my husband rather comically tried to spread on a slice of bread. He thinks it's plain weird. But it's a much loved dish back home. I'll be learning to make it from my mum.

Also expect to see tefteli - an interesting take on meat balls. This dish is very much loved by my British family. And many more weird and wonderful foodstuffs as well as photos from my home town.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Orthodox Celebrations: A Pile of Pancakes

Nine pm was the time children went to bed when I was little. My dad would normally just come home and mum would hang out with him. Babushka went to her room, or rather our room, as we all lived in a one bedroom flat: mum, dad, babushka and I. Her and I shared a bedroom. She wanted to give my parents some space.

And this is when I would pounce on her: "Babushka, please tell me about the village". I was so curious about the old times. Things changed so much since then...

Church holidays played a big role in the lives of the village folk. Shrove Tuesday was one of them. Except in Russia and Ukraine we do it for a whole week! Orthodox Lent is no joke. One effectively becomes vegan for 40 days. Orthodox Christians are only allowed to eat fish on a handful of days throughout the Lent, otherwise it's no dairy, no meat and no fish. So a week before that, called Maslenitsa was a big celebration. 

From what I understand each day of the Maslenitsa week was roughly focused on a particular activity. One one of the days, the in-laws from the husband's side of the family would come and visit. Old babushkas came carrying sweeties for the kids, wrapped in their handkerchiefs. On another day - the relatives from the mother's side. The families were huge and all of them needed feeding. 

My great grandmother would wake up early. By the time the kids were up she would make a huge pile of pancakes for the guests. Have you tried making pancakes recently? Twenty-odd pancakes would only make a pile an inch high. Imagine how many she needed to do to have one 15-20 inches high?

With 10 children of her own, babushka's mum had to feed an army! And so she did. A samovar was puffing on the table, dozens and dozens of pancakes were eaten with mushrooms, red caviar, cabbage, cottage cheese, honey and preserves. For a whole week!

I bet she was ready for Lent to start! 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Another Way with Beetroots

This recipe uses most of Britain's mistrusted foodstuff: beetroots, prunes and mayo. And yet I am urging you to try it, as it works surprisingly well.

The dish is technically a salad, but not in a British sense. In fact it's quite difficult to serve within a meal, unless you are doing what Russians do and serve it as part of a mezze.

My part of the world is not traditionally associated with mezze and yet, this is a very traditional way of serving festive and family food back home. Every gathering will have a three course dinner, all courses served as mezze.

The cold mezze (zakuski) are served first, You will typically see at least 4-5 dishes for that course and this one is one of them.

It has a great mix of tastes: sweetness and earthiness of the beetroots, concentrated sweetness of prunes, a bit of a kick from the garlic, saltiness from the mayo and texture from the walnuts. It sounds weird. But it is so good!

Some people add grated hard cheese to it (like Cheddar) - it works really well.

Beetroot and Prunes Salad
(Makes 2 portions)
Suitable for vegetarians


250g boiled beetroots (I used vacuum packed ones cooked in their own juice (NOT vinegar!) from a supermarket) - grated on a coarse grater
5-6 prunes (no stones) - chopped into small chunks
1 clove of garlic - crushed
2 heaped teaspoons of mayo
A small handful of walnuts - finely chopped
Grated Cheddar (optional)


Mix the beetroots (if you boiled your own, make sure they are cool) with prunes, garlic and mayo in a small bowl. Mix well. Sprinkle the walnuts on top. You can add grated cheddar if you like. Serve as part of a mezze. Or as a veggie lunch.