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

Method

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...

Kholodets
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).

Ingredients: 

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

Method

Preparation:

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

Ingredients: 

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)

Method: 

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.




Saturday, 12 October 2013

Wholesome Honey Cake

Soft and moist Honey Cake
My family doesn't like cakes. So I never bake them, because it means I have to eat them alone. But this weekend I had two good reasons to make the wonderful Ukrainian Honey Cake: my friend Joy was coming to visit (she is married to a Ukrainian guy and developed a taste for our cakes) and my brother-in-law was staying over the weekend too, who is a pleasure to feed, as he likes sweet things. I could not miss this opportunity!

Honey Cake, or Medovik, along with Sour Cake, was one of babushka's staples. It's a layered cake again. Sweet, moist and full of honey flavour.

The cream turned out differently to what I remember. But it's still lovely!

Honey Cake
Makes about 15 portions plus cut offs for the cook

Ingredients: 

For the layers
200g of pouring honey
200g soft butter or margarine
2 eggs
160g caster sugar
1 teaspoon of baking powder
550g plain flour
(A pinch of salt if using unsalted butter)

For the cream:
300g soft butter
300g icing sugar
10-12 tbsps sour cream

Equipment:
Baking paper
Baking tray

Method: 

1. Heat the oven to 200C.

2. Beat the butter/margarine with honey and sugar, gradually adding the eggs. Add a pinch of salt if using unsalted better or margarine. Add baking powder and flour.
You should end up with a dough, which is slightly softer than the shortcrust pastry type.
Chill for 20 min.

3. While the dough is chilling, make the cream. Beat the butter with icing sugar and sour cream till it resembles spreadable icing. It shouldn't be liquid enough to pour, but not firm at all.

4. Cut the baking paper into rectangles to fit your baking tray.

5. When the dough is chilled, divide it into 5 equal parts. Roll each into a ball.

6. Put a dough ball onto a baking paper rectangle and roll into a roughly oval layer about 5mm thick. Prick with a fork. Repeat with each part of the dough.

7. Bake each layer in the hot oven for about 5-7 min. Keep an eye on them, as they burn fast.

8. When the layers are ready, spread the cream on the first layer, then place the second one on top of the cream. Repeat with all layers, ending with cream on the very top.

9. Leave for a few hours, or better still overnight to infuse.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Beef with Tadzhik Accent and Is There Such a Thing as Russian Gravy?

In short, we don't really do gravy. Or at least not the way the Brits do. We are not that big on sauces altogether. It is completely normal to have a dish with no gravy at all! (Shock, horror!) Our salads and pickles play that role - moisturising the food and cutting through fats and carbs.

There are exceptions, of course. And today's dish is one of them. This is a recipe for a very typical braised meat. It has 'gravy', but not as you know it. It is basically a rather thick stock. With quite a lot of spices.

Which brings me to another peculiarity of the Russian and Ukrainian cuisine. We don't really do spices. My babushka's spices cupboard consisted of bay leaf, salt and black pepper. Full stop. Mum got a bit more adventurous. She gets a spice mix from a Tadzhik market stall. She has no idea what's in it, the guy just throws anything he can think of (or so it looks) into a paper bag. As far as I can detect it's cumin, dry oregano and marjoram, powdered ginger and chilli powder, maybe something else, but it's hard to tell. I recon any supermarket herb and spice mix for beef would do.

The dish doesn't look too attractive (and I blame my photography too), but please give it a chance. Steak and kidney pie doesn't look too appealing either (especially if you remove the pastry). And yet, it's delish...

Ukrainian Braised Beef with a Tadzhik Accent

Ingredients: 

800g think chunks of beef steak - despite the name, I used stake for stir frying, as my mum and babushka would only 'braise' the meat for an hour or so.
3-4 medium onions - sliced
1 large green pepper - deseeded and thinly sliced
a good helping of beef spice mix (make sure it has a bit of chilli)
salt, pepper
Stock cube (optional)
Sunflower oil for frying

Method: 

Brown the beef with a bit of sunflower oil in a large casserole or thick bottomed pan, set aside.

Add a bit more oil to the same pan and fry the onions. When the onions are soft and slightly golden, add the beef, spices, seasoning, peppers, stock cube and enough water to cover the meat by at least 1cm. Leave to braise for at least 1 hour.

Mum makes it without stock cubes. She recons that the meat will make the gravy meaty enough. But I think that a stock cube wouldn't hurt.

Serve with rice or buckwheat kasha.


Saturday, 5 October 2013

Weird, Salty, Yummy!

My cat didn't waste any time while I was taking this photo!
I did promise you (on my Recipes page) that I will be writing about some weird Russian food. Yesterday I saw a Facebook link to the 17 bizarre foods every Russian grew up with, which reminded me of the salted herring I bought in my local Polish shop. It was time to use it!

Oh, the herring! It is an absolute staple. It used to be a cheap alternative to meat and was eaten at least once a week in the cold months by all.

We don't really eat herrings fresh or smoked (like the Brits with their kippers), we get them marinated in oil and brine. Back home they used to come in huge wooden barrels or massive tins. With heads and everything, and were a bit of a pain to prepare.

They now come filleted and require virtually no work. So no excuses!

One of the brands widely available in the UK
How to Eat Herring in Brine

There are dozens of types of herring available. You can get it marinated in vinegar, wine and other 'sour' liquids - Scandinavian style. But I prefer herring simply marinated in olive (or sunflower) oil and brine. It's widely available in all East European shops and some supermarkets which stock East European food.

As you can expect it tastes quite fishy and salty. And that's the beauty of it.

You can serve with raw thinly sliced onions and a dash of olive or sunflower oil. It goes beautifully with mashed or crushed potato.

Or make an open sandwich out of it. Rye bread and butter work the best. But any bread with crust or even a toast would do.

You don't need much (it is rather salty), but it gives your carbs a lovely kick!

There are many other ways of using herring. Including 'farshmak' - herring pate and 'shuba' - a salad with herring and winter veg. Yes! You've guessed it - weird! Watch this space.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

On Drinking and Falling off Window-sills

Babushka had difficulty with drunks. She was scared of them and never liked drunk men let alone drunk women. She never got tipsy, let along drunk. Which makes this story so much funnier.

There was a big celebration at the village she grew up in. It must have been a wedding, or something like that. All the neighbours got together eating and drinking and being merry.

Babushka must have been about five or six years old. She had an older  friend Lyuba, who today would be described as someone with learning disability. They were neighbours and played together a lot. The party was no exception.

They were sitting on a window-sill watching the celebratory meal and chatting. I am guessing that children were not considered important enough to be given a seat at the table, so they observed from a side.

Lyuba offered babushka a drink. She drunk it. Then another - babushka drunk it again. Little did she know that it was samogon - homemade vodka - and it was strong! So after another glass, babushka fell down onto the floor. Drunk!

Her father ran to her and picked her up. He was worried there was something terribly wrong with her. He quizzed Lyuba, who was off her face herself, and realised what had happened.

He carried babushka home, asking her questions on the way, testing whether she understood what was happening. It was all a little dizzy for her.

- What are these, Mariyka?
- There are our cows, - mumbled babushka.
- And what are these?
- Our sheep...
- And these?
- Our chicken...

My dad always found this story amusing. Every time we had a family celebration which involved alcohol he used to tease babushka light-heartedly:

- Make sure you don't pour too much wine to the mother-in-law! She is a well-known alcoholic!

We all giglled. It was just so absurd. Babushka being an alcoholic!  



Monday, 30 September 2013

A Warming Soup with Meatballs

A yummy autumn warmer
We love clear soups back home. This one is made with frikadel'ki - meatballs, and is an excellent way of enhancing flavour and making the soup more substantial. You can use any grain in this soup: rice, pearl barley, millet or like me - buckwheat (or kasha as you all call it).
Buckwheat is the nation's favourite grain back home. It is deemed to be good for virtually anything and full of vitamins. An absolute must for children and adults alike. (My mother is horrified that my children do not eat it regularly). It is available in health shops, Whole Foods, online (try amazon.co.uk/food) and in East European shops.

Make sure you read the cooking instructions for the grain you use - and adjust the recipe, so the potatoes and the grain are ready at the same time.

Soup s Frikadelkami (Clear soup with meatballs)
(makes 6 portions, or 4 super portions)

Ingredients: 

For the meatballs:

750g minced pork or beef (I used pork, but beef would work just as well)
1 egg
Salt and pepper
Sunflower oil for frying
Flour - to roll the meatballs in

For the soup:

1.5-1.7l of chicken stock
1 medium onion - thinly sliced
1 large or 2 small carrots - chopped into thin slices
5 medium potatoes peeled and cut into 1 inch (2cm) chunks
100g of buckwheat kasha
Slat and pepper
Lots of chopped fresh dill and parsley to serve

The method: 

First prepare the meatballs. Mix the mince with the egg and seasoning in a large bowl. You need to season it really well and add a lot of black pepper, as the meatballs can otherwise be a bit bland. Divide into 25-30 small balls, rolling each in flour and fry until nicely browned on all sides. Set aside.

Heat the stock. While the stock is heating, saute the onions and the carrots in a separate frying pan until soft and slightly golden (this adds 'meatiness' - which we love), but you can just add them without frying. This type of frying is called 'zazharka' and takes at least 10 min.

When the stock is boiling, add the potatoes, after about 15 min add the buckwheat (the buckwheat I used took 15 min to cook). Then add the meatballs, onions and carrots.

Cook for another 15 min. (Check that the potatoes are cooked and that kasha is soft).

Serve with crusty bread and lots of dill and parsley.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Karl Marx and Winter Coats for the Poor

Not much is known about my great-great father, babushka's grandad. All I was told was that he looked like Karl Marx, with a great big beard, and that he loved my babushka so very much.

Not a bad way to be remembered, says my husband Tim.

Great-great grandad doted on my babushka and spoiled her as much as he could.

When it was time for Mariyka to go to school, and we are talking 1928, the Soviet regime was taking its grip over Russia.

I cannot say that it was all bad, during the Soviet rule. There were lots of horrible, cruel and unthinkable things, but also there were lots of good things, certainly when I was growing up. And even in the 1920s.

Many children had a chance to go to school for the first time ever. Babushka did too, though she would have probably gone anyway, as her family was well off. But for many poor kids, whose parents were on the verge of destitution, starting school was an exciting new opportunity. They got their hot meals there and winter coats, hats and boots were provided for them by the state free of charge. Lots of peasant kids in my babushka's class got those winter presents during their first year.

A lot must have been made out of this gift from the state, as my babushka came home very upset.

- What happened, Mariyka? - asker her Karl Marx-lookalike grandfather, as she climbed on his lap.

- There were all those children who got new coats and boots and I wasn't given any... - she cried (kids from rich families were not part of the scheme).

- Don't you worry, darling! We'll go to the market this very weekend and I will get you the best coat available!

And so he did.

Our old flat was next to a culture club - kind of a social club - named after Karl Marx. I used to borrow books from the kids library there. A portrait of Marx was engraved on the entrance, and it always made me think of my great-great grandfather, who loved my babushka very much and bought her the best coat on offer.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Every Child Must Eat This

Syrniki. Those black things are raisins. 
It's time to talk about the most popular children (and adult) breakfast in the former Soviet Union. Cottage cheese pancakes (syrniki).

Now, there is a certain amount of hysteria connected to the consumption of cottage cheese (tvorog) by children. The Russians and Ukrainians are convinced that no child will grow up healthy and strong without eating cottage cheese, as it's full of calcium! Mothers despair on mothering websites; 'my child won't eat tvorog!", a grandmother of my university boyfriend would make us syrniki almost every day to make sure we ate well (and they were delicious too). You get the gist. It's a BIG DEAL!

A clarification is needed here. The East European cottage cheese (tvorog in Russian, twarog in Polish) is slightly different to the one we get here. It's just the cheese bits, none of that liquid stuff you get in your cottage cheese in the UK. And it's not as salty.

It's not that easy to get hold of. You really need to go to an East European food shop to get it. Polish cottage cheese is good too. This is what I used when I was making the syrniki below. In Polish it's called Twarog and you want the full fat one for this recipe. (Tesco's stocks it, but it may only be available online, and of course all Polish shops will have it).

You must try syrniki. They are absolutely wonderful. I made eight yesterday. My kids had one each and I ate the rest! They are so easy to make, I don't know why I don't make them often enough. You can even cook them in the morning before school/nursery/work. Yes, it's THAT quick. And of course it's full of calcium!

Serve for breakfast with sour cream
Cottage Cheese Cakes (Syrniki)
Makes 8

Ingredients: 
250g pack of East European cottage cheese (tvorog or twarog) - full fat
3tbsp golden caster sugar
1 large egg
100g plain flour
50-80g raisins
Sunflower oil for frying
Sour cream to serve

Method: 

Beat the cottage cheese in a bowl with the caster sugar and the egg. It needs to be smooth. Add raisins and flour. Mix well. It will turn into dough, firm enough to roll in your hands.

Divide into 8 parts and turn into thick flat round cakes.

Fry on a medium heat frying pan. They burn easily, so turn them quickly. They need to be golden on both sides, and one the pan is hot, it takes less than a minute (each side) to fry them.

Serve warm with sour cream (See cooking essentials).
I like to have sweet black or Earl Grey tea with them too.


Monday, 23 September 2013

A Tale of Babushka and a Plate of Borsch

There are stories that are told over and over again and they never cease to amuse. Several generations later, they are still a staple of any family gathering. This is one of them. A tale of babushka and a plate of borsch.

Imagine a family dinner in a Russian village. An entire family is sitting at a large table, with the father and mother at the head of the table and all the youngest kids at the other side. Everyone is given some freshly made borsch, with a large chunk of fresh bread. There is no chatting, or squabbling, or gossiping. Everyone's eating.

My babushka, the youngest of the children, is sitting at the very end of the table with a plate of hot borsch in front of her. A thought enters her head: 'What would happen if I put my foot into the plate?!'

And so she does.

Imagine the chaos! Her older sisters jump up and take her away from the table, telling her off and simultaneously washing the borsch off her feet and clothes. 'Mariyka, how did you come up with THAT idea?!'

I think she's always been rather pleased with herself for doing it. Even aged 60, when she herself was telling people off for bad table manners, it amused her. She did have a lot of hidden mischief in her.

It is now one of the favourite stories of my eldest son. He's never met babushka, but almost every week he pretends to put a foot into food, grins mischievously and says: 'Just like your babushka!'

And it always puts a smile om my face.

Friday, 20 September 2013

'Sour' Cake for Childhood Friends

Babushka's Sour Cake
My oldest friend and her family are coming to visit today and I am pulling out all the stops.

I've known Iris since secondary school and we spent many an afternoon exploring our home town. She had this incredible knowledge of local history and architecture, showing me all the hidden treasures of our otherwise architecturally unremarkable city.

Our expeditions often ended up at my house, and my babushka gave us tea with her famous 'Sour' cake. This is the cake I made today.

It's taken me a while to get used to British cakes, which are all essentially a sponge with lots of icing.

One of the few older buildings in Mariupol.
Ukrainian cakes are probably better described as tortes. They pretty much always have layers. And lots of them. They are always very moist and very sweet. We love things sweet.

Iris immigrated to Israel 18 years ago and hasn't been in our old town for many years. I hope my cake will remind her of the good old times.

Babushka's Sour Cake

This reminds me of Linzertorte, but with layers and we use plum preserve instead. Babushka's recipe was a bit vague and the measurement instructions included: "2 glasses of sugar" (a glass is a 200ml glass and is used as a measuring tool just like an American cup) and "enough flour to make a pastry". I have adapted it and measured it all out for you.

You will need plum preserve for this. Having tried a few, the best one to use is the Bonne Maman one. It's called Confiture Bonne Maman Quetsches in French. (I found mine in my local French shop)

'House with Lions' - Iris's favourite
Ingredients: 

2 eggs
400g caster sugar
1 teaspoon of baking powder
300g soft butter or margarine
300g flour
1 jar (370g) of Bonne Maman Plum Preserve
Crushed walnuts and sour cream for decoration

Method: 

Heat the oven to 200C (180C Fan)

Using a mixer, mix the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the baking powder and butter and mix until smooth. If using unsalted butter - add a bit of salt. Gradually add the flour. You will end up with a soft pastry.

It's similar to short pastry, but much less dense. Put it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes, as otherwise you will not be able to roll it.

While the dough is cooling, prepare a baking tray and two sheets of baking paper, big enough to cover the tray.

After 20 minutes, take the dough out and divide it into 5 equal portions. Take one and put the other four back in the fridge.

Roll the 1st part of the pastry onto the baking paper. You may need some flour to sprinkle it with, so the rolling pin does not stick.

I used a rectangular baking sheet, so my pastry ended up being an oval shape. It needs to be relatively thin - about 5mm. Prick it with a fork all over and place in the hot oven.

It bakes very fast - 5-7 min tops and burns easily, so watch out for it. It looks lighter in the oven than when you take it out, so once you can see that the ends are starting to look dark golden - take it out.

Our old school 'Number 66'
It will still be soft and you can even roll it, but we want flat layers, so place it on a kitchen surface and let it cool a bit. Take it off the baking sheet and place on a serving plate/board.

Repeat with all other layers. I used two pieces of baking paper, as it makes it easier to roll one piece of pastry, while the other one is being baked.

While the layers are baking, smear plum jam over the first baked layer, place another baked layer on top, ending with a layer with no jam on it.

Babushka often covered the top of the cake with unsweetened sour cream (the layers are very sweet, so you don't want too much sugary stuff) and decorated it with crushed walnuts.

She served it as one big cake, but I like to cut mine into pieces. Like on the photo. It keeps for a few days in an airtight container.

P.S. It turned out that plum jams and plums in general were not that popular in the UK, though there may be a bit of a renaissance on the horizon. Listen to this BBC Radio 4 programme: Celebrating the Plum (aired last week and still available online).

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

It's Easy to Become a Traitor

I've been looking through my babushka's notebooks, trying to find a recipe for a plum jam torte and came across this note, which made me cry. (See the photo)

It's a list of all the countries I visited, followed by the Russian spelling of my husband's name.

The list reads:

1. America
2. England
3. Germany
4. Poland
6. France
7. Italy
8. Belgium
9. Luxembourg
10. Germany

Timothy Calland - Marina's husband
(first name) (Last name)

She wrote it after her first stroke, when her memory was fading - you can tell by the handwriting. It was a memo to herself. She wanted to remember where I went, because it made her proud. Being able to go abroad was (and still is) a sign of achievement. As there were times when only a handful of people could cross the Soviet border.

You see, the Russians and many Ukrainians have a difficult relationship with the 'abroad'. They kind of love it and hate it at the same time. The love for the Motherland has been drummed into out hearts and souls since childhood. Leaving your country to live abroad in the Soviet times was an act of treason. Once one left - one was never coming back. The phones would have been tapped, letters read and one would never get a visa to go and visit one's family. You were forced to denounce your Soviet citizenship forever. There was no return.

People just didn't travel. They were not allowed. A trip to Poland was like going to the Moon (so much for being part of the Warsaw Pact), a trip to a 'capitalist country' was equal to going to another galaxy! And yet, everyone wanted to go abroad. Because foreign lands seemed (and in true honesty were) so much better than the Soviet reality.

Babushka should know. She was in Germany during the war. And she was lucky enough not to be in a labour camp, where she would have been starved, humiliated and worked hard. She ended up working as domestic helper for a German labour general. Still technically a slave - she couldn't leave and she was not paid. But they treated her like their own. Instead of living in a basement and eating potato peels, like other domestic workers did, she had her own room and was taking meals with the family. They dressed her, fed her, loved her.

She saw what 'the rotting West' looked like. As did many of the Soviet soldiers who marched to Berlin in 1945. It wasn't 'rotting' after all. How could a bourgeois capitalist society produce such excellent living? They were quickly made to forget all what they saw on the other side of the border.

Babushka never told her own son-in-law, my father, about her time in Germany. Not until he was married to mum for ten years and proved trustworthy. She remembered only too well how she and other women who were taken to Germany were called 'German whores' by their neighbours and colleagues. As if they chose to go...

And yet she was proud of me. Because travelling to all those countries was amazing. If anyone told me or my family only a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed, that I would live in London and marry an Englishman - I would have laughed to their face. It seemed so impossible.

Of course times have changed and many Russians and Ukrainians travel and live abroad. But even 6-7 years ago, a neighbour of ours, told my babushka that HER granddaughter would have never defected to the West...

Monday, 16 September 2013

Do it Now: the Real (and proper!) Rosehip Tea

Rosehips in Wimbledon park
A little foraging recipe this week. Forget the rosehip tea you buy in the health shops! Once you try the real thing - you'll never buy that poor imitation. The real rosehip tea is made from... rosehips! The problem is, you cannot buy real rosehips for love nor money in the UK, so there is only one thing left. Go foraging!

You may not need to go far. If, like me, you forgot to deadhead your garden roses (especially of the climbing variety), then you have rosehips ready and waiting for you in your back garden! Failing that - go to your local park. Avoid the main rose beds - they are looked after and deadheaded, go to the outskirts - there will be those wild rose bushes which no one bothered to tame and they are now covered with rosehips!

Just to show you how many you can get from one rose bush
The photos accompanying this entry were taken today in Wimbledon park. Look how much good stuff is on offer!

Rosehip tea is believed to have medicinal qualities (and we LOVE this kind of stuff in Ukraine - I'll do a special post on that later). Daddy used to go rosehip picking every September. He'd go with our neighbour, another Sergei, for a whole day and return home with a huge bag full of rosehips. If you like my dad decide to do it on that scale - take some secateurs and leather gloves, otherwise your hands will be scratched all over.

When picking rosehips, choose the firm red ones, the ones that are soft have gone over, the pinkish-yellow ones are not ready yet.

I went last year with my two sons and a small basket and we had a great time! Weather permitting - it can be as fun as picking blackberries, plus it's a good exercise in delayed gratification, as you cannot use the picked rosehips straight away.

You must dry them for a few weeks in a dark, dry place at room temperature. They will get darker, but will retain their shape. They are ready when completely dry.

What a faff, you'd say! But trust me, it's worth it!

This is how the dry stuff looks like
Proper Rosehip Tea
Makes 1.5 liters

You will need a thermos for this. I use a 1.5 liter Chinese thermos, but you can use a smaller or bigger one, just adjust the amount of rosehips you use. You will also need a pestle and mortar (or anything to bash the rosehips a bit).

Ingredients: 

Two large handfuls of dry whole rosehips
1.5 liters of freshly boiled water

Method: 

Bash the rosehips in pestle and mortar. No need to do it thoroughly. You are trying to release their flavour, so if you crush 30-50% of them - that should do.
Put the crushed rosehips in a thermos, add the freshly boiled water. Seal and leave overnight to infuse.

Drink as tea (you may need a little sieve to pour it out). You can add a little sugar, or honey. But no milk!

I also do a second infusion. When you finish drinking the liquid of the first infusion, just add 1l of freshly boiled water and leave overnight again. It's not as good as the first round, but still better that the stuff you buy in the tea bags!


Saturday, 14 September 2013

Last of the Summer Salad

I miss Ukrainian tomatoes. Apologies for a cliche, but the ones you get in the supermarkets in London are never that good. However I grew my own this year and ended up with a decent crop of the sweetest, juiciest, loveliest Gardener's Delights. I made a quick raw veg summer salad with them adding a few other veg. It's a very typical salad you'd have all summer long back home.

Just make sure you use unrefined sunflower oil (see Cooking Essentials) and lots and lots of dill and parsley. To add an autumnal touch, mix in some diced gherkins.

Salads like this are used as a sauce/gravy substitute in the Russian/Ukrainian cuisine. They will typically be served with meat and mash or meat and grains dish, to provide freshness and juiciness. My husband and I often have this salad with sausages.

Summer Raw Veg Salad
(Makes 2 rather generous portions)

Ingredients: 

15-20 cherry tomatoes or 2-3 ordinary tomatoes (get the best ones you can - ones the vine are usually better)
1/2 cucumber
1 medium sweet pepper - orange or yellow
1/2 small red onion
2 garlic cloves crushed
Lot of dill and parsley
1/2 lemon
a couple of gherkins (optional)
Unrefined sunflower oil (see Cooking Essentials)
Salt and pepper

Method: 

Chop all the veg into a biggish dice. I quarter cherry tomatoes and chop sweet pepper fairly thinly. You don't want your salad to turn into salsa, but you don't want big pieces either.
Mix all the chopped veg and herbs in a bowl. Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, generous glugs of sunflower oil, salt and pepper.

Serve with kotlety and mashed potato or buckwheat kasha, or with sausages or any other meat. If you are a vegetarian - try it with mashed potato. I tend to pile it up on top of the mash and delight in the juicy-creamy mixture.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The story of pet mice and a barrel of butter

Olga Kardovskaya. Haystacks. 1933.
I’ve never seen a photo of my babushka as a child. I guess no one was taking photos in a relatively remote Russian village back then. Or if the did, the photos didn’t survive collectivisation and the war. For some reason  I don’t think I ever tried to imagine how she looked like as a child. I guess she was my babushka and that was it.

It was easy to imagine all the things she told me about though. I felt like I was there with her in the village, shepherding geese, playing in the fields, doing thousands other not so exciting things that she must have done as a little girl.

Being the tenth child, she didn’t exactly get too much parental attention or toys. As in many big families her sisters took care of her and her mother was only consulted on the really big issues.  

Of course I only remember snippets of stories and maybe she did spend a lot of time with her mother, but I doubt it. Her great gran didn’t feature that much in her childhood stories and mum recently said that she didn’t remember babushka talking of her mother too often. I guess my great gran was a busy woman. Ten surviving children and two sets of twins who didn’t make it would be enough to keep any woman busy. But being a peasan't wife, she had the whole household on her shoulders.

- Babushka, tell me the story about your pet mice, - I would ask, tucking into a warm blanket.

- There were lots of mice in the village: in the wheat barns, in the fields and in the haystacks…

They must have been very used to people because babushka and her friends would make tiny little houses for them from hay and play with them like with dolls. Of course, when they came the next day, the mice would be gone. I bet the mice were happy to e free again!

- We were a little sad, that they left the lovely huts we made for them.

One day the children found a barrel of butter under a bridge. No one knew how it got there, but it was pretty unusual. It must have fallen off a cart or someone must have nicked it and hidden it under the bridge.

They were so excited that they started eating it.  It was, at the end of the day, a bit of luxury. They ate so much that they all got sick.

I always imagined that babushka’s childhood was much more exciting than mine. But I guess it was like any other childhood: a bit boring, a bit slow, with a few exciting events here and there.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Kotlety: Yummy Russian burgers

I would like to add another burger recipe to your cooking repertoire today - a Russian/Ukrainian one. An absolute staple in the East Slavic diet. Back home we make our mince ourselves, as the shop bought one used to be awful. (I just wanted to make mince joke, but when I translated it into English, it sounded so gross, I thought it may put you off your food, but do tell me if you want to hear it and I'll 'hide' it in the comments). Swiftly moving on...

The British shop bought mince is absolutely fine for this, just don't buy the cheapest one - as it may turn out to be made with horse meat. Nothing wrong with it, but not for this recipe.

I make my burgers with half pork half beef mince to add fattiness and juiciness, but most Ukrainians would probably just use pork. My babushka certainly did.

We don't eat them with bread though. Russian burgers are eaten like meatballs. A traditional way of serving them is with mashed potato and fresh veg salad or buckwheat kasha and fresh veg salad. You can have ketchup or mayonnaise, but the juicy salad is normally doing the job of the sauce/gravy. Watch this space for some Russian raw veg salads.

Kotlety: Russian Burgers
(makes at least 12)

Ingredients: 

500g - Beef mince (don't bother with the lean one - you want a bit of fat in it)
500g - Pork mince
1 large onion peeled and chopped into quarters
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 medium raw potato - peeled
1 small white bun - you can use a stale one, or any stale white bread
150ml milk
1 egg
Unrefined sunflower oil for frying.
salt, pepper

Method: 

Put the white bun into a cup and cover it with milk. Let it soften.
Put all the mince into a large mixing bowl.
Chop the onion, garlic and potato in a food processor. Add the bun when ready and soft. (Discard the milk).
Mix all the ingredients in the mixing bowl (don't forget the egg, it will bind it all better together). Season well. Don't be shy to use your hands - the mince needs to be well mixed.

You may ask why we added potato and a white bun? They moisturise the meat and soak up all the juices too, so you end up with soft and juicy meatballs.

If you have time, let the mince rest in the fridge for 20 min.
Take it out and divide into small burgers. The shape should be oval and slightly flattened. Twice or even three times as big as a meatball, but smaller than a burger.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the burgers on both sides until ready. As we are using pork mince, you can't have them medium or medium rare. They need to be well done, but with all those additional ingredients, they will turn out nice and juicy.

Serve with dill as part of a meal (see above) or on their own as cocktail party food with mayonnaise or ketchup. You can stick them in a bun too, if you want to go British on them.

Next - some Russian salads and stories from babushka's village.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A peasant life that wasn't to last

Sister Pasha's house in Solntsevo, on the site of the old house
Having to share a bedroom with my babushka was no hardship at all. I never even craved my own space. Having a kids' bedroom was an utter luxury and I din't know of anyone  then who had more than one of those even if they had more than one kid.

I loved sharing a bedroom with her. Every night I would ask babushka to tell me stories about her childhood. Or 'stories about the village', as I used to call them. And tell me she did, again and again, during those long Ukrainian winter nights, often falling asleep mid-sentence.

She was the tenth surviving child in a well-to-do peasant family in Western Russia. I've never been to Solntsevo, the village she was born in: the old house didn't survive anyway and the new one was occupied by babushka's older sister Pasha until she died before I was born.

But it's easy to imagine the place. White clay houses, surrounded by kitchen gardens and fields, a stream running in between weepy willows and fruit trees, unmade roads, that turned into mud baths in the rain, and daisies. Lots and lots of daisies.

It was a busy household. Mariyka's mother Natasha would be busy cooking, cleaning and washing, helped by the older girls. The boys would be working with the father in the fields. A typical life of a peasant family.

Babushka's first job was to look after geese and she didn't like it that much. They would hiss and pinch - a bit frightening for a 4-year-old girl. But everyone had to pull their weight.

It was mid 1920s when the Soviet Russia, starved and exhausted after two wars, allowed private enterprise, previously banned, to pop up all over the country, creating jobs, producing goods, growing and selling food.

My babushka's family was considered to be a 'kulak' family. A name given to well-off peasants, who could afford having hired help for working on the fields.
They were tolerated for now, at the end of the day, the new proletariat, which flooded the cities needed bread, and the 'kulaks' were particularly good at growing and selling food. But it wouldn't last too long...

Monday, 9 September 2013

How does Ukrainian Borsch differ from the Russian?

(can be Vegetarian if using vegetable stock)


Borsch is such a traditional Eastern Slavic dish, that every family has its unique recipe. There are several 'official' types of borsch including 'green borsch' which is made with sorrel, but this one is for the spring, as that's when fresh sorrel is first available. This recipe is based on my babushka’s way of making borsch. Though born in Russia she made it Ukrainian way. There is a joke that a Russian borsch is a bucket of water with one cabbage, two potatoes and three beetroots. Ukrainians, being blessed with rich produce, put pretty much all the autumnal vegetables in it. But the basics, what makes borsch - borsch and not just a vegetable soup, are the same: stock, potatoes, beetroots and cabbage. To make it more substantial, babushka would add to it pieces of boiled beef or pork from the stock bones, but you don't have to. Also, be warned, because it contains beetroot it may make your wee look pink!


Ingredients: Makes 6 portions
2.5l home made beef stock (see previous post. You can use veg stock instead, though it won't be authentic)
Sunflower oil (preferably unrefined, see cooking essentials)
2 large-ish beetroots - peeled and cut into thin batons - bigger than frites, but smaller than chips
2-3 medium carrots - cut into small chunks (I do cemicircles)
2 medium onions - thinly sliced
4-5 medium potatoes - cut into medium chunks
½ small white cabbage (400-500g) - shredded
2 red or orange peppers - cut into thin slices
½ tube (100g) of tomato paste
2 fresh tomatoes - cut into small chunks - or 1/2 tin of tinned tomatoes
1tbsp or so lemon juice or white wine vinegar
4-5 garlic cloves crushed
Salt and pepper


Sour cream or half fat creme freche and chopped fresh dill to garnish


Method:


Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the beetroots and fry for a few minutes, this is supposed to lock the colour in the beetroots as well as to tenderise then, as they take longer to cook. If you are using unrefined sunflower oil - smell it! There is no other smell that is so authentically East European! Add the carrots and see how the smell changes.  After a few minutes add the onions. Let the veg soften a bit then add beef stock.


Bring to the boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes on low heat. Add the potatoes. Season. Bring to the boil and simmer for another 10 minutes.


Add the cabbage, sweet peppers, tomatoes, tomato pure and lemon juice or vinegar. Taste it. It should have a slight acidity to it,  but still basically have a rich slightly sweet vegetably taste.


Simmer until the cabbage and potatoes are ready. Take off the heat. Add some crushed garlic.

Serve adding a spoonful of sour cream or creme freche and lots chopped fresh gill. Best eaten with crusty fresh bread.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A Mysterious Cup and a bit about meat retail in the Soviet times

Our Stalin style one bedroom flat, which my parents and I shared with my maternal grandparents was a typical example of a place a well educated but not terribly well off family of an engineer would live in. It was packed with the 1970s Soviet furniture, ‘Persian’ rugs on the walls, a black and white TV and net curtains on the windows. But in a sideboard full of Soviet and Czech crystal stood a cup. An unusual cup. A cup of an age gone long ago - a gilded, hand painted , beautiful cup. It was simply out of place.


(I since took it to Antiques Road Show. In its current cracked state, this cup which once belonged to a not-so expensive Bohemian set is worth about £40). Nothing too special, but for me it was a mystery. What was it doing next to these rather austere Soviet objects?
It was early 1980s - the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union recently invaded Afghanistan, the US just boycotted the Moscow Olympic games. Bourgeois objects like this were not exactly the norm. 

But I was little and knew nothing of all of this. I was playing in the yard with my friends, observed by other grannies, and was following my babushka on her errands. (Mum went back to work when I was one and babushka was looking after me, which was the thing to do then).

I loved going to the market with her. We had to go really early - 7am or something like this, as it was all over by 8.30. Buying meat was the main thing. All prices were controlled by the state to prevent speculation, so to make money meat sellers used to give you meat cuts which always contained hidden bones. They were quite crafty too, only back home would you realise just how bony/fatty the piece of meat was.

But money was tight and nothing was thrown away. So the first thing my babushka would do is to make stock. Below is a recipe for beef stock, which we will use to make borsch. You can make borsch with vegetable stock or water, but (apologies vegetarians) it’s not the real thing. I tried making it with some shop-bought stock, but it just doesn’t taste right either. So don’t be lazy and make your own. (You can make it in advance and freeze it.) I always make masses and freeze some for the future.

Beef Stock for Ukrainian Borsch

There is no need to roast/fry the bones and meat. What we are after is beefiness, not delicate flavour you'd need for a sauce or gravy.

Ingredients:

2-3 pieces of beef/veal bones - you can get them from your local butcher.
½ of ox tail (about 500g)
2-3 medium onions cut into quarters with skins on
2-3 medium carrots - washed and cut into chunks
1 celery stick if you have it
2 bay leaves
10 black peppercorns

Method:

Put everything into a large pot, cover generously with cold water, bring to the boil and simmer on low heat for good 2-3 hours. Taking the scum off here and there.
The stock will be cloudy, but it doesn’t matter. We are here for the flavour not the looks.
Sieve the liquid. Discard everything else. Skim the excess fat from the top.
Cool. You will need 2.5l for the borsch. Freeze whatever you are not using.

Next time - Ukrainian Borsch.