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.

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


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

Baking paper
Baking tray


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


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


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!