ukrainian cuisine: 9 posts

Rum Raisin Cake

Next to the cookbooks written by my great-grandmother Olena, my other beloved ones are by the Ukrainian food writer Daria Tsvek. I love her voice, advice, and of course, recipes that highlight the flavorful Galician cuisine of Tsvek’s native Lviv. Last week I tried Tsvek’s rum raisin cake that comes from a book called For the Festive Table (До Святкового Столу). Published in 1973, it offers menus and recipes for holidays and celebrations, along with suggestions on how to organize one’s time and host dinner parties.

I picked up the book for my cookbook collection, but I ended up cooking so much from it that I made a photocopy to use in the kitchen. Tsvek’s imaginative and inventive flair fill the pages. She’s able to concoct an elegant feast out of the simplest ingredients, and reading her book I’m not even aware of the endemic Soviet shortages that must have made the task of a recipe writer difficult. Her rum raisin cake turned out to be buttery, crumbly and fragrant, a recipe to add to my baking repertoire.

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Honey Marinated Peppers

My grandmother Valentina’s approach to food is simple–if it doesn’t taste good, it can’t be good for you. She doesn’t have patience for the self-induced sufferings of health food devotees, and she remains suspicious of green juices, raw beet salads and salt-free cabbage soups. I once loved to experiment with all of the above. To my credit I even convinced a friend to try a raw food diet for a week. Such an idea in the Soviet Union during winter wasn’t for the fainthearted. Our food supply was ideal for Park Slope locavores–seasonal. It meant that once we got fed up with last year’s apples and carrots, we moved onto raw potatoes. There is a reason–and I suspect, evolutionary sense–why humanity has chosen to give potatoes some form of thermal treatment.

pepper salad

After that infelicitous experience,  I’ve remained immune to most food fads, preferring instead to follow Valentina’s logic. Above all, it must taste good. Although Valentina doesn’t care for raw lettuce, she has a repertoire of vegetable salads, many of which she makes during the summer and preserves for the winter. Her pantry shelves are lined with jars of pink cabbage, eggplant slices in a spicy sauce, pickled zucchini or honey marinated peppers. Since Belgian markets have peppers all year round, the latter is an effortless dish to put together, summer or winter. I skip the canning part.

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Crepe Cake with Sweet Cheese, Raisins and Raspberries (Solozhenyk)

I love nothing more than to pour a cup of tea and to flip through my great-grandmother Olena’s recipe books. Although there are many good cooks in my family, Olena was uncontested in her expertise and passion. I was a toddler when she passed away, but my mother and aunt’s stories and Olena’s handwritten books give shape to the woman of whom I only have a few sepia tinted photographs. Our family lore wouldn’t be complete without stories of Olena’s garlicky pork roasts, bright yellow sponge cakes filled with vanilla cream and raspberry compotes.

solozhenyk1

My favorites among Olena’s recipes are the forgotten old dishes that got lost during the decades of Soviet food shortages, standardization of the cuisine and obliteration of regional traditions. Some of it was forced by the state to create a market for commercial products; some of it was a part of a natural process as more women joined the work force and no longer had time to prepare complex meals. Olena’s recipes belong to another generation, but this is not to say that all of them are time consuming, extravagant affairs. For instance, her solozhenyk, crepe cake filled with lemony cheese garnished with raspberries, is elegant, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to make.

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Uzvar : Ukrainian Spiced Fruit Compote

On January 6th my house smells like dried apricots and honey. It’s the Orthodox Christmas Eve, which in Ukrainian is called Svyata Vecherya, the Holy Supper, and two dishes central to it are kutya and uzvar. I have written about kutya already, but uzvar deserves special mention, because this spiced fruit compote is not only delicious, it has a heady perfume.

uzvar1

Uzvar is not only paired with kutya for the Ukrainian Christmas and Easter, it’s a favorite winter dessert in my family. It’s simple, healthy and can be varied based on what’s available in the cupboard. I can still picture my great-grandfather, Sergiy, laying out sliced apricots to dry on the roof of the garden shed and smoking plums over cherry wood. “For uzvar in the winter,” he would say, while turning the dark, jammy fruit.

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Walnut Crescents : Vanilla and Cinnamon

“Did you buy stock in a walnut farm?” asked my husband when I returned home from the market with a bag full of tawny colored nuts. I simply couldn’t resist them. The flavor is creamy and sweet, with hints of maple syrup and spice. What better way to finish a meal than with a glass of port, a handful of walnuts and a slice of blue-veined cheese?

crescents7

But the other evening, as my grandmother told me about her 40 pound walnut harvest, I was inspired to browse through my family recipe books for something Ukrainian themed. My grandmother’s walnut and honey torte and rich walnut roll are delectable, but they are desserts for times when you have a whole evening to devote to cooking. By contrast, I had just finished my work day and was too exhausted to tackle a complicated project. So, I settled on a recipe for walnut crescents that I knew by heart.

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