grandmother’s recipes: 8 posts

Rose Jam

“Do you remember Asya’s recipe for rose jam?” I ask my grandmother as I return to the house with a basket full of rose petals. A craggy shrub by the fence has suddenly sprouted into a mass of frilly pink blossoms, and I feel inspired. “No,” says Valentina, with an expression that accepts no arguments. “She wasn’t much of a cook. She never made jam.” I’m confused, because I do recall gathering roses for jam with my great-grandmother. Did I make it up, just like I concocted the story of my father being a Bollywood actor? Then my grandmother reconsiders. “You’re right, she did. Every summer. But it was terrible. Dark and overcooked.”

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The saccharine stories that preface many cookbooks, of learning cooking at grandmother’s side as she tenderly explains the right way to cut carrots or hull strawberries, aren’t part of my childhood recollections. Valentina has so little tolerance for imperfection, or deviations from her way of doing things, that cooking with her is as relaxing as being a Top Chef contestant. Asya, her mother, had no patience for mincing and sauteing; her passion was the garden. Perhaps, this is why I don’t remember eating her jam, only the intense honeyed fragrance of roses as we picked them.

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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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Green Salad with Egg and Dill Dressing : Summer

Among the many things that perfumery and cuisine have in common is their ability to take you back into the past. A whiff, a taste, and you’re in another time and place. My Proustian madeleine was a  green salad my grandmother put together when we suddenly discovered that our lettuce patch was about to be overgrown. Since wasting food is a cardinal sin in our household, I was sent to pick the lettuce and herbs, while my grandmother boiled eggs and whipped a simple sour cream dressing. The combination of dill’s spicy licorice, tart cream and slightly bitter greens was refreshing, but it also reminded me of my childhood so poignantly that for a while I sat with my fork mid-motion.

green salad20 years later

Among my grandmother’s large repertoire, salads never played a big role. Depending on the season, we always had a large plate of fresh vegetables on the table–cucumbers sprinkled with salt, sliced tomatoes, radishes or spring onions, but the salad was hardly more than slivered cabbage tossed with parsley, dill and toasted sunflower seed oil. Green salad wasn’t even considered food fit for humans, and I vividly recall my great-grandmother pointing to a pile of lettuce and saying that only during the famine of the 1930s would she eat that “green nonsense.”

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