ukrainian cuisine: 15 posts

Ukrainian Borscht Poltava Style : My Family Borshch Recipe

You can spell it borscht, borshch, or borsch, but by any name, it’s the dish that embodies the essence of Ukrainian food culture–colorful, rich and vibrant. To call it soup wouldn’t be correct, because Ukrainian borscht is a dish more like minestrone, pot-au-feu or cocido in its heartiness. Every region of Ukraine has different varieties of borscht. There is no one authentic recipe, although there are classical versions. Borscht in Lviv in the west of Ukraine is ruby-red and includes small mushroom-filled dumplings; it’s an essential Christmas Eve dish. In the south of Ukraine, borscht is made with fish. The Central Ukrainian-style borscht–the most popular variation–is famous for its sweet-sour flavors. Borscht can be made with beef, pork, chicken, duck, beans, and even fish. It can be vegetarian. It can be soured with tomatoes, beet kvas, vinegar, sour cherries, rhubarb or red currants. It can be flavored with mushrooms or dried plums. It can include white beets and be pale in color. It can be spicy with paprika or suave with sour cream.

Outside of Eastern Europe, borscht tends to be associated with Russian cooking, since people tend to label everything from the former Soviet Union as Russian. Borscht in different variations is also enjoyed in Poland (barszcz), Lithuania (barščiai) and Romania (borş). Nevertheless, if you think of borscht as soup with beets, cabbage and tinted red with tomatoes, then it’s the Ukrainian version that you have in mind. According to the Russian food historian, Olga Syutkina, that version became popular in Russia at the end of the 18th century, when this dish was introduced on the tsarist army’s menu. Originally, borscht was the food of the peasants, because it was easy to cook in advance and was nutritious enough to be served as a one-dish meal. With the immigration of the Ashkenazi Jewish community to North America, borscht–the English spelling gives away its Yiddish roots–became popular in the New World.

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Pumpkin Rice Pudding with a Millet Variation

The fall market in Ukraine is all about pumpkins–the delicate yellow squashes that resemble melons, orange rounds large enough to become Cinderella’s coach, elongated butternuts, green pebbly varieties with white flesh, and so much more. In the customary fashion of a Ukrainian market, the sellers offer small pieces of pumpkin to prove that theirs is the sweetest, the ripest and the most fragrant.

Sampling pumpkins at the market in Poltava, I realized that many varieties taste of violets. This floral-fruity note makes pumpkin an interesting ingredient in sweet and savory dishes. I like to roast pumpkin cubes tossed with garlic, chili and cumin as well as coated in honey and sprinkled with walnuts. I make minestrone with beans and bacon–or use pumpkin in delicate pureed soups with pears and cardamom. Its flavor is subtle, but it’s surprisingly assertive.

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Ukrainian Apricot Cheesecake (Syrnyk)

If I had to choose a favorite dessert, it would be cheesecake. If I had to choose a favorite fruit, it would be apricot. So, why not put the two together? The creamy cheese filling contrasted with the luscious fruit and crumbly pastry makes for a perfect summer treat.


Syrnyk, from the Ukrainian word for cheese, syr, is a local favorite. There are hundreds of variations, from the sumptuous Lviv-style syrnyk covered with chocolate glaze to the crustless cheesecake usually baked for breakfast. (Yes, Ukraine is the place where cheesecake can be had first thing in the morning.) But when I found a recipe in my great-grandmother’s cookbook for an apricot syrnyk, I was tempted enough to brave the heat wave and fire up the oven. The result was worth it.

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Chocolate Cake with Pistachios and Apricots

The romance that appeals to me has a dark side, such as the poetry of Paul Verlaine, novels by Mary Shelley, gowns by Elsa Schiaparelli and Alexander McQueen, and music by Modest Mussorgsky. In perfume, dark romance is expressed in fragrances like Serge Lutens La Fille de Berlin, Caron Nuit de Noël, Arquiste Nanban, and Guerlain Vol de Nuit. If I extrapolate this idea even further into flavors, then it would be my dark chocolate pound cake with pistachios and apricots. It’s darkly romantic and decadent.

Bitter chocolate is complex enough to be paired with a variety of other flavors, but the combination with pistachios and apricots is one that I love for its harmony. Apricots give a tart floral note, while pistachios hold their own. Their sweetness becomes more pronounced against the dark chocolate foil.

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Jasmine of Angels, Jasmine of Madonna

Of all the names by which philadelphus is known–summer jasmine, farmer’s jasmine, mock orange, the loveliest ones are the Italian monikers of this sweet smelling blossom, Fiorangelo or Gelsomino della Madonna. Angel flower or Madonna’s jasmine.

In Ukraine we call it simply zhasmin, jasmine, and the jasmine of my Bois de Jasmin is this very plant. No summer image existed in my mind apart from its blossoming clusters leaving white petals in my hair and its heady perfume clinging to my skin.

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