About that Russian-Ukrainian dinner party on Saturday... It went swimmingly! There was a lot of cooking to be done, so I won't post all of the recipes (after all, some of them are family secrets); however, I'll give you a little cultural-gastronomical explanation for each item on the menu, and include some pieces of Zaharchuk family tradition too. Also, I'll have a hand in preparing Christmas dinner in a couple more days, so there will be plenty more posts to come about that.
To provide context for this meal, you must know that I am of Ukrainian origin; however, my great grandparents [on my dad's side], who arrived in America from Ukraine, spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. My desire to connect with these cultural roots compelled my decision to study the Russian language in college. I derive personal significance from both Russian and Ukrainian food, music, mores, et cetera, even though some animosity has existed (and probably still exists to some extent) between the two countries. I really enjoyed cooking and presenting this meal (I made everything myself, except the pierogies and the kielbasa with kapusta; my dad is responsible for those) not only because I clearly love to cook, but also because it constituted a rite of passage for me. In a way, I am now the keeper of the family history. These aren't simply recipes: they capture that which defines me, and the rest of my family, as Zaharchuk.
Borscht - You're probably familiar with this beet soup. Ukrainian borscht always has meat in it, while the Russian version doesn't. I made Russian borscht from Natasha's Kitchen, with a couple adaptations, and I'm smitten by it. I shall be eating the leftovers for the next several days with a lovely dollop of sour cream (we all know how I feel about this condiment). Also, please don't pronounce the t at the end of borscht, which in Russian characters is борщ, and there's certainly no t sound.
Blintz (Ukrainian) - These are a Zaharchuk family classic. I actually wrote my college essay for the common app about making these with my dad, and specifically about the pan we use to cook them. They're little crepes filled with a cheese mixture and baked, served with sour cream and/or strawberries. To give you an idea of what this pan, and this recipe, mean to my family, let me give you an excerpt from that essay:
Salmon Kulebiaka (Russian) - I'd never made this dish before, but we had a pescatarian among us so I was obliged to make something with fish. It's sort of like a beef wellington, with lemon-mushroom rice, salmon, and hard-boiled eggs wrapped in puff pastry and baked. I used Michael Symon's recipe... He's an Iron Chef, so I trusted him, and to great success.
Pierogies/Vareniki/Pelmeni (Ukrainian) - These are another Zaharchuk family tradition, and what's not to like about them? Pasta stuffed with cheese and potatoes, and panfried with caramlized onions and butter. Come on. Then you eat them with sour cream! They're delightful. The reason why I have several names listed is because, well, they have several names. Pelmeni is the Russian name for these dumplings, and they can be filled with a myriad of fillings. Vareniki is what they're called in Ukrainian, but some dialects refer to them as pierogies, which is what my grandparents called them most often. No matter what you call them, they're delicious.
Roasted Root Vegetables - Not too much to say about these, just a variety of root vegetables (turnip, butternut squash, sweet potato, carrot, and parsnip) roasted with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Russian cuisine makes use of a lot of these hearty veggies, since it's relatively easy to grow them and keep them through the harsh winters. Fun fact: the most commonly used cooking oil in Russia is sunflower oil, which I haven't seen in the states.
Kielbasa with Kapusta - Kielbasa is an Eastern European sausage, which I've found either fresh or smoked. For this dinner, my dad cooked the smoked version, but both are scrumptious. Kapusta is braised, pickled cabbage which sometimes becomes a pierogie filling in my family. I didn't used to like this, but it's grown on me over the years, and it's not very difficult to make. It's pretty time-consuming to make, but not compared to the babka!
Babka with Cinipaska (Ukrainian) - Babka is a Ukrainian sweet bread and another Zaharchuk favorite. Apparently, babka is meant to be flavored with saffron (which is one of the most expensive spices by weight in the world, if not the most expensive); however, my dad didn't discover this until last year or so, since my grandmother's recipe didn't have any mention of saffron. Neither she nor her mother could afford such a luxurious spice, so after all these years my dad and I have been trying to figure out the proper amount to add into our recipe. We serve it toasted with cinipaska, which is a sweet cream cheese spread. I personally like it toasted with jam, especially raspberry jam, but the cinipaska is also delicious. My dad came to the realization that it's basically uncooked cheesecake, so he's kind of a huge fan. The recipes for both of these are below.
Rogaliki (Russian) - I'd never heard of these darling cookies until I found them on Natasha's Kitchen while in pursuit of Russian desserts. They taste yeasty like crescent rolls, but with the toothsome texture of a shortbread cookie, and have a little pocket of fruit preserves in the middle. I made mine with cherry preserves.
Morozhenoe (Russian) - This is the transliterated word for ice cream, but this Russian verison is made differently from American ice cream. Essentially, you make a very loose whipped cream, and once the cream starts to thicken, you add in a can of sweetened condensed milk, lemon juice, and lemon zest, then freeze it in a mold. After a stir two hours into the freezing and another eight hours to solidify, I just removed it from the mold and sliced it into rectangles. The texture is slightly more icy than the American version, but it's darn tasty, and it doesn't even require an ice cream machine. I found this recipe in Russian and tested my language skills by following the instructions with using a dictionary as little as possible. I think I was successful.
1/2 cup warm water (90-100° F)
1/2 teaspoon and 3/4 cup sugar, divided
1 1/2 packs (3 3/8 teaspoon=3/8 ounce) active dry yeast
3/4 - 1 cup golden raisins, depending on your taste
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 ounce (a pinch) saffron (optional)
3 large eggs
1 stick butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
Warm some water in a kettle or the microwave until it reaches 90-100° F. If you don't have a thermometer, dunk your finger into the water to test it (it should feel like the temperature of hot tub water). Stir in the sugar and yeast, then let it proof for ~15 minutes. Meanwhile, boil ~3/4 cup water and soak the raisins.
While the raisins are soaking and the yeast is proofing, scald the milk over medium heat (this just means bringing the milk up to a simmer) and be sure to stir frequently to keep a skin from forming and the bottom from burning. If a skin does form, it's not a big deal, just stir it back into the milk. Once it's simmering, add the saffron and let it purfume the milk.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, butter, salt, and vanilla. Once the yeast has proofed and the milk has cooled to 90-100° F, whisk these into the wet ingredients as well. From here I usually use a wooden spoon to add in the flour, one cup at a time. After the first three cups, drain the raisins and stir those in as well. Continue adding the flour until it's completely combined.
On a clean counter or cutting board, generously dusted with flour, knead the dough. You'll end up adding ~1 cup of flour during this kneading process, so keep your flour container handy. Alternately, you could knead this dough in a mixer fitted with a dough hook, but I really enjoy the process of kneading bread. It does take ~15 minutes to knead the dough properly by hand, so get those muscles ready. You'll know it's done when the dough is tacky, but not sticky, it's soft, and when you tear off a small piece and stretch it with your fingers, it doesn't rip (this is called the window-pane test). Place the dough into a well-oiled bowl, turn the ball of dough around in the oil to coat. Cover with a towel and let rise 90-120 minutes in a warm place (I set my oven to 90° F).
After the first rise, the dough will have doubled in size. Punch down the dough (basically just push the air out) and place on a clean, well-floured counter or cutting board. Babka is traditionally made in a tall cylindrical shape. My dad designated a large tin can, which used to contain tomatoes I believe, for this purpose; however, loaf pans are also perfectly fine. This recipe yields two loaf pans and a large cylinder-shaped container. Butter and flour your pans of choice, cut the babka to size, shape, and place into the prepared pans. Let them rise again for 60-90 minutes until they double again
Bake the loaves in a 400° F oven for ~15 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 325° F for another ~30-45 minutes. If the loaves begin to brown too much, tent them with tin foil (but don't seal down the foil, you'll prevent the steam from escaping, and you don't want a soggy loaf). When you tap the top of the loaf with your knuckles, it should sound hollow when it's done. Remove the loaves from the oven, let cool in the pans until you can handle them, then cool completely on a rack. Meanwhile, pull together the cinipaska:
3/4 pound cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup golden raisins
Cream together the cream cheese and butter, then stir in the sour cream and sugar. Once everything is combined, add in the golden raisins. After the babka has cooled, rub the top with softened butter, then slice. I like to toast the babka and spread raspberry jam on it, but it's also great either toasted or not toasted with cinipaska.