It’s probably not the best time to admit this because of the Russia hate fest happening on capital hill, but, I can’t help it–I have a soft spot for Russia. The food, the music, the history, and even the politics are absolutely fascinating to me. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved and am proud of my American upbringing, but I also have a great appreciation for the world’s largest country.
Perhaps it’s because Russia was the elephant in the room of every one of my history classes growing up. In high school and university I remember my middle-aged, Cold War era teachers and professors blatantly ignoring the lands between Finland and the Bering Sea. Russia received only an honorable mention in the final weeks of each class when the World War II Allies were briefly discussed and then the events following 1945 ceased to exist.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t know my precise ethnic heritage and I could be “from” just about anywhere. My family isn’t particularly close-knit. Our family records extend back only as far as those family members which are currently alive, and even those records are questionable at best. As a military child, I’m from every part of the states, and maybe that makes it easier to believe that I’m from every part of the rest of the world too.
Perhaps it’s because there’s something fascinating about a black sheep, or a white cow (белая ворона), most especially when you’re talking about some supreme outcast on a global scale. When the western world and its media demonize the largest nation in the world, who isn’t a little curious? When a war can be fought and supposedly won without weapons or casualties, who doesn’t want to know a little bit more about what’s going on?
Regardless of why I’m generally interested in Russia, among other foreign nations, I’ve recently taken a particular interest in Russian and other Slavic foods.
The diversity of food is intriguing in and of itself. A vast collection of ingredients and procedures can result in infinite creations that can then feed innumerable people. Food identifies culture and yet it can cross cultural lines. Food speaks when people cannot find the words. Food bonds when other aspects of life would make bonding impossible. In celebration of food diversity and culture, here are a few of my favorite edible creations from eastern Europe.
Enjoy and have fun cooking!
The first thought that many people will have when they see pictures of blini is “those are crêpes,” but, my darling bakers, they are most certainly different from crêpes. While both blini and crêpes might be called thin pancakes, blini are more sponge-like with small air bubbles throughout while crêpes are more bread-like with a fine and solid texture. Personally, after this experience, I wholly prefer blini.
The greatest commonalities between blini and crêpes are that both are generally served with a filling or spread, and both can be made in sweet or savory varieties. I tackled a (supposedly) more traditional, sweet variety because my family truly loves sugar, but plenty of savory recipes are available online for blini and blini fillings.
Perhaps it’s just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t like picking one recipe and calling it done. Thus, I ended up reading and combining the recipes from Elina of Russian Bites, Viktoria of Fun Russian: Learn Russian the Fun Way, and Florian Pinel of Food Perestroika: Adventures in Eastern Bloc Cuisine, in order to produce these blini.
2 cups milk
1 tbsp + 1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups flour (twice sifted)
2 tbsp coconut oil + more to rub pan
1. Beat eggs lightly in mixing bowl.
2. Stir milk, sugar, and salt into beaten eggs.
3. Slowly whisk sifted flour into the mixture.
4. Whisk coconut oil into the mixture and let rest for a minimum of 15 minutes.
5. Lightly oil a non-stick skillet and bring to medium high heat.
6. Reduce skillet to medium heat.
7. Lift skillet from heating element and pour between 1/4 and 1/3 cup of batter into the skillet at 12 o’clock. Slowly tilt the skillet in a circular motion, spreading the batter thinly.
8. Replace skillet onto the heating element.
9. Watch for browning at the edges of the blin (approximately 2 minutes after replacing the skillet on the heating element). When browning is noted, gently pry up the edge with a spatula. If the other side is golden brown, flip the blin.
10. Checking with a spatula for browning, cook the blin until the other side is golden brown as well. Slide cooked blin onto plate.
11. Lightly re-oil the skillet and repeat steps 7 through 11.
Pirozhki are essentially hand pies that are filled with potatoes, various meats, onions, mushrooms, cabbage, stewed fruits, jam, quark, oatmeal, cottage cheese, or other such substances. They’re the type of food that you could pick up at a local market or cafe and eat on the go, or cook one night and eat for days to come (trust me, this recipe makes more than enough for leftovers).
I will forewarn that these take some time to make and put together–just short of 2 hours–if you’re not a master of preparing three items at once. Since I prepared two different fillings to add a little bit of variety to the meal, the three components for this recipe were dough, beef filling, and potato filling.
These pirozhki were made by combining recipes from Ann of Sumptuous Spoonfuls, JoAnn Cianciulli of Leite’s Culinaria, and Natasha of Natasha’s Kitchen. I tried not to stray too far from their recipes because I wanted to keep this traditional food traditional, but I did add my own flare with chili powder and such, so I would encourage my readers to do the same. Have fun with it and don’t stress about the details!
3 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat white flour
3 eggs (beaten)
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
3 tsp Red Star Quick-Rise (or other brand) yeast
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp honey
2 tbsp coconut oil
1.2 lb ground beef (lean; 90/10 or 93/7)
1/2 onion (large; peeled and chopped)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1 tsp dill weed
1 tsp chili powder
3 to 4 potatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion (large; peeled and chopped)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp dill
2 tsp salt
2 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper
3 tbsp water
2 tbsp butter
8 oz sour cream
(Brown gravy is also recommended; however, recipes vary so much that I’ll leave the directions for that up to my readers.)
1. Place dough ingredients into bread machine–wet ingredients first, dry ingredients second, and yeast third–and set machine to run on the dough setting.
2. Hard boil the eggs for the beef filling:
- A. Place two eggs in a pot and cover completely with purified water.
- B. Place pot on heating element and set heat to medium high to bring to a boil.
- C. When water begins to boil, remove pot from heat, cover with lid, and set timer for 10 minutes.
- D. After 10 minutes, drain water and set eggs aside to cool.
3. Boil potatoes for the potato filling:
- A. Place 3 to 4 potatoes in a large pot and cover completely with purified water.
- B. Cover with lid and place pot on heating element, then set heat to medium high to bring to a boil.
- C. When water begins to boil, reduce heat to low or low medium, and set timer for 10 minutes.
- D. Check potatoes with a fork at 10 minute increments, piercing with fork to test firmness.
- E. When fork pierces potato easily, remove from heat, drain, and set aside to cool.
4. Beef filling:
- A. Heat skillet or sauce pan over medium to medium high heat.
- B. Cook ground beef and onions until meat is grey to brown and onions are translucent.
- C. Add garlic, salt, pepper, dill weed, and chili powder to meat. Heat for 1 minute then remove from heat.
- D. Drain any excess liquid or grease from meat mixture and set aside momentarily.
- E. Remove shell from hardboiled eggs and chop egg small pieces.
- F. Stir egg into meat mixture. Set aside to cool.
5. Potato filling:
- A. Peel and mash boiled potatoes in a mixing bowl with a potato masher or hand mixer. Set aside to cool.
- B. Heat olive oil in sauce pan over medium heat.
- C. Cook onions slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
- D. When onions have become light brown, add a splash of water, stir, and continue cooking.
- E. When onions have become medium brown, add garlic powder and dill, heat for 1 minute then remove from heat.
- F. Stir caramelized onions, salt, pepper, red pepper, water, and butter into potatoes, combining thoroughly. Set aside to cool.
6. Filling the dough:
- A. Remove dough from bread maker at the end of the dough cycle.
- B. Separate dough into portions that are approximately the size of golf or cue balls.
- C. Use a rolling-pin to flatten each ball into circles with approximately a 4 to 5 inch diameter.
- D. Spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of either beef or potato filling onto each circle of dough. The fillings can also be combined in a single pirozhok (1 tablespoon of each) for an even more filling hand pie.
- E. Fill a shallow bowl with water. Dip fingertips in water, trace wet fingers along the edge of the dough, and pinch dough together, making a half-moon shape that encloses the filling.
- F. Dampen the outside edges of the half-moon shape and place filled dough on cookie sheets covered with parchment paper.
- G. When all of the dough circles have been filled, take a fork and press the edge of the dough to ensure filling does not leak.
- H. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
7. Bake at 350F for 15 to 30 minutes or until the pirozhki are puffy and golden brown. Cool and serve with sour cream or brown gravy.
Napoleon Cake (наполеон торт)
If you’ve taken a single course in European history then you know without a doubt that the most famous Napoleon was not Russian, and that fact has probably led you to wonder why this recipe is even included in this post. The truth is that this dessert is of French origin and is formally known as Mille-feuille and colloquially as Napoleon. The name Napoleon was actually derived from the French adjective for the Italian city Naples and only simple word associated led it to be connected with political figures by the name of Napoleon.
Records and mentions of Napoleon Cake in Russia have been found dating back to the early 19th century; however, the dessert seems to have become truly popular in the celebrations that followed Russia’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte and his army in the Patriotic War of 1812. The Russian variation of the dessert, which involves a greater number of layers of pastry and frosting made from sweetened condensed milk instead of custard, became standard in the USSR and remains favored in Russia and other post-Soviet nations.
I combined recipes from Natasha of Natasha’s Kitchen, Lyuba of Will Cook for Smiles, and Katrina of Around the World in 80 Markets, and More, to produce this particular Napoleon Cake. Perhaps the most obvious change I made from these recipes was to use more frosting and include frosting on the topmost layer. This meant abandoning the traditional crumbled pastry topping, but it did not affect taste or appeal. This was purely a preferential change. As such, feel free to go old-school and do the crumble or follow my example and add the extra frosting.
1.1 lbs Pepperidge Farm (or other) ready-to-bake puff pastry sheets (2 sheets per package)
3/4 cup stick butter (nearly room temperature)
11 oz Eagle Brand (or other) sweetened condensed milk
3 tsp vanilla extract
1 splash heavy cream
1 tsp sugar
1. Defrost ready-to-bake puff pastry according to packaging.
2. Cut each puff pastry sheet into fourths, creating eight separate pieces.
3. Using rolling-pin, roll each piece until it is almost double in size and thin.
4. Cover large cookie sheets with parchment paper and place rolled pieces onto the paper.
5. Use a fork to poke at least five sets of holes into each piece.
6. Bake at 400F for 8 to 12 minutes, watching carefully for excessive browning. Baking times may vary based on specific oven used.
7. Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely.
8. While pastry cools, begin work on the frosting: cream butter in a mixing bowl with a hand mixer.
9. Mix condensed milk, vanilla, heavy cream, and sugar into the creamed butter.
10. When the pastry is cooled, spread frosting on 6 of the pastries. Reserve two portions of frosting in bowl (approximately 4 tbsp).
11. Assemble the pastry cake by stacking the frosted pastries on top of one another in a lidded container.
12. Place an unfrosted pastry on top of the last frosted pastry.
13. Place a paper towel on top of the stack. Slowly, evenly, and gently press down the stack.
14. Dispose of the paper towel and frost the top of the stack.
15. Crumble the final pastry over top of the frosted stack.
16. (Optional) Place the last of the frosting in a pastry bag and squeeze over top of the crumbled pastry.
17. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 4 hours.
BONUS: Banana Bread
By all accounts, banana bread is not a traditional Russian recipe or even a Slavic recipe. However, I recently discovered what my family considers the perfect banana bread by combining recipes from Vadim of Natasha’s Kitchen and Sylwia of Sweet Home Polska. Vadim and Sylwia happen to be Russian and Polish, respectively, so for love of the resulting banana bread I’ve chosen to include my recipe in this Russia-centric post.
4 ripe bananas
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 + 1/2 cups King Arthur bread flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp orange extract
1 cup chopped walnuts
coconut oil (for oiling pan)
1. Mash bananas with potato masher on large plate or in mixing bowl. Set aside.
2. Cream butter and sugar with hand mixer in a large mixing bowl.
3. Add eggs to mixture and mix with hand mixer.
4. Slowly add mashed bananas to mixture and combine well, eliminating any large lumps.
5. Slowly add flour into mixture and combine well.
6. Mix in baking soda, salt, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and orange extract.
7. Use flexible frosting spatula to stir in chopped walnuts.
8. Pour batter into oiled loaf pan, scraping sides of bowl with spatula.
9. Bake at 350F for 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the top center of the loaf comes out clean.
10. Remove from pan immediately and turn over onto cooling rack.
I hope that you find these recipes useful and enjoy your foreign food experience. I would love to see what you create or hear how these recipes may have inspired you. If you decide to give these foods a chance, and you have a free moment, please send me a picture or message through twitter (@mylifeinverse), instagram (mylifeinverse), or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Best of luck baking!