Operation Русская Кухня (Russian Kitchen)

Back home in New Jersey I receive monthly issues of Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines. It takes just one issue to make me want to change my whole life, at least culinarily speaking. I miss these monthly gifts (who doesn’t LOVE getting snail mail in this heavily technology based world?!) so I went out and bought the March issue of a Russian food magazine called Hleb i Sol (Bread and Salt). The recipes aren’t limited to traditional Russian dishes. On the contrary, many in this issue aren’t, but they did actually have a few articles and recipes specifically for the Great Lent, which to me is absolutely fascinating.

Although Russia has not completely rid itself of the leftovers of communism and the Soviet attitude/lifestyle, I can’t even express how awesome it feels to be surrounded by our own religion. At home, what happens at church and what happens in society (for example at a restaurant or a store) was always so separate. Here, it all comes together. Restaurants advertise their convenient lenten menus and grocery stores mark their suggestions for fasting (some products even have lenten stamps of approval on them). Almost every time I am at the store at least one customer is confirming whether a loaf of bread or a pie is in fact lenten. The only disadvantage to this is of course missing out on post-holiday sales in time for our celebrations. At home we always stock up on wrapping paper or ornaments after December 25th in time for our Christmas festivities on January 7th. Same usually goes for Easter candy. Here I guess we don’t have that luxury, but really the trade-off is so much better.

Lenten options at the grocery store. The yellow sign says "Products Recommended for Lent" and the boxes say "For Lent"

I plan to show a lenten recipe from Hleb i Sol in another blog post, but what I wanted to share this time was mors (basically fruit juice, but so much better). In this magazine they had a couple recipes for mors “like your babushka used to make”. We had been buying mors practically every week, so I decided it might be fun to try making it myself and feel like a traditional Russian cook from back in the day. I find that although many people buy pre-made items now, there is a pride in homemade Russian staples like pickled cucumbers and jam (especially if you also grow the ingredients or pick them on a trip to your ‘dacha’).

The recipe I followed calls for pressing out the juices of a mixture of forest berries and adding boiled water to the juice. Then you add a few cloves and some honey and let it sit for several hours until serving either cold or warm (remember to remove the cloves first!!).

I used brusnika, which translates to cowberry, which I have never heard of in English. It looks almost like a cranberry and is the red berry pictured above. I also used black currants (both bought frozen and defrosted).  I don’t have a strainer so it was difficult to press juices out of the berries and my meat mallet was just not doing the trick. I decided to boil the berries in water for a bit and then squish them as much as possible, add the clove and honey and strain it with the pot lid after.

I’m not sure this was the best idea. I think the skins of the berries made the mors much more bitter. I added some sugar to help, but I think now it’s only really enjoyable if you add hot water when drinking a cup. For now, the jug of it is just sitting in the fridge, neglected. When I return home to Jersey, amidst my kitchen gadgets that I remember fondly, I will try again and hopefully continue to make my own mors for years to come.  But this wasn’t a total disaster and I am happy that I tried it out. Something in which to progress.

My next traditional Russian kitchen attempt was zhavoronki. Little rolls shaped into birds that signify the coming of spring. Traditionally they are made on/around March 22nd (the holiday of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste), but I made them a little earlier this year to share with the volunteers. I used a friend’s recipe (that I believe she got from her cousin). Hopefully they won’t mind me sharing it here 🙂

Basically you dissolve one package of yeast in a cup of warm (NOT hot) water, then add 1/2 cup of oil and 1/2 cup sugar. Gradually add 2 cups of flour to make the dough. Add more flour as necessary (you don’t want the dough to be sticky, but you should be able to work with it). After kneading the dough for a bit, let it rise for about an hour. I had mine covered with a dishcloth and near a heater. I was very excited to see that the dough had risen! (I did double the recipe and it was fine)

Knead the dough again and then work pieces of the dough into a ‘log’. Tie in a simple knot – on the end that becomes the tail use a knife to cut the tip into three ‘feathers’ and on the end that becomes the head stick in cloves for eyes. You can also use raisins for eyes which you then do not have to remove before eating. Despite this convenient alternative, I am loyal to team-clove as that is how they were done in my family. So decide carefully because there is no going back. You are cloves or you are raisins. Not both. My husband comes from team-raisin and it causes awkward tension every spring.

Place the zhavoronki on a baking sheet. Poke holes with a fork or toothpick to let air escape as they bake. Also you can steep some tea in a little water (make it strong) and brush that on the dough to add a bit of color (instead of an egg wash). Oh, I’d like to add that I found the right flour – it was the one I assumed would be whole wheat flour after all.

Bake until golden brown. You can test doneness by carefully picking one up and tapping the bottom – if it sounds hollow it is done! Once they are out of the oven, brush some honey on them. This is such a clever touch (that I stole from my friend, Ksenia, who gave me the recipe).

I have made much prettier zhavoronki, but they came out tasting nice. And the apartment smelled delicious! If I made scented candles I would start a Russian line and one would be Zhavoronki…along with a million others (Kulich, Sirnaya Pascha, Old Books, Church Insence. Note to self – look into this idea!). I was so excited to bring them to the volunteers as most of the treats I bring them are based on American recipes, until all of a sudden panic set it. These zhavoronki do not look like dainty little birds. And I have seen pictures online of Russian creations made from bread. They are impeccable. Was I about to make a complete idiot of myself by proudly bringing in these…I don’t even know what to call them…they looked like birds flattened on the side of the road! I was hoping the taste would compensate.

…I think it did. The volunteers were happy. And although one of them said my zhavoronki looked like ‘kambala’ – Russian for those flat fish that camouflage in the sand at the bottom of the ocean (in Russia nobody worries about hurting your feelings) – everyone seemed genuinely happy to eat them and pleased that I brought them in. I think Operation Russian Kitchen was a success…

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5 Responses to “Operation Русская Кухня (Russian Kitchen)”

  1. I am glad I am not the only one who’s birds look like whales. But you are right, the taste makes up for it,
    after all beauty is only skin deep. I think your volunteers probably really enjoyed them, I find these such a comfort during lent and especially in this ridiculous snowy weather!

  2. Lol! Team raisin and team clove!
    Some folks also use dried currants. I am totally gonna try the brushing with honey this year! Great post, Olya!

  3. My dough NEVER rises………..am baking zhavoronki today…….anxious to see if MY dough rises!

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