Maslenitsa

Today is Forgiveness Sunday, the last day in the week-long Russian celebration known as Maslenitsa before The Great Lent begins. This is the day to forgive those who have wronged you over the year and to ask forgiveness from anyone you have wronged. A fresh start to kick off a 40-day saga of fasting and self reflection. An opportunity to try to hurt fewer people’s feelings, be more generous, less critical, less selfish… whatever your fatal flaw, today is the day to seek redemption and try again.

Russian Orthodox Lent begins on Clean Monday, instead of Ash Wednesday like Roman Catholic Lent. Both religions fast during Lent, but the Orthodox church’s asceticism really shows up the Western church’s endeavors at self-denial. While Roman Catholics abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent, in my experience this is just an excuse to attend beer soaked fish-fries at VFW Halls. On Clean Monday the devout Russian Orthodox do not eat at all, and then only uncooked food on Tuesday and Thursday of the first week of Great Lent. They then follow that up with a strict regimen of restrictions, including no meat at all, throughout the 7 weeks leading up to Orthodox Easter.

Keeping with the great tradition of gluttony before fasting, the week before this intense abnegation is the festival of Maslenitsa, or Butter Week or Pancake Week. Dairy and Eggs are forbidden during the Great Lent. Russians use up any stockpiles of these ingredients by gorging on blini, which are yeasted pancakes made with buckwheat or white flour, butter and milk and served drenched in hot butter, sour cream and any number of additional delicacies. Blini are a sacred food in Russia, and like many Christian traditions, this festival’s origins are pagan. In Slavic Mythology, the round, golden blini symbolize the return of the sun and farewell to Winter.

This Russian version of Mardi Gras or Carnival is a seven day festival that begins on

wikimedia commons, public domain image

wikimedia commons, public domain image

Monday with the construction of a Maslenitsa Doll out of straw and old women’s clothing. This doll is the mascot of the week and paraded around town on a stick, like the Burning Man with fewer hallucinogens. The first blini are also made on Monday and given to the poor. Tuesday is when the festivities and pursuit of romance begin. (The Sunday after Easter is a popular day for getting married, so unattached men and women are supposed to be on the look out for a mate.) In addition to sleigh riding, parades, clowns, drinking and merriment on this day, men are permitted to kiss any passing woman they choose. This might be acceptable behavior at Burning Man, but in sounds pretty creepy in regular society. So be careful ladies! On Wednesday, sons-in-law are invited to their mother-in-law’s home to feast on blini and compliment the mother-in-law on her hospitality. Thursday is when the revelry becomes mandatory, all non-essential work in the town must stop and everyone gets in on the fun. The main attraction on this day is the official Fist Fights. Men drink large quantities of vodka and punch each other to honor Russia’s military history. On Friday, sons-in-law host their mothers-in-law for a blini feast, which more likely means that their wife does all the work, while the men nurse their hangovers, black eyes and bloody noses from Thursday’s revelry. Saturday is the Sisters-In-Law Gathering, where the youngest wife hosts her sisters-in-law to try to gain their favor and show off her hospitality.

This brings us back to today, Forgiveness Sunday. After a week of butter and vodka-infused debauchery, it is quite likely that one might have a good deal that needs forgiving.

Wikimedia Commons, Pubic Domain Image.

Wikimedia Commons, Pubic Domain Image.

At the end of the day the Maslentisa Doll and any leftover pancakes that you are too bloated buttered to eat are thrown into a bonfire and The Great Lent and all it’s austerity begins.

There are not many of us in modern American culture who have jobs that will enforce a mandatory work stoppage to dedicate an entire week to eating blini, sledding and fist fights so I suggest a one-day party that incorporates as many elements together as you like. For instance, you can invite all your in-laws and anyone you need to forgive and/or punch in the face all to the same party on Saturday or Sunday. If you live in a part of the country that still has snow you could host a sledding or ice skating party at a nearby park and invite everyone back to your house afterwards to warm up with fresh blini, hot tea, mulled wine and of course, vodka!

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Apple Sharlotka

The very first thing I read about this holiday was that Russian’s celebrated the apple harvest by having their apples blessed at church, then eating apple cake. So the very first thing I did was Google “Russian Apple Cake”. This is the first recipe that popped up. It is from Smitten Kitchen, which is a blog that I love, and I discovered from her post that she is married to a Russian, and this is her mother-in-law’s recipe. So I was completely satisfied with both the deliciousness potential and authenticity of this recipe. It became the backbone of my menu plan.

As I continued to research this holiday and look for other recipes to fill out the meal, I would   peruse whatever Russian food site I was reading to see if they had an alternate recipe for Apple Sharlotka, to see if there were variations that sounded more interesting, or different methods that I might want to try. (Being a rather dense and imprecise cook, I often like to have more than one perspective on how something is made in order to really understand any instructions.) Every single recipe for Apple Sharlotka, or Russian Apple Cake I found led back to the Smitten Kitchen Recipe. I’m not claiming to have done a full culinary historical background check on this cake, but at least in the modern-internet world, this seems to be the definitive recipe.

So here it is:Apple Sharlotka IMG_9952

Butter or nonstick spray, for greasing pan
6 large, tart apples, such as Granny Smiths
3 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
Ground cinnamon, to finish
Powdered sugar, also to finish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Butter the paper and the sides of the pan. ( I do not have a springform pan. I’m not sure if it made a big difference, but the first time I made this it completely fell apart when I flipped it out of the pan. The second time it stayed together, but the main difference is my sister actually made it the second time…make of that what you will.)

Peel, halve and core your apples, then chop them into medium-sized chunks. Pile the cut apples directly in the prepared pan. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, using an electric mixer or whisk, beat eggs with sugar until thick and ribbons form on the surface of the beaten eggs. Beat in vanilla, then stir in flour with a spoon until just combined. The batter will be very thick.

Pour over apples in pan, using a spoon or spatula to spread the batter so that it covers all exposed apples. (Updated to clarify: Spread the batter and press it down into the apple pile. The top of the batter should end up level with the top of the apples.) Bake in preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a tester comes out free of batter. Cool in pan for 10 minutes on rack, then flip out onto another rack, peel off the parchment paper, and flip it back onto a serving platter. Dust lightly with ground cinnamon.

Serve warm or cooled, dusted with powdered sugar.

While this is a nice dessert, it’s more like a coffee cake in some ways. I think it is best as a morning pastry, or afternoon snack with tea.

Saint Lucia Buns

This recipe is adapted from The Great Scandinavian Cookbook, translated and edited by J. Audrey Elllison. This is an awesomely comprehensive cookbook from 1967 that I got for a friend at a used bookstore. It has all kinds of disgusting looking 1960s photos of weird Scandinavian foods, as well as very preachy and dated paragraphs on the importance of healthy eating. I found this recipe a little confusing as written, as the translation is for the UK, and is 40 years old, and I am a little thick about baking, so I have adapted it from my experience of making this, and hopefully it will make more sense to you too.

1 Tablespoon Saffron

2 packages active dry yeast

2 1/4 cup milk

14 Tablespoons Butter

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 egg

6 1/2 cups flour

1/2 cup blanched almonds, chopped

For Brushing and Decorating

egg

Chopped Almonds

Raisins

Crushed Rock Sugar

Steps:

Crush the saffron with a mortar and pestal.

Heat the milk to about 90-100 degrees.

Mix a few tablespoons of warm milk with active yeast and a tablespoon of sugar. Set aside to activate.

Melt the butter. Add warm milk and saffron to melted butter.

Pour the milk, butter, saffron mixture into the yeast mixture.Stir in the salt, sugar about half the flower and most of the chopped almonds. Add the remaining flour gradually and work the dough until cohesive, smooth and shiny. Sprinkle a little flour on top, and cover with a cloth and set aside in a warm place to allow the dough to rise until doubled in size. (About one hour)

Knead the dough in the bowl for a little while, then turn it out onto a lightly flowered surface and knead it until smooth. (I found the dough to be extremely sticky, so I added more flour until it was handleable)

Divide the dough and roll it the pieces between your hands until you get long strips. Then form them into spirals. (These buns are often called, Lussekatter, or Lucia Cats because they resemble a cat curled up and sleeping.)

Preheat the oven to 480 degrees Farenheit.

Put the shaped dough onto a greased baking sheet and allow them to rise again for about 30 minutes. Brush with egg and sprinkle with crushed rock sugar and chopped almonds. Push a raisin into the center and the outer edge.

Bake the rolls for about 7-8 minutes.Saffron Buns

Breakfast Gingerbread (Smörgaskaka)

This recipe is also from the Great Scandinavian Cookbook.

4 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

7 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

2 teaspoons crushed cardamon

3/4 pint sour cream

1 cup molasses

3 1/2 tablespoons melted butter

Steps:

Preheat the Oven to 345 degrees Farenheit

Mix the four, baking soda, brown sugar and spices.

Beat the sour cream, molasses and butter together and fold them into the flour mixture. Pour the batter into a wll-greased bread pan.

Bake for a long time. This recipe says about one hour. I say more like 90 minutes. But that probably depends on your oven.

Serve with butter and marmalade.

Saint Lucia Eyeballs

This is not part of the traditional Swedish menu, but I thought when you are honoring a person who is famous for plucking out her own eyeballs, it is a shame to not commemorate that in any way you can. Plus, it’s good to start your day with a little protein, and not just pastries and coffee. So we have come up with a tasty little breakfast eyeball recipe.

Plain Yogurt

Honey

Grapes

Blueberries.

Steps:

Line a mini-muffin tin with red muffin cups.

Mix plain yogurt with honey. Fill the muffin cups with yogurt/honey mixture.

Cut grapes and blueberries in half. Place half a grape and half a blueberry on top of the yogurt.

Freeze the whole thing.

Voila! Eyeballs ready to be served on a platter.