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!

Buckwheat Blini

Buckwheat Blini are considered the more traditional, but less common version of this dish. They are generally served smaller and flat, not rolled. They are more of a canapé for the toppings. I prefer to go savory on the toppings for the Buckwheat version, like smoked salmon, scallions, chopped hard boiled eggs or eggplant caviar on sour cream.

This recipe is from Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman Buckwheat BliniIMG_1195 IMG_1172 IMG_1174

1 3/4 cups milk

2 tsps sugar

1 pkg. active dry yeast

3/4 cup buckwheat flour

3/4 unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted

2 Tbsp oil, plus additional for frying

3 large egg yolks

2 large egg whites

1 small potato, halved.

In a small saucepan, scald the milk over low heat. Transfer to a large bowl and cool to lukewarm (105º to 115º)

Add 1 teaspoon of the sugar and the yeast to the milk, stir, and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.

Whisk in the buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt, sugar, butter and 2 tablespoons oil, and the egg yolks until smooth.

Let rise in a warm place, covered, until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they foam stiff peaks and fold into the batter.

Dip the potato half into oil and rub over the bottom of a large non-stick skillet. Heat the pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Drop the batter by the tablespoonful into the skillet, spacing 1 inch apart. Cook until the undersides are golden, about 1 minute. Turn and cook for 30 more seconds. Transfer to a heatproof plate.

Repeat with the remaining batter, greasing the skillet with the oiled potato before each batch. Keep the cooked blini covered with aluminum foil in a 275º oven.

 

Blini

The white flour blini is the more popular version these days, and preferable for sweet combinations, like butter and jam, nutella, berries or whatever your heart desires.

This recipe is from: A Year of Russian Feasts by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones.

1 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup water

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and still warm

1 large egg

1 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon canola oil, for cooking the pancakes

Place the yeast in a medium-sized bowl.

Combine 1/2 cup of the milk and the water and heat to about 100 degrees F.

Add the milk mixture, sugar and salt to the yeast and gently whack until yeast has completely dissolved.

Add the butter, egg and flour. Whisk until smooth.

Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let the batter rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

Stir down the batter, re-cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes.

Heat the remaining 1/2 cup milk to lukewarm and stir it into the batter.

To cook the blini, heat the canola oil in a large well-season or non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until hot.

Add about 1/3 cup of the batter and immediately swell the batter to form a thin pancake. Cook the pancake until the surface is firm and the underside is golden brown, about 45 seconds. Turn and continue to cook until the bottom is golden, about 30 seconds. Serve the blin immediately. Or if you are serving them after all the blini are cooked, stack them, cover loosely with foil and place them in a very low oven until ready to serve.

Serve with small bowls of various fillings for people to help themselves at the table.

Chopped Herring Buterbrodi

Russian cuisine is largely known for stealing from the French tradition and “Russifying” those recipes, but there is even more cross-over with their Nordic neigbors, just like our Scandinavian friends, the Russian’s love herring and open faced sandwiches.

Bread and Salt are the symbols of Russian hospitality and friendship. It is traditional to greet special guests with a loaf of fresh bread with a container of salt on top of it. The guest breaks off a small piece of bread, dips it in the salt and eats it. This combination of salty fish on bread is a tasty way to great your guests and make them feel welcome.

from Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John C Welchman

2 salt (schmaltz) herring fillets
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 slices white bread, crusts removed
1 small green apple, peeled, cored and quartered
1 small onion, quartered
1 hard cooked egg, quartered
1 tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sugar, or more to taste

IMG_1970

-Soak the herring in milk, covered in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours
-Pour the water and vinegar over the bread and let it stand for 10 minutes. Squeeze the bread to remove the excess liquid.
-Rinse the herring, pat dry with paper towels, and cut into 1-inch pieces. Place the herring, bread, apple, onion, and egg in a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth but not over pureed.
-Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the sour cream, lemon juice and sugar, if desired. Cover and refrigerate for several hours.

Serve on cocktail squares of buttered rye bread, topped with a slice of apple to balance the salty flavor of the fish.

 
 

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.

Mushy Peas

Peas were grown in the kitchen gardens of the Pilgrims. This recipe, from allrecipes is a very British dish. They probably did not have any dairy animals at this time, so the butter and cream are not authentic, but there are just some sacrifices we do not need to make.

Servings: 4

1 (10 ounce) package frozen green peas
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a shallow pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add frozen peas, and cook for 3 minutes, or until tender.
Drain peas, and transfer to a blender or large food processor. Add cream, butter, salt and pepper to peas, and process until blended, but still thick with small pieces of peas. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve immediately.

Striped Sandwiches (Randiga Sandwiches)

If like me, you have studied the behavior of Swedish people by reading all three of the Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson,  you can’t help but be struck with the outrageous amount of sandwich eating that seems to go on in that country. Lisbeth Salander (The girl with the dragon tattoo) is described as being incredibly skinny, yet here she is eating “three big open rye-bread sandwiches.” Everyone is always waking up in the middle of the night and making a couple of sandwiches and some coffee to think over a problem. This is unequivocal prooof that sandwiches are the bread and butter of Scandinavian cuisine. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist)

It is important to note that these are not gigantic Dagwood-type hoagies. A sandwich in Nordic culture is most often a small snack, usually one piece of bread with butter and another topping like pickled herring or cheese and cucumbers. We might call this a canapé if we were being fancy. A typical Swedish party would have a smörgåsbord consisting of many different types of open sandwiches.

For the purpose of a picnic, a bunch of open sandwiches would be difficult to manage and messy, so a fun alternative is the Striped Sandwich, which behaves like a closed sandwich with a top and bottom until it is sliced, then you have a beautiful, thin, open sandwich.

Recipe
4 thin slices of white bread (cut the long way across the loaf)
3 thin slices whole wheat or whatever dark bread you prefer (cut the long way across the loaf)
It’s important to get really wonderful bread for this sandwich. See if there is a good Scandinavian Bakery in your area. It’s worth the special trip.

Fillings:
Parsley Butter (Persiljesmör)
4 oz butter
3-4 Tablespoons chopped parsley
white pepper
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Mix the butter with the parsley. Cream until smooth. Flavor with a little white pepper and lemon juice

Meat Butter (Köttsmör) How can you not love the term “meat butter”?
4 oz butter
3-4 oz salted or smoked meat (I used smoked ham) chopped finely
1-2 Tablespoons grated horse-radish
cream (optional)
Mix the butter with the meat. Cream until smooth. Add horse-radish and cream if desired.

Cheese Cream (Ostkräm)
2 oz blue cheese (or grated cheese of your choice)
2 oz soft cream cheese
3 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream
10 radishes, finely chopped
celery salt

Mash the blue cheese very thoroughly or sieve it with the cream cheese. Beat the mixture until smooth. Whip the cream and fold it into the cheese. Flavor with radishes and celery salt.

Alternate: Flavor with tomato purée, French mustard and a little lemon juice instead of radishes.

Spread the fillings evenly (and thickly) on the bread and pile the slices on top of each other, alternating the light and dark slices. Do not spread any filling on the outside of the top slices.

Press the sandwiches together and wrap in aluminum foil. Place the sandwich in a light press, such as between two cutting boards and set aside in a cold place, like the refrigerator, for at least two hours.

Trim the edges of the sandwiches and cut it into 20-25 thin slices. Each slice may be cut into two triangular shapes. I think it is best to bring a bread knife (packed safely) and slice your sandwiches on site.