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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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.

 

Eggplant Caviar

I can pretend that I am suggesting version because technically meat and fish are already banned by the Russian Orthodox church by the week before the Greant Lent begins, so it is more “kosher” to use a vegetarian alternative to real caviar, but the truth is I’m too cheap. But this is actually a really tasty Russian salsa that I am pleased to have discovered.

The recipe comes from: A Year of Russian Feasts by Catherine Cheremeteff Jones

Eggplant Caviar

1/3 cup olive oil

1 small sweet onion (such as Vidalia) finely chopped

1 large (1.5 lb) purple eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch dice or smaller

1 small garlic clove, minced

One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or dill or combination

Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat until hot. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until light golden, about 5 minutes. Add the eggplant and garlic (do not stir), cover, and cook for 3 minutes to allow the eggplant to release some of its juices so it will not absorb too much oil.

Stir the eggplant and onion until well combined, then reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and salt and continue to simmer, stirring about every 5 minutes, until the eggplant is soft and the sauce is thick, about 15 minutes.

If serving hot, transfer the eggplant caviar to a serving dish, garnish with the cilantro, and serve immediately. The dish can also be served at room temperature. (Cover and refrigerate any leftovers)

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.

Yablochniy Spas – Apple Savior Day – August 19th

Pretty much all agrarian societies have some version of a “First Fruits” celebration, where the products of the first harvest are presented as a religious offering. The Western Christian Church has long since abandon this practice, but the Eastern Orthodox sects have kept the tradition alive with the August 19th celebration of the Great Feast for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, also known as Apple Day in Honor of the Savior (Yablochniy Spas). It is one of three Russian Orthodox holidays celebrated in August, and in my opinion the one with the best food options.

By the time Christianity arrived in Russia, near the end of the 10th Century, there was already a highly detailed calendar of holy days and celebrations set by the Greeks. In the Mediterranean climate, where Christianity has it’s origins, the harvest blessing date was settled on August 19th to coincide with the celebration of the Transfiguration, most likely because that holiday came closest to the harvest time for the two major local crops, grapes and wheat. The Russian climate didn’t support a late August harvest of these crops, so the blessing was broadened to include local fruit, which for Russians is apples in August.

Margaret McKibbon, President of American Friends of Russian Folklore generously shared a great deal of background on this holiday with me, it’s origins and most wonderfully a personal anecdote of a modern celebration:

“I was at a church in Belarus last summer [2011] for Yablochniy Spas… The church was in good repair, with lots of people of all ages attending.  Every family brought a basket  lined with a colorful woven or embroidered towel and filled with apples and other fruit, usually what was growing in their own gardens at home.  The baskets were tucked out of the way until the end of the liturgy, when the parishioners drew back to leave a central aisle clear with baskets on the floor lining it on both sides.  The priest then advanced down the aisle, repeating a blessing as he flicked blessed water with a  whisk over the baskets and the people.  After a closing prayer everybody picked up their baskets and headed for home, the old ladies serenely pedaling their bicycles down the road.

At home, our hostess carefully divided up the blessed fruit into portions for her friends and relatives who had not been at the service.  Much of the rest of the day was spent in paying visits and distributing the blessed fruit, which was always received with reverence  and gratitude.”

The Eastern Orthodox First Fruits tradition is more of a church blessing of the harvest, which is then shared with the community, rather than a tithe or sacrifice as the offering is in many other religions. This idea of sharing of the bounty makes for a great reason to gather your friends and family to celebrate the last, long days of summer. It is considered bad luck in Russia to eat apples before the Spas so this would be the first taste of apples for the year… so feel free to go apple crazy!IMG_1816

Menu

Apple Kvas
Zakusi
Chopped Herring Buterbrodi
Pickled Apples
Fresh Cabbage Salad with Apples and Sour Cream Dressing
Shashlik
Apple Sharlotka

Apple Kvass

Kvass is the national beverage of Russia usually made from fermented rye bread. It has a very small alcohol content due to the fermentation, usually around 1%. Kvass is first mentioned in the Old Rus Chronicles in the year 989 and has been the most common “non-alcoholic” drink in Eastern Europe ever since, consumed by all social classes.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Western soft drink manufacturers Coca-Cola and Pepsi began to encroach on the kvas market. But there has been a recent ‘kvass revival”, spearheaded by the Russian company Nikola (which is pronounced “not-cola” in Russian) billing it as the patriotic alternative to cola. Coca-Cola has even launched it’s own version of kvass, and Pepsi is handling distribution for a Russian kvass maker.

In researching this recipe, I found a lot of mixed feelings among American consumers of kvass. Some say it is poised to be the next big drink in America and is catching on as a popular street vendor ware in New York and other East Coast cities. Other people say it is weird and not at all suited to the American Palate.

The following recipe for Apple Kvas is much simpler than the traditional version, as it requires no cooking, and has a light, refreshing, slightly yeasty taste that is very appealing on a late summer day. I think it is a great introduction to this Russian classic.

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From Natasha’s Kitchen

Ingredients
  • 8 cups apple juice
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • ½ tbsp active dry yeast
  • ½ tsp dark molasses (or 1 tsp instant coffee)
  • 6 cups filtered water
Instructions
  1. Fill a 16 cup glass jar with 8 cups apple juice.
  2. Add sugar, yeast and molasses. Stir until sugar dissolves than add water.
  3. Cover with multiple layers of cheesecloth or a cotton cloth and put a rubber band over the rim of the jar. Let stand on the counter for 18 hours, then refrigerate. Once it’s completely chilled, you can remove the cheese cloth and screw the lid on. If you put the lid on while it’s warm, too much pressure will build up inside the jar.
  4. Serve Kvas once it’s completely chilled.
Notes
Snezhana suggested: 4-8 heaping tablespoons of sugar, (7 tbsp = ½ cup which turned out quite nice!) Instead of using a cloth over the top, you can also poke holes in the lid while it sits on the counter.

Zakuski

Zakuski is the pre-dinner spread that welcomes guests in a Russian home. Zakuski is derived from the word morsel, and it is an assortment of morsels to accompany vodka that you will of course be drinking at any Russian gathering.

The spread can include a great variety of dishes, hot and cold, homemade and store bought, spicy, salty, rustic and gourmet… as long as it is plentiful and complimentary to vodka it is welcome. The tradition probably evolved among the 18th Century aristocracy in the countryside as a way of welcoming guests who had traveled a long way in the cold, and whose arrival times may have been uncertain.

Our spread included Salami, Green and Black Olives, Hard Boiled Eggs, Sardines, Smoked Oysters, Anchovies, Pickles, Cheese & Crackers. Bread and Salt are the symbols of Russian Hospitality, so should be served in plenty.

Other authentic options could be Caviar (of course!), Russian Black bread with herbed butter, anything pickled (apples, beets, mushrooms etc.), smoked salmon, cocktail meatballs, small boiled potatoes with with dill… the list can go on and on.

Zakuski is usually accompanied by the drinking of several vodka toasts, which are usually followed by a bite of a sharp dill pickle. This is much like the lime to chase a tequila shot, the pickle absorbs the burn of the shot with it’s briny goodness. Toasting is an art form in Russia. At some gatherings the host will make a one or two toasts, at others, every guest will take a turn. I attended a Russian dinner with my parents when I was 16 when everyone at the head table took their turn. The memory of watching a roomful of adults throw back 10 shots of vodka over the evening left a lasting impression.

Na Zdorovye!

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