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

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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.

Pickled Apples

The short Summer growing season and loooonnnggg winter meant preserving foods was truly a matter of life or death in pre-Industrial Russia. It is a tradition that is still largely upheld today, even among urban Russians. A dacha or country house is a surprisingly common amenity for even middle class Russians. According to “Housing Studies: The Russain Dacha phenomenon” by Raymond J. Struyk and Karen Angelici About one in four big city families have dachas. While the “second homes” first came about as gifts to loyal vassals to Peter the Great, the Soviet Era saw a moderate boom in dacha-living, as many of the properties were nationalized and made into vacation homes for the working class. Spring and Summer are called “Dacha Season” and stores advertise sales for gardening equipment and other outdoor amenities. While they have become leisure retreats for many of the more affluent Russians, the memory of the Soviet Era food shortages coupled with a long standing cultural tradition of growing and preserving their own food means many people still invest in rigorous gardening at their dachas.

So when your dacha apple trees need harvesting or you have just finished plundering your neighbor’s apple tree, you will want to preserve some of the bounty for the barren months ahead.

This recipe is more of the immediate gratification solution. You can bring in the apple harvest from your dacha plot and have pickled apples in the same day!

I found this receipt at Portland Monthly Magazine courtesy of Gregory Goudet of Saucebox

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4 red apples
4 shallots, peeled, sliced thin
2 tbsp spice mix*
2 cups rice wine vinegar
2 cups sugar

(1) Wash and medium-dice apples.
(2) Place shallots in a container and cover with apples.
(3) Add spice mix to vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil.
(4) Pour mixture over apples and shallots.
(5) Cover with plastic wrap to keep everything submerged under liquid.
(6) Let cool at room temperature.

* Spice Mix

INGREDIENTS

8 cinnamon sticks
8 pieces star anise
12 cloves
1 tbsp cardamom
1 tbsp 
fennel seed
1 tbsp allspice

(1) Place all spices in a sauté pan and toast in a 375-degree oven until fragrant (about 10–15 minutes).
(2) Once cool enough to handle, grind in a spice grinder until fine.

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.