Lost in Time: reviewing Russia in Recipes and Lore by Darra Goldstein14 min read
Despite spending a lot of time in Russia, I don’t like Russian food. For me, it has always been about buckwheat, mayonnaise covered “salads”, and rye bread. While in Russia, I preferred eating pizza and sushi like every other millennial with highly-commodified taste buds. I got excited when Moscow opened its first Vietnamese phở restaurant, when Korean kuksu finally came to Samara, and when I found an Indian tandoori grill in a mall in Vladivostok.
After seeing a few too many pastries microwaved in plastic bags and fearing death from an overdose of dill, I don’t have too many positive stories with Russian food. Sure, I understood the controversy when I was sitting through yet another Borscht-is-actually-Ukrainian argument or listening to an ode to how good dacha strawberries are compared to the supermarket, but personally, I never found the charm.
After reading Russia in Recipes and Lore: Beyond the North Wind by Darra Goldstein, I might have to change my mind. Goldstein’s book is part travelogue and part cookbook, with one hundred recipes inspired by her intimate experiences in Russian apartment kitchens. Most of her narratives come from her time in Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, both in Russia’s Far North region near the Arctic circle. Goldstein’s got a way with words, weaving them together into poignant narratives of grey landscapes and compact kitchens warmed by stove coals, laden with authentic conversations and unforgettable relationships that make this a compelling read. It is so much more than a cookbook and paints a stunning picture of a subtle taste palette in a remote locale. I was hooked by the first paragraph.
In devising and testing out all the recipes in the book, Goldstein writes that she aims to “unearth the most deeply Russian flavors, not only by uncovering ancient practices but also by riffing on traditional recipes and ingredients to emphasize elemental tastes and make them modern. I sought to discover the benefits of austerity rather than its limitations – how a harsh climate, poor soil, and limited availability of foods can foster an astonishingly complex cuisine characterized by exhilarating flavors and innovative techniques… I want instead to showcase the Russian foods that are organic and honest, many of them old foods that feel new again in their elegant minimalism.”
Elegant minimalism is exactly what her recipes exude. I don’t know how Goldstein does it but her prose matches the rustic beauty of the photographs on every page. This book is 307 pages of some extremely simple recipes, travelogues, and powerful vignettes that really cement just how enamored she is by the mundanity of Russian village life. To her, Russia is best observed through the food on somebody’s rickety old kitchen table in their warm apartment at the height of winter or in their dacha in the sweet summertime. Food is more than just sustenance, it’s an atmosphere, a specific time in space you take in with every bite. Ingredients tell a story of resilience and human resourcefulness, something worth examining and celebrating. Perhaps that is what I was missing in my experience with Russian gastronomy.
A pancake obsession
Goldstein’s obsession with Russian-specific ingredients begins with blini. Blini is one of Russia’s most ancient dishes, “dating back to pre-Christian times, when they were baked on hot stones at the spring equinox. Shaped into routes into the image of the sun, they beckoned the return of solar warmth after the long, dark winter.” Goldstein’s cookbook has a recipe for classic blini, which she boasts buckwheat flour ground from whole groats for the most Russian taste. She also has a recipe for pink blini, reddened by beet juice, apparently one of poet Alexander Pushkin’s favorite dishes. Goldstein recommends gooseberry-apple compote to accompany the pink blini, a perfect snack for friends. Recipes for syrniki (farmer’s cheese pancakes) and olad’i (pumpkin pancakes) are in tow. Her recipes are filled with sound advice from experience, such as making sure syrniki batter is slightly sticky to ensure the pancakes turn out moist, or that tender – rather than firm – pancakes taste the best.
Simple and uniquely Northwest European
Goldstein returns to the roots with the recipes in Russia in Recipes and Lore. In her book, you won’t find a recipe for Herring under a Fur Coat (invented during Soviet times) nor foods from Soviet Republics that were absorbed to Russian repertoire such as Georgian chicken tabaka or Uzbek plov. You also won’t find French-inspired haute cuisine that have beguiled so many outsiders as “Russian”. Perhaps Goldstein should distinguish that her recipes cater to a strictly Far Northern Russian flavor as not to underplay the multiculturality of contemporary Russian cuisine nor influence of Siberian cooking.
The book is divided into nine sections focusing on different aspects of home cooking: drinks, preservatives, and sauces; ferments; pies, pancakes, and dumplings; soups; salads and vegetables; grains; fish; meat; and sweets. Everything can be made at home and are meant to be made with ingredients local to the region they first originated. For example, cultured butter is preferred over salted butter in practically every recipe. Sunflower oil dominates the fats category. Sea Buckthorn berries are required in both the tea and tonic recipes. Some recipes call for foraged ingredients such as dandelions, cherry leaves, and black currant leaves, though Goldstein shares in the introduction that they are not crucial to the recipes’ success, used only to enhance flavor and texture.
Trying it out
I may be strange enough to read an entire cookbook for leisure, but some of Goldstein’s recipes offer really specific advice I was eager to test out. One recipe I was interested in was kvass. I have never had homemade kvass, just store bought commercial brands, but the idea of letting stale bread sit in lukewarm water sounds too hardcore for me. I never even made it with my refillable bottle to a kvass trailer, found on practically every block in a large Russian city, while living there. Beet kvass is another foreign idea I was interested in pursuing. It requires four pounds of beets, chopping them into 2-inch cubes, and leaving them undisturbed for several days in a pot filled with water. Goldstein writes that the fermentation process is active at this time and advises readers to regularly skim off any mold, as they are harmless. While I trust Goldstein’s judgment I don’t necessarily have the same faith in my own skills of discernment, especially with hospitals at maximum capacity in the height of a pandemic… I’m not ready to jump into fermentation just yet.
First try: smetannik
The first recipe from Goldstein’s book that I made was smetannik, also known as sour cream and honey cake. The photograph of smetannik on page 261 enticed me right away, with its billowy white icing oozing out between the stylistically uneven brown cake slabs. Reading over the ingredients, and finding out that I don’t need fresh sprigs of tarragon nor a gallon of raw milk was encouraging. I could do this with some substitutions!
The first step was to add baking soda to heated butter and honey over low heat. I used Irish butter and local unfiltered honey. The mixture immediately bubbled and foamed – and smelled delicious. I have never used this method in cooking before. What other pastries can I greedily make with this butter plus honey plus baking soda combo? I feel like I could drink this molasses foam just straight out of the pot…
This recipe for smetannik was definitely a winner / Katherine Leung
The next steps required beating sour cream with confectioners’ sugar for five minutes until “stiff peaks form.” Since I am lactose intolerant, I used vegan sour cream instead of high-fat sour cream as Goldstein recommends. As a result, my sour cream layers were not as fluffy and did not have enough body to stand up as individual layers in the cake. But I was still impressed how it all came together. I didn’t have confectioners’ sugar so I made a combo of regular and brown sugar to substitute. Regardless, a ⅔ cup amount of any type of sugar is enough to drastically sweeten sour cream.
Instead of regular flour, I used whole wheat flour. I should have accounted for the fact that whole wheat flour is much drier than regular flour and perhaps reduced the recipe to 1 ½ cups flour instead of 1 ¾ cups flour. My cake slabs came out more like cookies than moist cakes as a result, but it meant my cake had no problem holding together. It was just difficult to slice at first.
The result was not as photogenic as Goldstein’s creations but as the author of zero cookbooks, I think I did pretty well. I threw on some vegan chocolate chips for good measure. The final cake was subtly sumptuous. The cake parts had a deep, rich bite and the sour cream tied it all together. It was extremely sweet for me as I personally saw just how much sugar went into it all, but everyone I served it to commented on how understated the sweetness was. Just as Goldstein promised, the longer the cake sat in the fridge, the more moist the texture became. By the second day, it was the ideal cake texture.
Second recipe: Griby s kartoshkoi v gorshochkye
Another simple enough recipe I wanted to try was Griby s kartoshkoi v gorshochkye, basically potatoes and mushrooms baked in a pot. This ended up being one of my favorites from the cookbook and a recipe I will certainly recreate again for guests. Goldstein recommends a garshok, a traditional Russian bulbous pot, but I used a dutch oven.
There was a layer of potatoes sliced thinly, followed by a layer of mushrooms, then onions, followed by butter to top it all off. She recommended a low-starch potato like Red Bliss, but I used Yellow – so I added additional baking time. The final product – which required over seventy five minutes in the oven – was fantastic.
Griby s kartoshkoi v gorshochkye / Katherine Leung
Goldstein recommended porcini mushrooms but I used foraged cordyceps and morels instead. She also recommended a layer of heavy cream in between each layer, but since I usually work with vegan sour cream, I wasn’t sure how those ingredients would fare from such a long time in the oven. What I didn’t skimp on, however, was the layer of butter. I am so glad I did because as it cooked, the hot butter simmered the onions into an exquisitely sweet juice that enhanced the entire dish. The onions were roasted to perfection. I rediscovered the art of onion caramelization in this dish and it did not disappoint. Each bite was fantastically flavorful and explode-in-your-mouth succulent.
Classic Russian Fare: Pelmeni
The last recipe I tried from this book is pelmeni, or Siberian dumplings. Did you know that “during the deep Russian winter, pelmeni can be simply buried in the snow or hung in a bag outside an apartment window. Where they keep for months on end, ready to boil up at a moment’s notice – making them the ultimate fast slow food”? What a neat application that I can’t try out in California, unfortunately.
Goldstein recommends buying an old-fashioned grinder instead of packaged ground beef or pork. She also recommends simmering instead of boiling pelmeni instead of making sure the dough doesn’t toughen.
I used diced potatoes, onions and shiitake mushrooms as filling (in lieu of grinding my own meat). If we’re aiming for cultural authenticity, I’m not sure if shiitake mushrooms are found in Russia.
Pelmeni, or Siberian dumplings / Katherine Leung
Goldstein says this recipe is enough for 168 dumplings. I don’t know what magic hands she has, because I was only able to make about forty. It took a really long time to individually hand form every pelmeni. I used whole wheat flour instead of white flour, which may account for the thickness of the pelmeni wrappers. Regardless, they turned out hearty and delightful on day one. On the second day, I reheated the dumplings in chicken soup and the flavor was enhanced by the salty chicken stock. I think whole wheat pelmeni are better in a soup.
Dessert, again: Vatrusky
Since I used vegan sour cream in the first recipe for smetannik, I had so much left over. It didn’t have enough body to hold up large layers of cake, nor the whipping ability, so I was looking for a recipe that would use up the rest of the sweet sour cream concoction.
In the pies, pancakes, and dumplings section, I found a recipe for vatrushky. Goldstein reminisces about her time working at the American Embassy during Sovet times, when “the aroma of baking bread wafting into the air coveted all the comfort that was lacking in my everyday life, and I made a detour for the buns several times a week.” I don’t have such fond memories of vatrushky but the recipe seemed easy enough.
She used a ¼ cup of lukewarm whole milk but I used coconut milk instead. The filling also requires farmer’s cheese, but I simply added vanilla to the sour cream to change the flavor. This leads to a philosophical question – is there any room in Russia for people who are lactose intolerant?
I forgot the egg yolk as the egg wash. It was listed last in the ingredients list so I skimmed over it by accident. It turned out ok though and proved to be a good use of the leftover sour cream frosting. My vatrushky were smaller than the original size, but that meant they were perfect for sharing. The texture of my pastries was a little off as well – not fluffy or buttery, rather blocky and provincially bland. This pastry was more evocative of the simple single-ingredient cooking of my old-country elderly relative, rather than the commercialized process of a large bakery.
If I were a babushka, I would absolutely force you to eat all the homemade vatrushky. I’d have an extra bag for you to eat on the train as well.
What’s a meal without vodka? Infusing pertsovka
The last experiment was pertsovka or pepper vodka. It’s a well-known homeopathic remedy for colds and fevers. I’ve always been interested in this recipe as many of my friends in Russia swear by it.
The recipe required 750 ml of vodka, peppercorns, a fresh chile pepper, cinnamon sticks, honey, and allspice berries. I had all those ingredients except for allspice berries, which I just ignored in this recipe. I’ve also never had more than about 200 ml of vodka on hand at any given time so I just made due with the small amount of Monkey in Paradise vodka I did have. Also I cannot foresee myself ever needing 750 ml of pertsovka.
The recipe called for a mortar and pestle to grind up the peppercorns and cinnamon. That felt provincial and kind of fun. Some peppercorns may have escaped in the process. After four days, it was ready to taste!
I had a shot of it after letting it infuse for four days. Wow! This definitely beats fireball with all its artificial flavoring. The fresh pepper and cinnamon was like ice fire sliding down my throat. It was cooling and warming all at the same time. The flavor was strong, immediately enveloping my body into a warmth nostalgic of winter drinks. The vodka was certainly powerful and I only needed one shot to feel the effects. I wouldn’t categorize this as “medicine,” rather, a spiritual experience.
A common critique of this cookbook is that the ingredients are too rare or difficult to find. I thought substitutions, especially non-dairy milk products, worked well whenever possible. Don’t get too hung up on the specifics of recipes. If certain ingredients don’t speak to you, then it’s perfectly fine to leave them out. Russians have made do with very little for centuries and many of these recipes were born out of resourceful necessity and survival rather than cultural authenticity.
Russia in Recipes and Lore: Beyond the North Wind is not only a good read, but an informative directive filled to the brim with sound advice that only comes from years of experience. I may not have the best experience with Russian cuisine, but the thoughtfulness in Goldstein’s Russia in Recipes and Lore is recontextualizing a place I thought I knew. There really is something to the elegant minimalism of Russian cuisine and seeing it through Goldstein’s eyes makes me appreciate it so much more. It was a blast to the past both reading this book and recreating the recipes. I highly recommend this fascinating read.
Book details: Goldstein, Darra. Russia in Recipes and Lore: Beyond the North Wind, Penguin Random House. 2020. It is available to buy here.