Ukrainian Christmas a food and cultural discovery
My grandfather, my Opa, Wasil Bojko was born in the Ukraine in 1912…his life is shrouded in tragedy and mystery and that’s about all I know. He had already passed away when I was born and what my family does know/remember is limited as he was very guarded about his past. In my personal quest to understand my heritage I’ve found it easiest to connect with long gone relatives through their cultural cuisine. A simple Google search and a few ingredients later and I’m enjoying a meal which might vaguely resemble something they once ate.
To celebrate the Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas we found a recipe in Olia Hercules’ book Summer Kitchens. It’s a fascinating book of authentic recipes, beautiful pictures and little stories where traditional knowledge is being passed down and it really feels like it was written just for me. We decided to lend our hand at Potato Cakes. Similar to a Rosti, her recipe for these yeast-leavened cakes were stuffed with beans and feta. They sounded yum on the page and were (as it turned out) flipping delicious. We did alter the recipe slightly but the methodology was pretty much the same.
1 kilo potatoes. We used Organic Sabago as we had some lying around.
1 brown onion
2 whole eggs
A 7 gram sachet of dried yeast. I think that equates to about a teaspoon.
2 teaspoons of dijon mustard
Flour. You can definitely use plain wheat flour. We didn’t have any at the time so we used Spelt.
Salt and Pepper
About half a bunch of parsley because that’s all we could get our girls to harvest.
Oil for cooking. We use Olive oil but hey…you do you.
Bean and Feta Paste.
1 clove of garlic
1 tin of Cannelloni beans. I think that’s about 200g of drained beans give or take.
100g-ish block of Feta. I used Danish because I like the smooth texture of it.
About half a bunch of dill.
Salt and Pepper
Oil for cooking.
About 150g of greek yoghurt
2 small gloves of garlic. We used the purple Australian garlic as it’s a bit sweeter.
Salt and Pepper
We made the bean and feta mix first. Drain and wash the Cannelloni beans, crumble the feta and put both ingredients in an oiled fry pan over a medium heat. Cook for a minute or two, squishing up those beans and feta before adding a finely diced brown onion. Continue cooking for another couple minutes to ensure the onion is cooked before finally adding the minced garlic. Once the garlic is in and cooked for about 30 seconds, remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Add the chopped dill and seasoning once cool, give it all a good stir and check that it tastes delicious. Maybe a dash of lemon juice at this stage could elevate the bean mix and give it some more complexity.
Then our attention turns to the potato mix. Grab the box grater from the depths of the kitchen utensil draw and loosen up your shoulders because there’s a fair amount of grating ahead. We chose to grate the potatoes on the course side and then the onion on the fine side but it’s up to you. Either way, squeeze out the excess liquid from your onion-potato mix but don’t throw it out (just strain it and walk away). Make sure there’s still a small amount of liquid left in the bottom of the bowl as you’ll need this to activate your yeast. Make like a decent well/volcano in your oniony-potato so you can clearly see the remaining liquid and to that add the two eggs pre whisked, about 50 grams of flour and the yeast. Give that all a quick stir so the yeast is no longer dry and grainy. Set aside for 15 minutes so it can begin its act-iv-ation (said like I’m imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger).
Whilst that’s beginning to bubbling along nicely, whip up the garlic yogurt number by mincing the garlic into the yoghurt. Simple. A some seasoning, maybe some chopped herbs or a small pitch smoked paprika for a touch of zhuzh.
Go back to the potato mixture and use your hands to bring it all together. Season with a really good amount of salt and pepper as it will handle the extra seasoning. Let sit for another 10 minutes for no real reason except to give the yeast another chance to do its thing.
Now the fun part. I preheated the oven to about 180 degrees in anticipation and I suggest you do the same because it’s a bit of a challenge getting these little darlings cooked all they way through solely from the heat of the pan. Anyway, in a decently weighted frypan on a medium heat, pop in two touches of oil and let it heat up. Once it’s hot but not smoking, get some of that worked potato mixture into the pan (reincorporate some of the liquid if it has separated). We did about a golf ball amount then flattened it out with the back of a spoon to maybe 10 cm in diameter. We did three of those in the pan then quickly add a small amount of the bean mix on top then another bit of potato mix, spreading that over to form a sloppy sandwich. Turn down the heat if needed and let that slowly cook for about 3 minutes. Check the bottom side regularly for golden-ness and before you flip the potato cakes over add a few knobs of butter…fry for a bit longer…now flip! Life lesson: fried butter makes everything taste about 6 times better! Cook for a few minutes on the second side before flipping again to try and get the heat into the centre or pop the Potato Cake into the oven to heat through whilst you cook another batch. Completely up to you.
Serve with the garlic yoghurt and enjoy. We added a homegrown and made homemade tomato sauce to the dish which was really nice. I’m making another batch of that this week as we’ve got bucket loads of tomatoes growing at the moment so I’ll include a recipe for that. It’s dead easy and freezes well so be sure to watch out for that recipe when it’s published.
Please, do yourself a favour a get your hands on Olia’s book Summer Kitchens. She has a few books available but I haven’t had the chance to read them all yet. She’s done a great job at flying the Ukrainian flag and I look forward to exploring more of her recipes such as the Flourless Poppyseed Cake or the Borsch with Duck and Smoked Pears. When I get a chance between recipes I’ll read about her Ukrainian culture…and take the time to imagine my Opa eating Potato Cakes in the Ukrainian countryside all those years ago.
We paired our lunch with this incredibly smooth Sheep’s whey vodka, which has a great back story in itself. If you can source it from Hartshorndistillery and amazing story and the most enjoyable vodka I’ve ever tasted, we enjoyed it neat in true eastern European style and was beyond expectation.