Yesterday, we surveyed some of the top Ukrainian national main dishes. Some were already familiar to most of us, while others shared a common heritage with similar dishes in other Eastern European cuisines. Today we’ll take a look at Ukraine’s signature breads and desserts…
Ukrainian Wedding Bread: The first food Ukrainian newlyweds taste together…
On our menu today
Ukrainian breads span a range between ‘staff of life’ and ‘beloved dessert’. But Ukrainian desserts themselves span a range from breads to cakes to dumplings to Wonton-like Verhuny pastries. And even though they’re not edible, the tradition of intricately decorated Easter Eggs sets Ukraine apart from all other cultures.
Ukraine shares a number of bread traditions with other Eastern European countries, but places its own stamp on them. For example, while other, neighbouring cuisines include a braided loaf for holidays and special occasions, Ukrainian tradition has separate breads for Easter, Christmas and other events. It’s also important to note that Ukrainian breads are often much more ornately constructed and decorated than those of their cousins.
Ukrainian-recipes.com explains why bread is so important in that culture: “In Ukraine, bread is the symbol of life. Since ancient times it [has been] highly honored. Ukrainians call the bread “saint/holy”, “gift from above”, “father”, “breadwinner”, and “head.” In Ukraine no important event happens without bread. Symbolizing life in rituals and traditions, bread has been used to bless newly married couples, congratulate [parents] with newborn, welcome guests, hold a housewarming party, or lay someone to rest. As you see, bread follows us since the beginning till the end of life.”
Zhytniy Khlib: Ukrainian Sour Rye Bread. This loaf is a Sour Dough that takes some time to make but offers a delicious flavour Ukrainan cooks say can’t be matched. The ingredients are simple: rye flour, Sour Dough starter, yeast, Caraway seeds, salt, sugar and water. The technique is a little intricate, but not hard to follow. This authentic recipe makes two medium-sized round loaves.
Ukrainian Black Bread: Every Eastern European country has its own version of ‘Black Bread’. It’s a dense, dark, yeast-raised Rye Bread flavoured with Molasses and Black Coffee.
The recipe calls for Whole Rye Flour and Buckwheat Flour, which contribute to the trademark flavour and texture. It’s traditionally made in a hand-formed round loaf, but now-a-days also comes ion a standard pan-baked rectangular shape.
Paska: There’s some abiding disagreement about this traditional Easter Bread. Some say it should be a sweet dessert bread studded with raisins, while others say it should be plain without raisins. All agree, though, that it should be braided and curled into a decorative spiral loaf, and finished with a classic egg glaze on top. The dough is a simple version of brioche featuring lots of eggs and milk, and a fair dose of butter. It takes some time to make, and the braiding takes some practice, but I can personally attest that every iota of effort is worth it!
Babka: When folks start to debate the he attributes of Paska, Babka always comes into the discussion. It’s a sweet Easter Bread, also made in the Brioche tradition, with lots of eggs, milk and sugar.
And it always features lemon zest, candied citrus peel, rum, a plentitude of Golden Raisins. Another defining characteristic of Babka is the fact that it’s usually baked in a chimney-like loaf, using a special cylindrical pan or an empty 1 L / 35 oz. apple juice can. Like Paska, it’s finished with an egg glaze, and usually frosted with a simple white sugar glaze.
Kolach: Ukrainian Christmas Bread is a braided loaf with a slightly sweet flavour. Its roots go all the way back to the advent of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Kolach is a borderline Brioche-type loaf using a little extra sugar (over and above that used to bloom the yeast) and about half as many eggs as Paska or Babka. It’s either braided into a single straight loaf or formed into three stacked circular braids with a hole in the middle, into which a candle is placed creating a centrepiece for the Christmas season table.
Korovai: Traditional Ukrainian Wedding Bread. The recipe is simple, based on plain White Hard-Wheat Bread Flour, but does contain the signature elements of a near-Brioche: eggs, extra sugar and butter. It’s not so much the bread that makes Korovai special: It’s the decorations that make it almost magical! he low, round loaf is always festooned with intricately executed pastry grain heads, flowers and even miniature braided loaf wreaths. In fact, almost any nature-related, bread-related symbols may be reproduced in pastry and used to crown the Korovai loaf. Traditionally, the parents of the bride and groom welcome the newlyweds to the wedding feast with a loaf of Korovai and a portion of salt presented on a Ukrainian embroidered towel. A greeting offering of salt and bread is believed to bestow a future of plenty, good health, happiness and peace.
As much as they love their breads, and the ancient symbolism that goes with them, Ukrainians also adore their favourite desserts…
Vareniki with Cherries: Cherry-stuffed Vareniki dumplings are a traditional dessert in Ukraine (see photo, top of page). Their heritage can be traced back to ancient folklore. According to destinations.com.ua, “[I]n the ancient times, pagan Ukrainians brought it as a gift to the goddess of Moon, due to their resembling shape. Moreover, women always prepared varenyky as a symbol of creation and birth.”
Sirniki: Described as a ‘cheese pancake’, this soft, airy generously-raised pancake is made with regular All-Purpose Flour, fresh cheese (like Mexican queso fresco or, in a pinch, cream cheese), eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, vinegar and raisins.
The batter/dough is hand-formed into patties the size you prefer (usually abvout 4 in. / 10 cm across) and dredged in flour so they’ll stay together while cooking and won’t stick. They’re pan fried in light Olive Oil. They’re often topped with powdered sugar, fruit jam and/or sour cream.
Nalisniki: Here’s another Ukrainian specialty which (like Vareniki) can be loaded up as an appetizer, a main or a dessert. These sweet gems are Ukrainian crèpes , stuffed with cheese and fresh herbs (and, sometimes, also cabbage, mushrooms or caviar) for a main, or with cheese and berries, and topped with fruit jam and/or sour cream as a dessert.
Verhuny: Often called ‘Angel Wings’, these crispy pastries may remind you of Asian Wontons. The dough is simple but extravagant: flour, eggs, sugar, and 35 percent whipping cream.
It’s rolled out thin and one end is pulled through a slit in the other to make a twisted pastry. The dough is deep fried until golden brown through and through. They make a great grab-and-go snack or an elegant accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.
Sochniki: Sometimes referred to as cookies, and at other times called ‘pastry cones’, these luscious turnovers are constituted like chewy cookies and stuffed with a creamy cheese filling.They’re traditionally made with Rye Flour, but can be made with white APF.
All-Purpose flour or a blend of the two. Along with the usual sugar, eggs, baking soda and salt, the recipe calls for sour cream, poppy seeds and a big whack of cottage cheese – for the dough, not the filing! The filling calls for shredded white melting cheese, flour, sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla sugar. according to etnocook.com, “Sochniki were traditionally made before Slavic Christmas in northern Slavic tribes.”
Kyiv Cake: Ukraine’s version of Hungarian Dobos Torte, crossed with Hungarian Flódni is an everything dessert. This tall cake is composed of many alternating layers of sponge and meringue, hazelnuts and fruit jam.
It’s usually topped with butter cream frosting and decorated with intricate, piped butter cream flowers or other shapes. Like many Ukrainian specialties, it’s a little picky to make and takes a relatively long time to make. But, also like those other dishes, every moment of effort will be repaid by the reaction you get from family and guests!
And there you have it!
One of the richest Eastern European culinary cultures we’ve yet visited. And, as mentioned so often in the foregoing recipes, a heritage rooted in ancient times and simple ingredients. When next we venture out into the culinary world, we’ll stop in the Czeck Republic – another Eastern European country whose very essence goes back more than a thousand years!
~ Maggie J.