I apologize to Ukraine.
I’ve wanted to do a column on the Eastern European nation’s food for weeks. Ever since Russia launched its brutal invasion at the end of February, I have been inspired by the spirit of Ukraine and its resistance. Like many Americans, I am amazed at the struggle they have shown against their larger and more powerful neighbor.
I was particularly inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. I vaguely remember reading about the former actor/comedian’s election to his country’s highest office in 2019 after playing the President of Ukraine for three seasons on a popular TV show.
The next time I heard his name was when he was implicated in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment. Even so, he was hardly a household name to most Americans.
Until the Russians attacked.
Since then he has symbolized the struggle of his people and refuses to leave his country if given the opportunity. Today most of us know his name.
We also know him by sight, so we don’t recognize most foreign leaders, especially those serving a country so far away. We’ve seen him trade his clean-shaven look for a scruffy beard and his sleek blue suit for the military’s olive green.
But not only Zelenskyj inspires us. It’s his whole nation.
Olympic athletes, fresh from the Beijing Games, have joined the fight. Wives and mothers have also shown that they are not easily bowed to by the might of the Russian army.
A telling quote comes from a Ukrainian grandmother who allegedly gave Russian soldiers sunflower seeds and told them to put them in their pockets because “at least sunflowers will grow if you die here”.
That’s real courage.
Hence my interest in paying tribute to Ukraine when it comes to food. I first thought of making a Ukrainian paska. or Easter bread. After all, the holiday is just around the corner and this might be a nice way to show a little solidarity.
However, when I tried to make the paska a few weeks ago, it didn’t come out quite right. I think the biggest problem I had was not having the right pan. I don’t have the decorating skills for this traditional food either.
Then I turned to a Ukrainian babka. For those unfamiliar with babka, it’s a sweetened bread leavened with yeast and loaded with eggs and butter.
Once again the gear let me down. I don’t have a traditional babka cylinder that gives the bread its tall, silo-like shape.
Nevertheless I kept going.
The result? First the good news. My babka tastes great.
As said, it is slightly sweet with hints of citrus. It also has a nice soft texture that’s almost cake-like. Ukrainians add raisins to their babka, but I’m not a fan, so I substituted dried, sweetened cranberries.
However, my babka wasn’t perfect. As I said, I didn’t have the right pan, so I bought a few cans of tomato juice – yes, tomato juice – emptied them and used them as pans.
They worked well, but something went wrong on the climb. Whether it was because the dough was rising too much or it wasn’t kneaded properly, my babka was missing the pretty rounded dome on top.
But like I said, it still tasted pretty good.
So if you are looking for an interesting Easter dish for your table this year, try Ukrainian babka. I’ll keep at it until I get them right.
A few notes…
If you don’t care about the shape of your babka, you can bake it in traditional loaf pans. I recommend using four standard sized pans.
This recipe calls for a dozen eggs (plus one for glazing). Right, a dozen. Ten of the eggs are separated and you only use the yolk. If, like me, you don’t want to throw away all that egg white, you can use it for an omelette or for meringue cookies (one of my favorites).
If you use cans for baking (like I did), make sure they’re food safe. Some cans come with a thin plastic liner that can dig into your babka and be unsafe.
Finally, if you are planning to bake this babka, remember that it will take almost a day. There are several wake up times. You also have to turn the oven temperature down twice during the baking process.
This recipe comes from one of my favorite cooking websites, The Spruce Eats.
For the sponge:
- 1 cup of milk
- ⅓ cup flour
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- ½ cup lukewarm water
- 3 (0.25 oz.) packets of active dry yeast
For the dough:
- 10 egg yolks, room temperature
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 8 ounces. melted butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon of lemon zest
- 6 cups flour
- 1 cup raisins (or other dried fruit)
- 1 egg, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons milk or water
For the glaze:
- 2 cups powdered sugar (sifted)
- ¼ cup butter, melted
- 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
- 3-6 tablespoons milk (use the higher amount if you want a more runny glaze)
How to make the sponge:
Scald the milk and then cool to 110 degrees.
Place ⅓ cup flour in a mixing bowl. Pour in the brewed milk and stir until smooth.
In a small bowl, dissolve 2 teaspoons of sugar in the lukewarm water. Stir in yeast. Add the yeast mixture to the milk-flour paste and mix well. Cover with cling film and let rise until light and bubbly.
While the sponge cake is rising, start assembling the dough.
Beat the egg yolks, the 2 whole eggs and the salt until fluffy. Add 1 cup sugar and continue beating until light. Next, beat in the melted butter, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the sponge and mix well. Finally add the 6 cups of flour and knead for 7-10 minutes (less if using a food processor; longer if kneading by hand). Add the fruit (if using). Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size (about 90 minutes).
Knead the dough and knead a few times. Cover again with plastic wrap and let rise again until doubled in size (30-45 minutes).
Grease your pans. Fill each pan about a third full with batter. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until tripled in size (about 60 minutes).
Combine 1 beaten egg with 2 tablespoons of water or milk. Brush this mixture over the top of your risen dough.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees. Bake another 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 275°C. Bake for another 10-15 minutes (cover with aluminum foil if browning too quickly).
Chill the babkas for about 10 minutes. Take them out of the pan. Cool down completely.
To make the glaze:
Combine all ingredients to desired consistency (I like it a little runny). Drizzle over the sides of the cooled babkas.