My apologies to Ukraine.
I’ve wanted to do a column focusing on foods from the Eastern European nation for weeks. 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 marvel at the struggle they waged against their larger and more powerful neighbor.
I was particularly inspired by the President of Ukraine, 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 on a popular TV show for three seasons.
I then heard his name when he was involved in the first impeachment of President Donald Trump. Still, he was not a household name for most Americans.
That is, until the Russians attack.
Since then, he has symbolized the fight of his people, refusing to leave his country when given the opportunity. Now most of us know his name.
We also know him by sight in a way that we don’t recognize most foreign leaders, especially those who serve a country so far away. We’ve seen him trade his clean-shaven look for a shaggy beard and his smart blue suit for olive army green.
But it’s not just Zelenskyy who inspires us. It’s his whole nation.
Olympic athletes fresh from the Beijing Games have joined the fight. Wives and mothers also showed that they would not bend easily to the might of the Russian army.
A telling quote comes from a Ukrainian grandmother who allegedly gave sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers, telling them to put them in their pockets because “at least the sunflowers will grow when you die here.”
This is real courage.
Hence my interest in paying homage to Ukraine in food. I first thought of making a Ukrainian paska. or Easter bread. After all, the holidays are approaching and this could be a nice way to show some solidarity.
However, when I tried to make the paska a few weeks ago, it didn’t quite go well. I think the biggest problem I had was that I didn’t have the right pan. I also don’t have the decorating skills for this traditional kitchen.
Then I turned to a Ukrainian babka. For those unfamiliar with babka, it is a sweet bread leavened with yeast and loaded with eggs and butter.
Again, the equipment failed me. I don’t have the traditional babka cylinder that gives the bread its silo-tall shape.
Still, I got ahead.
The result? First, the good news. My babka tastes good.
Like I said, it’s slightly sweet with a hint of citrus. It also has a nice soft texture that almost looks like a cake. Ukrainians add raisins to their babka, but I’m not a fan, so I substituted dried sweet cranberries.
My babka wasn’t perfect, however. Like 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 with the climb. Whether due to over-pressing the dough or insufficient kneading, my babka was missing the nice rounded dome on top.
Like I said, though, it still tasted great.
So, if you’re looking for an interesting Easter dish for your table this year, try Ukrainian babka. I will continue until I understand them well.
A few notes…
If you don’t care about the shape of your babka, you can bake them in traditional loaf pans. I recommend using four standard size pans.
This recipe calls for a dozen eggs (plus one for the glaze). That’s right, a dozen. Ten of the eggs are separated and you only use the yolks. If, like me, you don’t like throwing away all those egg whites, you can use them for an omelette, or for meringue cookies (a favorite of mine).
If you’re using tin cans for cooking (like I did), make sure they’re food grade. Some boxes come with a thin plastic liner that can seep into your babka and be dangerous.
Finally, if you are planning to cook this babka, know that it will take most of a day. There are several rise times. Also, you have to lower the oven temperature twice during the cooking process.
This recipe is from one of my favorite cooking websites, The Spruce Eats.
For the sponge:
- 1 cup milk
- ⅓ cup flour
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- ½ cup lukewarm water
- 3 packets (0.25 oz) active dry yeast
For the dough:
- 10 egg yolks, room temperature
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 cup of sugar
- 8 oz. melted butter
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 6 cups flour
- 1 cup raisins (or other dried fruit)
For the finish:
- 1 egg, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons of milk or water
For the icing:
- 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 runnier frosting)
To make the sponge:
Scald the milk then cool to 110 degrees.
Place ⅓ cup of flour in a mixing bowl. Pour in boiled milk and mix until smooth.
In a small bowl, dissolve 2 teaspoons of sugar in warm water. Incorporate the yeast. Transfer the yeast mixture to the milk-flour dough, mixing well. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until light and bubbly.
While the cookie is rising, start assembling the dough.
Beat together the egg yolks, the 2 whole eggs and the salt. Add 1 cup of sugar and continue beating until light. Then add 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 stand mixer; more if kneading by hand). Add fruit (if using). Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled (about 90 minutes).
Roll out the dough and knead it several times. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise again until doubled (30-45 minutes).
Grease your molds. Fill each mold to about a third full of batter. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until tripled in size (about 60 minutes).
Mix a beaten egg with 2 tablespoons of water or milk. Brush this mixture on top of your yeast dough.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees. Bake another 25 minutes. Reduce heat to 275. Bake for an additional 10-15 minutes (cover with foil if browning too quickly).
Cool the babkas for about 10 minutes. Remove them from the pan. Cool completely.
To make the icing:
Mix all the ingredients until the desired consistency (I like a little runny). Drizzle the sides of the cooled babkas.