Esteemed readers, I am pleased and proud to announce that on August 29, 2017, I finally cooked the only two recipes I had left to do in Anya von Bremzen’s fantastic Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. To cook my way through the whole entire book took only twelve years!
Although I am an avid, not to say compulsive, home cook, few are the books that have gotten the complete treatment. I started with a UNICEF international children’s cookbook—the first one I ever owned—which Zeke and I worked through a few years ago. Then he and I did all of Molly Katzen’s cookbooks for kids, and a fairly short one called Cooking the Central American Way in honor of his Guatemalan heritage. Not long before we left France I also wrapped up every recipe in Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (deserving of its own post on some future occasion).
It was actually pretty handy to be living in France for working through Please to the Table. It is—how shall I put it?—a rather extravagant cookbook, so it was helpful that the extravagant is more everyday in France, both in terms of price and availability. For example, over the years I made multiple dishes containing wild mushrooms, quince, caviar, and saffron. Among the meats I sacrificed on the altar of appetite were lamb’s liver, veal kidneys, sweetbreads, a whole breast of veal, an entire suckling pig (disturbingly cute—at least before it’s cooked), Cornish hen, goose, quail, pheasant, and rabbit. The Lithuanian-style bigos alone called for one duck, a pound and a half each of pork, ham, and kielbasa, and half a pound of bacon. Then there was Exotic Lamb, Chestnut, Quince, and Sour Plum Soup; Salmon-Stuffed Veal with Caviar Sauce; and Veal Cutlets with Chanterelles in Madeira Sauce.
Needless to say, it was no chore to eat the results.
The only reason I didn’t finish in France, actually, is that there were just a few things I couldn’t manage to find there. One was a whole fresh ham—not exactly easy to track down in the U.S., either, but a friendly fellow at the farmer’s market helped me out. Then smelts and crayfish: also easier to get in Minnesota. The aforementioned final two recipes both called for sturgeon, which is actually an endangered species in Europe because its caviar has been plundered for so long—each egg is a future fish! But another variety of sturgeon lives in the Great Lakes, so we had Sturgeon Kebabs and Baked Surgeon with Russian Sauce on Tuesday night for a very ceremonial closure to the gustatory odyssey commenced in 2005.
Please to the Table, though subtitled “The Russian Cookbook,” would more accurately be called “The Former Soviet Union Cookbook.” It was published in 1990, at which time the USSR was in the process of rapid dissolution. Politically confusing but culinarily advantageous: this book covers the range from dark bread-, berry-, and dairy-heavy northern European cuisines to the crossroads kitchens of Armenia and Georgia (every single recipe from Georgia is wonderful, actually) to the exotic eastern flavors of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. At its heyday the USSR covered one-sixth of the world’s land mass! No wonder such a phenomenal range of food is included here.
Pretty much every stew and every borscht is amazing, as is the Boiled Beef à la Russe with two sauces (an underappreciated delicacy in America: I think because we don’t have the patience to simmer tough cuts of meat long enough to make them meltingly tender). Russians are evidently really fond of croquettes—little fried patties—and they’re all great in here, whether of wild mushrooms, white fish, salmon, chicken, veal, or beef. So are the many savory pies, and though I’m not much of a rice person, the pilafs were beautiful. Then there are the hearty loaf breads (even better when transformed into Estonian Bread Soup with berry juice, raisins, and cream on top) and airy Central Asian flatbreads. I transported a whole bottle of sticky malt syrup from a trip to Estonia just to make the Riga Rye Bread. But if Whole Salmon in Aspic is not on your cooking agenda, there’s also an enormous range of vegetable dishes, which puts the land of iceberg lettuce and steamed broccoli to shame: to mention but a few, cabbage baked with feta, carrot baba, chard and chickpeas, two-colored cauliflower and beet purée bake, and the best sauerkraut stew I’ve ever made.
Let us not forget the sweet finish. My personal favorite was the Ukrainian Christmas Cake that has a layer each of poppy, date, and walnut filling, but a close second was the spiced Honey Cake. I made the Lavish Chocolate Meringue Cake for Andrew’s fortieth birthday party and both the Strawberry and Crème Brûlée Ice Creams for our going-away party.
The most delightful surprise was Buffalo Grass-Infused Vodka. To make it I first had to figure out what, exactly, buffalo grass is. Luckily, it’s a popular infusion in Poland, so it wasn’t hard to find the scientific name, Hierochloe odorata. Then I searched French horticultural sites for it, found a nursery in Alsace that carried it, and had it delivered by mail (!) to our apartment—barely alive, but sufficiently to make the drink. Totally delicious.
Out of a total of (by my count) 399 recipes, just a handful earned but a “meh,” and only three turned out badly. One was Chicken Soup with Walnut Balls, which was strangely reminiscent of turpentine, but in retrospect I think the walnuts must have gone rancid. The second was the Alexandertort, two stiff layers of flaky pastry with jam in between and a thin white icing on top. Very sweet, and I couldn’t quite tell what I thought of it, until my friend Macy (over for dinner that night) exclaimed, “Oh, it’s a Pop Tart!” She was right, and I was horrified: I had committed Pop Tart. In shame I swore I’d never cook again. (I got over it.) The final disaster was Kvass Soup. Kvass is a fermented beverage made from burnt bread and raisins, which I made myself, and on its own it was really quite good and rather complex. The soup, however, just didn’t work, with four boiled egg yolks whisked in and some slices of frankfurter. We all still kind of shudder when we think about it.
However, that still leaves Please to the Table with a 99.25% success rate, which you can’t say of most cookbooks.
And that explains why—if you have been wondering—I actually went to the trouble of cooking every last recipe in the book. I got it in the first place because of my own connection to Eastern Europe, culinary and otherwise; my mother Ellen I. Hinlicky has been assembling her own encyclopedia collection of Slovak recipes for a quarter-century now. That was enough to get me started, but not enough to finish. It was simply how wonderful the food turned out time and time again. I’ve worked with enough cookbooks by now to know how rare it is to find a cookbook writer who can really translate her own innate flair for cooking into recipes that total strangers can follow. Anya von Bremzen has that gift in spades!
Happily, in recent years she has written an amazing memoir with the hilarious title Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Already a fan, I gobbled it up, so to speak. The most vivid character is her mother Larissa (whom fans of Please to the Table already know a little from so many of her good recipes), but there’s lots of political intrigue to enjoy, too—not least of all her father’s work in preserving Lenin’s dead body! Von Bremzen is also the author of The New Spanish Table—turning her attention to the opposite corner of Europe—which is delightful and from which I’ve cooked many things, though being a little less passionate about Spain than the East I doubt I’ll make it all the way through. I’ve perused on occasion other books that cover the same regions—such as the recent hit Mamushka on Ukrainian food and the older classic The Georgian Feast—but they don’t have anything Please to the Table doesn’t, and better.
Our family’s all-time favorite from Please to the Table is the Pasta, Lamb, and Feta Cheese Casserole, but since that requires, among other things, making your own fresh pasta, it’s probably not the best recipe to entice potential other enthusiasts with. Instead, here’s the recipe for Buckwheat Blini, the most absolutely perfect blini you will ever enjoy in your life. My comments are added in brackets.
1 ¾ c. milk
2 tsp. sugar
1 pkg. active dry yeast
¾ c. buckwheat flour
¾ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 Tbsp. oil, plus additional for frying
3 large egg yolks
2 large egg whites
1 small potato, halved [or a silicone pastry brush]
1. In a small saucepan, scald the milk over low heat. Transfer to a large bowl and cool to lukewarm (105 to 115 F).
2. Add 1 teaspoon of the sugar and the yeast to the milk, stir, and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
3. Whisk in the buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt, sugar, butter, the 2 tablespoons oil, and the egg yolks until smooth. Let rise in a warm place, covered, until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks and fold into the batter.
5. Dip a potato half in oil [or use a silicone pastry brush] and rub over the bottom of a large nonstick skillet [I think a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet gives better results]. Heat the pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Drop the batter by the tablespoonful into the skillet, spacing 1 inch apart. Cook until the undersides are golden, about 1 minute. Turn and cook for 30 seconds more. Transfer to a heatproof plate.
6. Repeat with the remaining batter, greasing the skillet with the oiled potato [or silicone pastry brush] before each batch. Keep the cooked blini, covered with aluminum foil, in a 275 F oven.
Makes about 4 dozen small blini (serves 10 as an appetizer)
Back to me again: The notion that you’d want to share these with nine other people is kind of silly. Two or three others maximum, and you should really, really love them. I usually make mine a bit bigger than a tablespoon at a time. Americans may instinctively go for syrup and jam, but these shine with savory toppings. Von Bremzen suggests sour cream and caviar, which is great; so is sour cream, smoked or cured salmon, a squeeze of lemon, and two or three capers.