I’m typing this with one hand, as I stuff Ukrainian garlic bread in my face with the other.
I bought Mamushka online, back in January while lying on the sofa, heavily pregnant and fed up. I needed escapism. I needed to fantasise about the days ahead when I’d be able to stand and cook without developing elephant sized cankles, and my appetite would demand more than just ice cubes and Love Hearts.
Three months on, and emerging from the newborn baby fog of sleepness nights and reheated food from the freezer, I’ve finally been able to indulge and give this book a go.
Olia Hercules was born in the Ukraine and her book ‘Mamushka’ is filled with recipes from her native country and the surrounding regions. Not gonna lie, I had to look it up on google maps. I mean, I knew it was in Europe somewhere, because they take part in the Eurovision song contest, right? Ahem.
As foreign as the country was to me, so were some of the ingredients used in the book: sour cucumbers, curd cheese, unrefined sunflower oil and kefir. I eased myself in gently with a recipe that seemed a bit closer to home. It was a Sunday. I cooked a roast chicken.
Azerbajani Chicken with Prunes & Walnuts | Kurka Levengi
This tastes as exotic and sumptuous as it sounds, but was unbelievably simple to prepare. A whole chicken, stuffed with prunes, walnuts, onion and lemon and finished with a sprinkling of sumac. Absolutely delicious. Though I realise it may not have been the best angle for a photograph as my mom squealed that it looked like it had a singed minge.
Throughout the book, Olia makes suggestions on what could or should be served with each dish. This kind of guidance is invaluable, I find, when embarking on a cuisine that’s completely alien to you. In this case, she recommended Armenian Roasted Vegetables.
Armenian Roasted Vegetables
Who knew roasted cabbage was this good? In fact, every vegetable really came into it’s own cooked like this, and you could taste each and every one. As we ate, we all commented on how delicate the flavours were. I don’t mean bland in any way, more, subtle. It was delicious. Beautifully fresh, but mellow. The addition of the salty feta, and that eaten with the sweet, fruity stuffing of the chicken, and the crispy sumac-soured skin, was sublime.
Then we realised: neither the chicken nor the vegetables included garlic. Nothing was being overpowered.
Tartar Steamed Dumplings | Manty
Again, no garlic in these. As I read the list of ingredients I was actually dubious about how these would turn out. A simple filling of pork belly, onion and butter sounded, on paper, a bit bland. And chewy. I was wrong. These are spectacular. Eaten, drowned in melted butter and a twist of black pepper, they were so warm and comforting and god damn moreish. They reminded me of the simple goodness of a Cornish pasty.
Ukrainian Biscotti | Sukharyky
I burnt them. The one I ate, before the fateful second bake though, was lovely.
Potato Cakes with Goat’s Cheese | Deruny
The little blurb introducing each recipe in the book includes gorgeous little snippets of history; the origins of the dish, or just a fond memory of Olia’s of enjoying it with her family in the Ukraine. This one starts by declaring that goats are superstars where she comes from. “They are everywhere”.
My cheese for this dish came from a goat currently living in Wales. These were good. Made with grated potato, carrot, onion, flour and egg, these were similar to little fried rosti. Crispy on the outside and gorgeously melting on the inside. Incredible with roast duck and served with the following sauce.
This recipe includes my favourite part in the entire book: Olia’s instruction to “watch your eyebrows and shout ‘flambé!’ as you add the port” to impress your date.
Although the sauce did work perfectly with the potato cakes and duck, I found it too fragrant. It was heavily perfumed with blackberry and lemon thyme, in the same way that Turkish delight is, with rose. I don’t like that much either. Matt loved it.
Curd Cheese Patties in Maple Syrup | sYRNYKY
I used Polish Twaróg to make these rather than Ukrainian Syr. The soft, curd cheese combined with a little sugar, egg and flour made unusual, bouncy textured patties. Served in their cooking sauce of soured cream, maple syrup and vanilla, these were doughy and dense, but still light and not at all cloying. They sound like they’ll be too rich – they’re not.
It was at this point that I realised how much this book really is all about simple home cooking. Nothing is complicated. It just reads ‘fancy’ because everything sounds so much more exotic than traditional British fare. I mean, roast beef and Yorkshire puddings is pretty simple, standard stuff, but done well, is exquisitely delicious. This book has that kind of feeling about it.
Garlicky Georgian Poussins | Kurka tabaka
Moist, garlicky, butter smothered poussins with a combination of herbs that was so delightful I may use it on every chicken dish I ever make again. Tarragon, basil, parsley and dill.
This took much longer than the suggested 20-25mins to cook in the pan though, despite being weighed down by my pestle and mortar. I finished it off in the oven. We ate it with Georgian Plum Chutney and a potato gratin.
Georgian Plum Chutney | Tkhemali
Again, a recipe with just a few ingredients, but had huge amounts of flavour. Plums cooked with garlic, smoked paprika, black treacle and dill. I’ll be making this again.
Ukrainian Fried Pastries | vERHUNY
These disappeared as soon as I put them in front of Matt and Verity. They are made with a really simple dough, and shaped from little diamonds, before being fried in sunflower oil and dusted with icing sugar and black cardamom. Surprisingly very quick to make. We dunked them in salted caramel sauce.
Gherkin, Pork & Barley Broth | Rassol’nyk
A rich, but salty, gorgeous broth. Grated sour gherkins and their brine are added at the end and give such an unusual layer of flavour. I didn’t like the textures. Or the pearl barley. Getting any meat off the pork ribs was a hassle, but then this is a broth, so I shouldn’t have expected much meat. Overall, amazing flavour. Another one of Matt’s favourites.
Ukrainian Garlic Bread | Pampushky
This is what I’m eating, right now. Mounds of soft, white bread, smothered in six-cloves-strong, garlicky butter. The recipe asks for parsley, but I can’t stand the stuff raw, so I used coriander which tastes great. I mean, just look at it.
Literally every single recipe I’ve made from ‘Mamushka’ has been a success. I’ve already made a list of more to try in the summer including Watermelon Skin Jam, Blackcurrant Vodka, and all of the many, many tomato dishes.
The recipes are straightforward and complimented by photographs that are not only beautiful, but practical at the same time – often perfectly illustrating how to construct the dish, which is always reassuring.
It’s also scattered with old black and white photographs of Olia’s family, and tales of their life in the Ukraine. I usually hate this sort of thing if I’m really honest. I’m not horrible and cold-hearted or anything, I just feel like it can get in the way sometimes in cookbooks, with no real relevance. I mean, I have no connection to these people, so why should I care? But I can honestly say that after cooking from this collection of gorgeous recipes, I do care. I understand why their inclusion is so vital to this particular book. This is about home cooking, and making comfort food that stirs up or makes new memories.
Olia writes about the kind of food that you want to feed to your own family, so that one day they too can reminisce, along with remembering every summer as having blue skies, the sun always shining and everyone blissfully happy.
Next Month : Simple | Diana Henry