On Russian Christmas, Borsch, and Good Friends

For those not in the know, tonight is Christmas Eve in the Russian Orthodox Church. The fact that Alaska was once Russian (or at least conquered by Russia, from a postcolonial perspective) is often forgotten by those outside the state, and even many Alaskans. The three largest cities in Alaska are all post-Russian, and what was once Russian America even today has a total population that numbers in the low tens of thousands.

When I moved back to Anchorage after college, I lived with my friend Amy, who is native Alaskan, and Russian Orthodox. Her family celebrates both the Western Christmas, and Russian Christmas, which was often spent at her family’s fish camp near Lake Iliamna. January in Alaska is the coldest of cold months, and the idea of spending the first dreary week of January after the regular holiday rush is over snug in a cabin in the black of the early Northern night, watching the hoarfrost cling to the tree branches outside always appealed to me.

I decided to have a dinner party for Russian Christmas Eve (although I wouldn’t follow the traditional Lenten, multi-course menu) and the easiest decision was to make borsch (or borscht – there are actually about 20 different pronunciations and spellings). The first time I tried borsch I was hooked. I was about 9 or 10, visiting a relative in Sitka, Alaska. The name Sitka is an anglicized version of Shee At’ika, the Tlingit name for the land and the local Tlingit people who lived on it. When the Russians captured the settlement they named it New Archangel. Sitka was once the largest settlement on the Pacific Coast of North America, nicknamed the “Paris of the Pacific” when San Francisco was little more than a sleepy mission town. Modern Sitka has a population of around 8,000 and retains a somewhat Russian identity. St. Michael’s Cathedral, resplendent with the trademark “onion domes” of a Russian Orthodox church seems exotic to the happenstance visitor but is a familiar site to many Alaskans. I used to love visiting the church and hearing about how, when the original structure burned in 1966, the townspeople formed a brigade and passed all the texts and artwork and relics from hand to hand to safety. Only the building (rebuilt from the original plans) and the bells (which couldn’t be reached) aren’t original.

Here’s a picture I took of Sitka on one of those trips. This a view looking West toward the airport with Mt. Edgecumbe in the background.

The establishment was a cafeteria on the second floor of a trading company on Lincoln Street with a view of Crescent Harbor. Served warm (although it can also be served cold) the humble beet and cabbage soup imparts the distinctive taste of both vegetables shocked with a rich dollop of sour cream. I was immediately hooked, and whenever I have borsch I’m immediately transported back to that cozy second floor with a view, imagining how much comfort a taste of home must have been to those colonial Russians so long ago.

So I remembered a friend of mine from high school, Maria (who’s from Russia) waxing poetic about borsch on Facebook some time ago, so I asked her for the recipe and she gladly shared it with me, mentioning that every Russian woman has her own recipe, and every batch comes out a little different based on what you have and how you make it. She makes hers with lentils instead of beef or pork, but notes that meat borsch tastes much better. I posted about cooking it, and another friend, Jenny (who’s also Alaska native) chimed in with a recipe for Krendel, which is a Russian sweetbread enjoyed at Christmas. I also thought I’d make Beef Stroganoff, which has long been traditional in my family (especially on visits to Sitka, although none of us are Russian, or Orthodox). Great crowdsourcing.

It’s nearly January 7 here in Dallas, so I leave you with a hearty Merry Christmas (in English because WordPress won’t display Russian cyrillics) and Maria and Jenny’s and my recipes. Theirs are original text, with my notes in parentheses.

Maria’s Borsch

Here’s a loose borsch recipe.
Most people boil a beef or pork bone to make a rich stock, and break off pieces of the meat to add to the soup. I usually don’t bother with that because I don’t eat very much meat. I just add beans or lentils to my borsch for protein. Meat borsch tastes much better though.

Ingredients:
Onions (I used a medium onion, diced)
Garlic (I used four cloves)
Parsley (garnish)
Carrots (four medium carrots cut into pennies)
Beets (1 large beet, about a 3/4 pound)
Cabbage (1/2 of a large head)
Beans or lentils, or bone stock and meat (I added about 4 oz. of cubed London Broil)
Tomato paste (1 tablespoon)
Flour (1 tablespoon)

Instructions:
Boil lentils while chopping up all the veggies. If you’re using a bone and meat, boil that.
Saute onions, garlic and carrots.
In a separate pan, fry up some flour (do not add oil) until it is light brown. You need to stir it frequently, otherwise it will burn. This is the thickening agent for the soup broth. When the flour is golden brown, add about a tablespoon of tomato paste and a few spoonfulls of soup stock that you already have boiling. Stir all together and add to the soup pot.
Throw in all your chopped veggies, along with the sauteed onion/garlic/carrots into the soup pot. Add spices such as dried dill (I used fresh), salt, pepper, and parsley, and cook until all the veggies, especially the beets, are cooked.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream and fresh parsley. The soup tastes better the next day.
Good luck! Sorry if I forgot anything.

My borsch. It’s just as red as it should be!

Jenny’s Krendel

Dough:
2 package yeast
6 T sugar
1-1/2 C warm milk
1/2 C softened butter
1-1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
4 large egg yolks
About 3 C all-purpose flour
Melted butter
1/2 tsp cinnamon mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar

Fruit Filling:
2 T butter
2 T sugar
1-1/3 C chopped dried fruit
1 large apple, peeled, cored and chopped
1 cup red or white wine (or both, half and half) or apple or white grape juice
Cinnamon sticks (optional)

In a large bowl dissolve yeast, sugar and warm milk. Add butter, vanilla, salt, egg yolks and 1 1/2 C flour. Mix until smooth. Add enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 6 minutes. Place in an oiled bowl, cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise until doubled.
To make the filling: In a large saucepan, bring butter, sugar, dried fruit, fresh apple, and wine or juice to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 30 minutes or until fruit is tender and mixture has thickened like jam, stirring occasionally. Cool to room temperature.
When dough has risen, punch it down. On a lightly floured surface roll into a 32-inch-by-10-inch rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar mixture over butter. Spread cooled fruit filling to within 1 inch of edges. Roll up from the 32-inch side as for a jellyroll. Pinch seam together to seal. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, seam side down. Form into a pretzel or figure-eight shape. Cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until almost doubled, about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake bread 45 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer registers 190 degrees. While the bread is baking, make a glaze with powdered sugar and lemon juice.

Remove the krendel from oven let cool 10 minutes on a wire rack. While still slightly warm, drizzle glaze over the top. Let cool completely before slicing and serving.

Mine came out pretty dark:

Scott’s Beef Stroganoff

2 lb London Broil or (or Sirloin for better flavor)

1/2 cup beef broth

1/2 cup red wine

1/4 lb crimini mushrooms, washed and quartered

1 bunch green onions

1/2 cup sour cream

fresh parsley

Salt and Pepper to taste.

1 packet Papardelle pasta

Season the meat on both sides. Heat a dry skillet over high heat until very hot. Sear meat, about five minutes a side and remove from heat. Saute mushrooms and green onions until about half cooked, then slice and add beef, beef broth, and red wine. Boil over high heat until reduced by half. Boil pasta and strain. Spoon a few spoonfuls of the broth and red wine sauce from the pan over the strained noodles while the beef is cooking. Remove meat from heat and let cool for about five minutes, then stir in sour cream and serve.

I forgot to top with the parsley but it was still good:

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