Book Club Tuesday: Mamushka

That’s me. Oh about a million years ago! Although not Ukrainian-born but brought up in a family with a rich Ukrainian heritage (on my father’s side) my folks decided to send me to an Ukrainian Bilingual school when I was younger. I think this photo was taken probably during Easter because it was one of the few times we would dress in “traditional” clothing and take part in holiday activities. Easter was my favourite because my mom would pack our Easter baskets (full of ham, boiled eggs, cottage cheese, paska, and babka) and we (our school) would walk up to the Ukrainian Catholic Church to get our baskets blessed and to celebrate the rebirth of Christ. Before this would happen, we would bake babka (for our baskets) at school and decorate pysanka (Easter eggs — with my favourite pysanka being in Vegreville, Alberta). (Incidentally for those who aren’t aware of this but Western Canada has quite a large Ukrainian population — in fact Canada has the third largest population of Ukrainians behind Ukraine and Russia.) Part of how I understand what it means to be Ukrainian-Canadian came from going to this school but also from spending time with my family.

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Me, mid-1980s

As I have mentioned before, my grandmother (never wanting to be called “Baba” because she felt this made her sound old) cooked and served traditional dishes because this was how her mother cooked in the “old country.” That’s how people learned to cook — you learned from your mother/father, who learned from their mother/father, and so on. Since my mother does not have a Ukrainian background she learned from my paternal grandmother and from cookbooks. Speaking of which, each week that I write and post a review I try to choose cookbooks that are interesting or meaningful to me in some way. So this week I’ll be writing about my relationship to Olia Hercules Mamushka: A Cookbook

When I stumbled onto Olia’s Instgram page, I was struck not only by the beauty of her food but the relaxed almost ethereal quality of her photos. She’s based in the UK but I think what she shows on her IG is so personal and shows the world from her perspective. If I may liken it to watching the film Amelie, it’s almost as if the Paris that exists in Jeunet’s film only exists for Amelie and we (as the viewer) are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it. This is the way I feel about Olia’s photos — that we’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of her world. What she shows is personal and beautiful and I so enjoy each photo and video she posts.

Her cookbook, Mamushka, was delivered to my door last October and ever since I often find myself pouring over the pages and reading her stories and insights into these traditional recipes. Then I would recall those dishes that my mother and grandmother would make and feel excited at the prospect of introducing these recipes to my daughter. A few weeks ago my daughter and I made Varenyky filled with berries. Even though she’s a bit too young to be of any real help, she still enjoyed trying to roll out dough with her own rolling pin. Thinking back one of my most vivid (food-related) childhood memories is of my mom and Aunt making huge batches of Varenyky filled with potato, bacon, and onions while us kids played outside in the snow. We made sure to be in the house before they finished because they would use the dough at the end to make Varenyky filled with blueberries. These varenyky would be boiled then served with a mixture of brown sugar and sour cream. Frankly I couldn’t imagine a better treat when I was 8! Now it felt a little strange to be making them without making the “regular” variety first but it also felt a little cheeky too. I felt like a kid again and I loved it. As you can see the “fruits” of my labours below, I added a little powdered vanilla to the dough. Don’t they look amazing??

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Another recipe that sent me back was her Paska — Ukrainian Easter Bread. As soon as I saw the cookbook photo of those familiar breads baked into cans I almost couldn’t wait until Easter (but unlike the cheekiness I summoned to make the varenyky I couldn’t make Easter bread before Easter). When Easter came around I was ready to get baking! Although I couldn’t quite bring myself to bake them as my grandmother and mother had baked them — in cans — I found a satisfactory solution: Weck jars. Certain types of Weck jars have a cylindrical shape akin to that of a tin can. Thankfully I was able to bake some fairly authentic looking breads. They tasted just as I remember them! The only difference is that we never glazed ours, but I was happy to give it a try. It feels good to share this part of myself with my husband and daughter and I think part of the reason why my roots have become more important to me is due to having a child. I want to share the best of all of those experiences from my childhood with her and since Mamushka‘s North American release, I think I’ve been given a very tangible way of doing this.

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I probably should throw a caveat in here somewhere: Mamushka is not a vegan cookbook nor is it vegetarian. Although there are many vegetarian recipes, there are few that are vegan. For the most part her recipes can be adapted to suit any dietary need, but I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone. (Even though I’m a vegetarian not vegan, it seems like many of the photos I post are vegan-leaning. I think this is because I like to show people who aren’t vegan and those who are what’s possible. I’ve heard so many comments about how limiting vegetarian and vegan diets are! Not true. Also I’m never afraid to pick up a non-vegetarian or vegan cookbook to find culinary-inspiration.) Even though I’ve gravitated towards recipes that remind me of my roots, I have also tried new-to-me recipes. One of my favourites is the Griddled Eggplant Rolls, which I have made countless times already. If you check out #mamushkaSE you can have a peek at what recipes I’ve tried already.

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Last month when I traveled home for my Gido’s funeral (93 years old! Had come to Canada from the Ukraine in the 1920s…master farmer…so many stories but for another time) I took great pride in telling my Aunties (my grandmother’s sisters) all about Mamushka and the recipes I’d been making! I was telling them how making bread seemed so scary but after trying different doughs — for Pampushky, Paska, Kefir dough –I was slowly building my confidence up. One day (maybe, hopefully) I’ll look this confident and at ease… (this video posted on Olia’s IG is by far one of my favourites! The music selection is pretty boss and I find it sort of mesmerizing just watching him knead the dough. I want to be knead to be that good someday). I think they were pleased with the interest I’ve been taking in traditional cooking.

For anyone new to Ukrainian cooking this is a great book to start with — the recipes are easy to follow and very successful. I am in no way a baker but by trying her recipes my skills are definitely improving. Come on! Doesn’t baking bread seem like such a huge task?! But she makes it do-able. I also like that she uses everyday fruits and vegetables and makes them delicious — sometimes just through the fresh herbs that are added to the dish. Moreover, no special equipment is needed — meaning that as soon as you get this book you can get right to cooking. I’ve been recommending it to so many people! Since my mom has been following my IG she went out to buy her own copy — she’s so intrigued by what she’s seen so far and being a non-vegetarian she’s keen to try some of the meatier recipes.

Now for a bit of blog “housekeeping” — I’ve come to a bit of an end with my Book Club Tuesdays. Not for good, just for now. I’ve been struggling to try new cookbooks and cook dishes for each week. So I think I’ll leave BCT for the time being. However don’t be sad friends! Please come back next Friday for something new — Food & Film Fridays! This is where I’m going to discuss some of my favourite films in terms of the food they show and maybe how to reinvent some of these dishes. Promise it’ll  be fun and not to be missed! Have a great week everyone!

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