Thursday, March 1, 2012

Recipes from Belarus

This week we're in Eastern Europe in landlocked Belarus, which is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. There are about 9 1/2 million people living in Belarus, which was a founding constituent republic of the Soviet Union and even today maintains a lot of Soviet era policies, such as state ownership of the economy. Belarus doesn't get a whole lot of news coverage, but in general the US government isn't terribly pleased with the government in Belarus. Its leadership is authoritarian, its elections are probably rigged, and its human rights record is, let's just say, far less than perfect.

There's Belarus over there by Russia.

The food of Belarus is very strongly influenced by the country's status as a former Soviet nation. During the early years of communist rule, the idea of a "national cuisine" was thought of as being sort of politically destructive--but after World War II the communist authorities changed their minds and started encouraging chefs to reinvent Belarusian cuisine, giving everything brand new names and inventing new "traditions." Dishes were renamed, cooking tools were reinvented, and the cuisine took on an entirely new and entirely non-authentic existence. It was only after Belarus became an independent nation that there was revived interest in bringing back authentic culinary traditions.

Belarusian comfort food: kotleta pokrestyansky and babka.

Now despite this pretty interesting history, there were disappointingly few online resources that I felt could be trusted to provide genuine Belarusian recipes. I found a lot of categories dedicated to Belarusian cuisine on international cooking sites and a few recipes on the major recipe websites, but as you probably already know I don't like to use those sites unless I have to because you can't guarantee that the recipes come from authentic sources. I prefer bloggers, forums for nationals and sites run by people who actually live or have lived in those countries. Which there were precious few of.

So I came up a little short. I did find a recipe for draniki, which is a potato pancake recipe that is popular in Belarus, but then I thought about all those times I've tried and failed to make decent hash browns and I scrapped the idea.

Here are the two dishes I did finally settle on:

Kotleta Pokrestyansky (Pork Cutlets in Mushroom Sauce)
(from World Cook)
  • 7 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 ounce butter
  • 1/2 cup sherry
  • 1/2 cup chicken or pork stock
  • 1 1/2 tsp corn starch
  • 4 pork chops

Simple, and actually a tad dull but oh well.

Recipe number two:

(from World Cook)
  • 6 potatoes, grated
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 1/2 ounces bacon, diced
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp flour
  • About a tbsp sour cream

And for dessert:

Baked Apples with Honey
(from Travels Wise)
  • 4 apples
  • 1/2 to 1 cup of honey
  • 2 tbsp powdered sugar

The apples have to cook for a long time, so let's start there.

First remove the core from the apples. I just used a sharp knife and a dessert spoon to scoop out the insides.

Now pour honey into the hollows of each apple where the core was. You don't really have to measure the honey, just fill each hollow to the top.

Core the apples and fill them with honey.

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. (At one hour, mine were still a little too firm.) You want the texture of the apple to be like the apple slices inside an apple pie.

The honey becomes really watery in the oven and gets a little foamy.

Sprinkle the apples with powdered sugar and serve hot.

Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve.

Now on to the babka, which also takes a long time to cook.

The original recipe called for "cubed" bacon, but I changed the wording to "diced" because you can't really "cube" American bacon. So just do the best you can, and then put the bacon and the onions in a frying pan and cook them until the onions become translucent.

Cook the bacon with the onions.

Now add the bacon and onions to the grated potatoes and stir in the flour and eggs. Put the mixture in a greased baking dish and brush the top with sour cream.

This babka is ready for the oven.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

I only baked my babka for about 45 minutes and the potatoes were slightly undercooked, but the top was brown enough that I worried it would burn if I left it in much longer. If I did this again I might actually stir fry the potatoes for a few minutes just to get them started cooking, then I'd let them cool for a bit before adding the rest of the ingredients.

45 minutes later, my babka was still a little undercooked.

Now on to the chops, which you should have plenty of time to finish while the babka is cooking.

First melt half of the butter in a frying pan and add the mushrooms and garlic. Keep stirring until the mushrooms start to shrink and soften.

Saute the mushrooms in half the butter.

Now add the sherry and the stock and a little salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook for five minutes.

Add the stock ...

Dissolve the corn starch in a small amount of water and pour into the sauce. Stir until the mixture thickens.

... then add the corn starch.

Meanwhile, melt the rest of the butter in another pan. Brown the pork chops on both sides, then pour the sauce over the chops. Cover the pan and cook until the internal temperature of each chop reaches 160 degrees.

Now pour the sauce over the browned chops.

This was comfort food, and we all liked it. I couldn't believe how fast Dylan devoured his pork chop. I kind of wish I'd made more. Of course, I didn't try to make anyone eat the mushrooms because with my kids that's like giving hay to a German shepherd. But they did like the pork chops--even Hailey ate most of hers which is really saying something.

As for the babka, well, it tasted good but it was a little undercooked so I can't really blame my kids for leaving it on their plates.

The apples were good, too--the honey liquifies in the oven and gets absorbed into the apple's flesh, so the flavor is mild and with the powdered sugar there's just enough sweetness to make it a satisfying dessert.

I have to admit though, I did feel a tiny bit cheated this week. No bizarre ingredients, no unusual cooking techniques--good food, but a little bit too ordinary. If you're from Belarus, by the way, please send me one of your favorite recipes. I'd love to try this one again at some point.

Next week: Belgium

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. Love the concept of this blog, such a great idea. And I'm REALLY loving the looks of that Babka

  2. Thanks! It's definitely been an adventure. If you try the Babka, let me know what you think!

  3. We made the babka as part of our Belrusian night. it was pretty good. Next time I will fry the bacon and cook the onions in the grease on their own. My kids were disappointed in the sogginess of the bacon. They are bacon snobs!

  4. Yeah I've encountered a lot of recipes where you just throw the bacon in without frying it first. I'm with your kids, bacon should be crispy. If I wasn't always trying to stick to the authentic versions of these recipes I would definitely fry the bacon first! Glad to hear you used the recipe though, keep me posted on your other culinary travels!


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