Jan 222014
 

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The Unification Act (Ukrainian: Акт Злуки, Act Zluky) was an agreement signed on January 22, 1919 by the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in St. Sophia Square in Kiev. Since 1999 the Day of Unity of Ukraine, celebrated every year on 22 January to mark the signing of the treaty, is a state holiday. The agreement was aimed at creating a unified Ukrainian state, a movement long awaited by the intelligentsia on both sides. However, the Act Zluky was regarded as purely symbolic in that both governments still retained their own separate armies, administrations and government structure.

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The text of the treaty included the following:

The territory of Ukraine, divided over the centuries, including Galicia, Bukovyna, Carpathian Ruthenia, and Dnieper Ukraine will now become a great united Ukraine. Dreams, for which the best sons of Ukraine fought and died for, have come true.

However the territory of Ukraine was unable to retain independence and in December 1920 the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union was established consisting mostly of the territory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The territories of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic became part of Poland. In 1939 the territories of both became part of the Ukrainian SSR, and remained so until the fall of the Soviet Union.

To mark the 71st anniversary of the signing of the Act Zluky in 1990, over 300,000 Ukrainians created a human chain (approx. 482 km (300 mi)) from the capital Kiev to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on January 21, 1990. The chain, the largest public demonstration in Ukraine since the beginning of Glasnost, was funded by the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh).  Also, for the first time since the period of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the blue and yellow national flag was raised.

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On January 21, 1999, the President of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma decreed the “Day of Reunion of Ukraine” (Ukrainian: День Соборностi України, Den’ Sobornosti Ukrayiny), a government holiday, celebrated every year on January 22 to mark the political and historical significance of the 1919 agreement. In December 2011, President Viktor Yanukovych caused public controversy when he merged the “Day of Freedom” into this day, naming it officially “Day of Unity and Liberty of Ukraine” (Ukrainian:День Соборності та Свободи України, Den’ Sobornosti ta Svobody Ukrayiny).

The public outcry underlines an important issue: unity and independence are not to be confused.  A nation may be unified but under the control of another power; or it might be independent but not united.  The latter was the case with Ukraine in 1919.  In the aftermath of World War I its constituent regions were newly independent but separate political entities.  Act Zluky is celebrated on this day because it represented a step towards a longstanding desire for Ukrainian unity – even though it was only a token, and Ukraine was soon divided up between neighboring powers (and then subsequently united but under Soviet control).   The day continues to be an important celebration of the nationalist aspirations of nineteenth and twentieth century Ukrainian intellectuals which has now become a reality.

I doubt I have spent a single day in Ukraine without eating varenyky of some sort – quite often for breakfast as well as lunch. Varenyky are square- or crescent-shaped dumplings of unleavened dough, stuffed with mashed potato, sauerkraut, cheese, cabbage, meat, or a combination of these, or with a fruit filling. Under various names, such as pierogi and pelmeni, these dumplings are ubiquitous in eastern Europe, but each with their own little twist.  Commonly they are boiled to cook the dough, then sautéed with melted butter and served tossed with sour cream, or topped with fried salo bits (cured pork fat) and onions. Dill is also a common garnish. Sweet, fruit-filled varenyky are served with sour cream and sugar.

The dough varies widely even within Ukraine, from plain flour and water to rich combinations of flour, sour cream and egg.  I prefer a richer dough to contrast with plainer fillings such as mashed potato.  Here is one of version of varenyky that works for me. If you can get kefir (fermented milk) it is good in place of the sour cream.

Potato and onion is an extremely common filling, but for variety in this recipe you can exchange some of the potato for sauerkraut or farmer’s cheese.

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Varenyky

Ingredients:

Dough

3 cups all purpose flour
5 ozs sour cream (or kefir)
4 tbsps butter, melted
1 egg

Filling

4 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tbsps vegetable oil

For serving

butter
sour cream
chopped fresh dill (optional)

Instructions:

Make the filling first.  Boil and mash the potatoes.

Sauté the onion very gently until it is a rich golden color.

Reserve a small amount of the onion for a garnish and combine the rest with the potato and mix thoroughly. Add salt to taste.

To make the dough, combine the flour, sour cream, and butter and mix well.

Beat the egg in a measuring cup and add enough water to the beaten egg to make ¾ cup.

Add the egg to the flour mixture and combine to make a smooth dough.  You may have to adjust the amount of flour or liquid to make sure the dough is silky but not sticky.  Do not knead the dough too much because excess gluten will make the resultant product tough.  Let rest for about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

Roll the dough out to about ?” thick and cut out circles about 3” in diameter (I use a drinking glass for this).  As needed re-roll the remainder and continue cutting until all the dough is used.

Place a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle and fold it over to form a half moon.  Crimp the edges well.

Working in batches, boil the varenyky for about 5 minutes per batch.  They will readily float when they are cooked.  Remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on wire racks.

Heat butter in a heavy skillet.  Again, working in batches add the cooked varenyky and sauté until they are golden on both sides.  Toss with sour cream and onions and serve warm garnished with a little chopped dill if you like.

Yield: about 30

Jun 182013
 

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Today is the birthday of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the last tsar of Russia, Nicholas II.  She, along with the rest of her family and several household servants, was murdered by members of Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, on July 17, 1918. She became famous throughout much of the 20th century because of persistent rumors that she had survived the mass killing, fueled by the emergence of a number of imposters claiming to be her, most notably Anna Anderson about whom a number of books, plays, movies and other works were produced.

Depending on how you read the accounts of her childhood, and your general inclinations, you might think of the young Anastasia as either cute and impish, or cruel and mean.  She was notorious for playing pranks on her sisters and the servants, some of them a bit over the edge.  For example, once she wrapped a rock in a snowball which she threw at her sister, hitting her in the head and knocking her to the ground.  In general I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for poor little rich princesses, but given the circumstances of her life (and death) she can be cut some slack.  She had a congenital deformity of her left foot, and a painful condition in both feet that made it difficult for her to walk sometimes.  She had a weak muscle in her back and was prescribed a twice-weekly massage which she hid under the bed or in a cupboard to try to avoid. She, like her mother and at least one of her sisters, was a carrier for the Hemophilia B gene.  Although not a hemophiliac herself, she was prone to excessive bleeding.  Anastasia’s mother, perhaps to avoid raising her daughters with an excessive sense of self importance, treated the girls in a spartan manner. They had to sleep on hard camp cots without pillows, take cold baths, tidy up after themselves, and spend several hours daily doing needlework which was sold to raise money for the poor.  Obviously these experiences were counterbalanced with personal servants, fine clothes, and a life of luxury, but they may perhaps temper our judgment – that and her hideous death (she was beaten, stabbed, shot, and bayoneted).

During World War I Anastasia, along with her sister Maria, visited wounded soldiers at a private hospital on the grounds at the imperial estate in Tsarskoye Selo. The two teenagers, too young to become Red Cross nurses like their mother and elder sisters, played games of checkers and billiards with the soldiers and tried to uplift their spirits. Felix Dassel, who was treated at the hospital and knew Anastasia, recalled that the grand duchess had a “laugh like a squirrel.” In February 1917, Nicholas II abdicated the throne and Anastasia and her family were placed under house arrest at the palace in Tsarskoye Selo during the Russian Revolution. Civil war broke out between the provisional government and the Bolsheviks. As the Bolsheviks approached Tsarskoye Selo, Alexander Kerensky of the provisional government had them moved to Tobolsk in Siberia.  After the Bolsheviks seized majority control of Russia, Anastasia and her family were moved to the Ipatiev House, or House of Special Purpose, at Yekaterinburg where she and the family were ordered killed by the Bolsheviks. The savage butchery of their killers is well documented by eye witnesses.

Rumors of the survival of some, or all, of the imperial family were spread not long after their deaths as part of a disinformation campaign by the Bolsheviks.  A few days after the family had been murdered, the German government sent several telegrams to Russia demanding “the safety of the princesses of German blood” (their mother was born a German grand duchess). Russia had recently signed a peace treaty with the Germans, and did not want to upset them by letting them know the women were dead, so they told them they had been moved to a safer location.

Such rumors, along with the fact that the grave sites of the imperial family were unknown until only a few years ago, allowed for a number of imposters to claim that they were Anastasia.  Almost all of these claims were easily dismissed. But the main claimant, Anna Anderson, became the stuff of legend, aided by the fact that she had several credible supporters (all with ulterior motives), along with a penchant on the part of the public and the press to believe a romantic fairy tale.  Most of the heavily fictionalized dramas about Anna/Anastasia, including the 1956 film Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman, leave it open ended as to whether Anderson really was Anastasia. Anderson kept up a court battle in Germany for decades, with the courts finally ending the case in 1968 without reaching a definitive conclusion. Mitochondrial DNA testing on a lock of Anderson’s hair and some medical remains eventually proved conclusively that she was not Anastasia.  The discovery of a burial site in 1981 (excavated in 1991), revealed the remains of 9 of the Romanovs (confirmed by DNA testing). A second site was found in 2007 containing the remains of the tsarevich Alexei and one of his sisters. DNA evidence cannot determine whether this grave contained Anastasia or another of her sisters, but the deaths of all the children and their parents are now confirmed.

Dining in the Russian royal court was an elaborate affair, with formal meals strongly influenced by French cuisine.  But the royal family is also known to have eaten rather simpler traditional Russian fare on picnics, hunting expeditions, and the like.  So here is my recipe for classic Russian pelmeni, meat filled dumplings I have enjoyed many times in Russia.  They can be served in chicken broth, or eaten with one of several dips.  My favorite is sour cream with fresh dill.  There are special molds to make pelmeni which are available online, but I prefer to make them by hand.

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Pelmeni (пельме́ни)

Ingredients:

Dough:
2/3 cup (1.6 dl) buttermilk
1 tbsp (.15 dl) sour cream
2 large eggs
2 cups (4.8 dl) warm water
1½ (7 g) tsp salt
8 cups (1 k) all purpose flour

Filling:
1 lb (.45 k) ground chicken
1 lb (.45 k) ground pork
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves crushed and finely chopped
½ tsp (2.5 g) freshly ground black pepper
¾ tsp (4 g) salt
olive oil for frying

Instructions

For the dough, in a large bowl mix together the buttermilk, sour cream, warm water, eggs and salt until well blended.

Add half of the flour and mix well.  Then add the remaining flour, one quarter at a time. The exact amount will depend on a number of factors.  Add the flour slowly at the end and stop as soon as the dough is no longer sticky. Then knead the dough for about 5 minutes.

Let the dough rest.

For the filling, heat a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and slightly amber. Add the garlic and sauté for an extra minute, but no longer.

In a large bowl mix together the chicken, pork, onions and garlic, plus the salt and pepper.

To assemble the dumplings, pinch off a ball of dough about ¾ inch (2 cm) across and, using a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll it into a 1 ½ inch (4 cm) circle.

Place 1 teaspoon of filling in the middle of the circle of dough.

Using your forefinger lightly smear a little cold water around the rim of the circle, and fold the dough over to form a semi-circular package.  Then take the two corners of the diagonal, pull them up (away from the circular edge) and pinch them together.

To cook the pelmeni bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.  Put as many pelmeni as needed into the boiling water (you can freeze what you do not use).  When they float, continue boiling for around 3 minutes.  Test one to make sure the filling is cooked through and the dough is al dente (or a bit softer if you like  – Russians prefer them on the mushy side).

Yield: 180

Note: To freeze, place the pelmeni separately on floured baking sheets and put them in the freezer.  When they are frozen put them in freezer bags.  Do not thaw them, but place the frozen pelmeni directly in boiling water to cook. If you thaw them they will stick together (ask me how I know!).