A Baltic food journey

Food writer Zuza Zak. Photos: Supplied
Food writer Zuza Zak. Photos: Supplied
Food writer Zuza Zak set off on a pilgrimage to discover the culinary treasures of her childhood holidays.

Polish-born Zak has lived in London since she was 8 and went on to work in television.

She started a supper-club - A Slavic Tale - and published her first book, Polska: New Polish Cooking, to critical acclaim.

In 2019, she began a food-focused PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies where she is exploring Eastern European food from a socio-cultural perspective.

Her latest book, Amber and Rye, follows her Baltic food journey through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

With memories of holidaying along the Polish Baltic coast and her grandmother’s vivid stories of her childhood in Lithuania in the front of her mind, Zak, with her partner Yasin and daughter Nusia, headed off on a journey of discovery, stopping along the way at to talk with home cooks, chefs, foragers and producers.

She was introduced to Mirjam, who runs an organic dairy farm and drives the New Baltic food movement by inspiring producers to share recipes.

THE BOOK: Amber & Rye, by Zuza Zak, published by Murdoch Books, RRP$55
THE BOOK: Amber & Rye, by Zuza Zak, published by Murdoch Books, RRP$55
"Armed with Mirjam’s map of farmers, growers and artisan producers across the Baltics, I was able to meet with many of the people behind this ‘new wave’ of Baltic food.’’

While the influence of other cultures on food offerings had developed since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the European Union in 2014, there had been a revival of ancient Baltic ways, old recipes and local, seasonal ingredients, she said.

It had gone hand-in-hand with a wider cultural revolution as the region "shrugs off what I like to describe as ‘the communist hangover’’’.

Zak said she had been greatly inspired by the Baltic restaurant and the Baltic home in creating recipes for her latest book.

"My aim is to take you on a journey of discovery through this emerging cuisine and share the unforgettable stories and culture of the people who live in the Baltic region.’’

Her book includes recipes for breakfasts, starters and snacks, soups, the main event with salads and sides, ferments and pickles, desserts and drinks.

Creamy fish soup with parsley dumplings 

I can’t recommend this soup highly enough. An amalgamation of an Estonian fish soup and an old Polish-Lithuanian soup, its dumplings take on the delicate flavour of the stock and practically melt in your mouth.

If you want to make your own fish stock, grab some reasonably priced, locally sourced fish from your fishmonger — except there’s no need to bother with chopping and frying the onion, you can just add it whole and unpeeled to the pan. Cook the fish in the stock for about 40 minutes before mashing and straining the liquid. You can either discard the strained-out fish or give it to the cat!

Serves 8-10

1 Tbsp butter

2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 leek, thinly sliced

1 celery stick, thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

4-5 allspice berries

2.5 litres (10 cups) good-quality fish stock

500g firm fish fillets, such as salmon or halibut, cut into large chunks

200g (¾ cup) creme fraiche

juice of ½ lemon

salt and white pepper

To serve

finely chopped dill

For the dumplings

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 Tbsp butter, melted and left to cool slightly

50ml (2½ Tbsp) whole milk

50g plain (all-purpose) flour

1 tsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Method

First make the batter for the dumplings. In a bowl, whisk together the egg, butter, milk and quarter of a teaspoon of salt. Now gradually whisk in the flour to make a smooth batter. Mix in the parsley, then cover and refrigerate while you make the soup.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, melt the butter and fry the carrot, leek and celery for 4-5 minutes or until starting to soften. Season with salt and pepper, add the bay leaf and allspice berries and cover with 2 litres (8 cups) of fish stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer. Add the fish to the soup and cook for about 12 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through.

Meanwhile, cook the dumplings. Pour the remaining 500ml (2 cups) of fish stock into a small saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer, then drop tablespoonfuls of the chilled batter into the hot stock — the dumplings will float to the surface when they are done. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a plate.

When the dumplings are ready, put the creme fraiche into a small bowl and stir in a few spoonfuls of the soup (this will help to stop it curdling), then pour into the pan. Add the lemon juice, season with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle with dill.

Place a few dumplings in each bowl and ladle over the soup.

Potato latkes with smoked sausage and spinach

Potato-hash pancakes — or latkes in Yiddish — are known as a traditional part of Jewish cuisine. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they are also commonplace in Lithuanian cooking, since Lithuania (like many Eastern European countries) had a huge Jewish community prior to World War 2.

For hundreds of years, recipes, ingredients and techniques were shared in a way that makes tracing their origins impossible; luckily, it’s also unnecessary. Likewise, I find it unnecessary to peel the potatoes unless they are looking a bit worse for wear.

Some may find the kielbasa sausage (smoked Polish sausage) a surprising addition here, given the Jewish name of this dish, but it’s delicious! You can, of course, use kosher sausage instead, if you prefer.

Serves 4

50g smoked kielbasa-style sausage, cubed

200g spinach leaves

squeeze of lemon juice

salt and black pepper

For the latkes

2 medium potatoes

2 French shallots, finely chopped

1 egg, lightly beaten

2 Tbsp plain (all-purpose) flour

grapeseed oil, for frying

Method

Heat the oven to 100degC .

For the latkes, coarsely grate the potatoes into a large bowl. Add the shallots, egg and flour and mix well. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Heat a thin film of rapeseed oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Once it’s hot, add tablespoonfuls of the potato mixture to the pan, working in batches and taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Flatten the latkes with your fork and fry for about 2-3 minutes on the first side, until golden, then flip and cook for another 2-3 minutes on the other side. Drain the cooked latkes on paper towel and keep warm in the oven.

Add a little more oil to the frying pan and add the sausage. Fry until it crisps up, then add the spinach. Once the spinach has wilted (this will only take a minute or so), add a squeeze of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Serve the sausage and spinach on top of the latkes.

Spiced pumpkin cheesecake 

Since cheesecake is said to have originated in Eastern Europe, perhaps it’s not surprising that the variety of cheesecakes on offer is astronomical.

My current favourite has to be this pumpkin version, with slivers of caramelised pumpkin and melted chocolate sauce to top it off. If you don’t have any fresh pumpkin to make the topping, you can just scatter some caramelised nuts over the cooked cheesecake.

Serves 10-12

100g unsalted butter, at room temperature

200g caster (superfine) sugar

5 eggs, lightly beaten

500g quark or cream cheese

300g pumpkin puree

1 Tbsp cornflour (cornstarch)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp ground cinnamon

Optional

freshly grated nutmeg

For the pumpkin topping

25g unsalted butter

100g pumpkin, peeled and thinly sliced

pinch of salt

4 Tbsp soft brown sugar

½ tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp ground cardamom

For the chocolate sauce

100g dark chocolate

25g unsalted butter

Method

Heat the oven to 180degC and lightly grease a 20cm spring-form cake tin.

Blend the butter and sugar in a food processor until pale and fluffy then, with the machine still running, start alternately adding the eggs and cheese, bit by bit. When all the eggs and cheese are incorporated, add the pumpkin puree, cornflour, vanilla and spices and pulse to combine. Scrape the cheesecake mixture into the tin.

Half-fill a heat-proof bowl with water and place in the bottom of the oven. Slide the cheesecake on to the middle shelf and cook for 5 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 160degC and cook for one and a quarter hours or until barely set. Turn off the oven and leave the cheesecake inside to cool.

Meanwhile, make the pumpkin topping. Melt the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the slivers of pumpkin with the salt, sugar and spices until caramelised — 15 minutes should do it. Set aside to cool.

For the chocolate sauce

Melt the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir in the butter to make a smooth, glossy sauce. Allow to cool slightly before using.

When the cheesecake and topping are completely cool, carefully unmould the cheesecake and transfer to a serving plate, then top with the caramelised pumpkin and drizzle over the chocolate sauce. If you’re lucky enough to have any leftover cheesecake, it will keep in the fridge for up to three days.

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