We traveled to Ukraine last week — flying first into Warsaw and then taking a series of trains to get to Rivne, the city where Anthony’s aunt and Grandpa live. It was a long journey but pleasantly uneventful and we spilled out of the train into the arms of Nadiya, who was meeting Miro for the first time. The past week has been full of baby talk in multiple languages, chaotic Pekingese-baby energy flow, and nobody sleeping ever in the four-room apartment containing humans under 1 and over 100-years-old.
I’d like to reflect more about this place and what it’s come to mean to me, but have honestly had trouble stringing words together, so for now I’ll tell you about breakfast. The breakfasts I’ve had over the years here somehow became the most comfortable part of the day to me. There’s something so luxurious about an elaborately set table in the morning, even if what’s on it is fairly simple. In the summer, especially, the brimming bowls of raspberries and blueberries and wild strawberries make me feel like royalty. The cheese is fanned out on a plate and there are different types of homemade preserves to choose from and like 1000 teaspoons on the table.
Today is Orthodox Easter, which is like the ultimate breakfast. We had hardboiled eggs dyed red with onion skins, a long kielbasa, and we broke out the nice cheese from Amsterdam. There were chocolate egg candies scattered on the table. I also made kulich, an Easter cake similar to panettone that’s studded with raisins and covered in icing. That recipe is here, for paid subscribers:
I’m sure there are plenty of other Ukrainian families who eat a quick bowl of cereal before work or school these days, but my experience is limited to Anthony’s family, where breakfast always seems to be an occasion. There are a few things that are always on our table:
Tvorog and smetana
There are hundreds of types of tvorog, a fresh farmers cheese that’s made by curdling milk in a process similar to ricotta. It’s typically lower in fat, around 9%, and can vary in texture from cottage cheese to something more like the cheese curds that go on poutine. It can be mild or relatively sour, and you can buy it fresh and homemade at the market or in packages at any grocery store, where there are often sweet flavored varieties like vanilla or apricot. Every breakfast we have here involves a bowl of tvorog with several spoonfuls of smetana (rich sour cream) on top. Sometimes we add fruit preserves, or dried fruit and nuts. Miro has shown his Slavic heritage by occasionally refusing every food except tvorog.
Kefir or yogurt
Nadiya has a yogurt machine that she sometimes sets up the night before for fresh yogurt in the morning. Other times, we’ll have kefir from the store. I’m convinced that the milk tastes better here, and that extends to the yogurt and kefir. We mix in fruit preserves and drink it from dainty pink glass teacups.
In the summer, we eat entire bowls of raspberries or blackberries or small wild strawberries. In the winter, there may be dried fruit, like dried cranberries or apricots, sometimes cooked in water to become kompot. There are also jars of homemade preserves to spoon onto the tvorog or yogurt. On this trip, we’ve had black currant and red currant jam and a sea buckthorn berry syrup that tastes a bit like honey.
Cheese and sometimes bread
There are usually slices of a few different kinds of white cheese (though to be honest, I’ve found most of the cheeses here taste pretty similar — like a very mild Swiss). There might be pieces of salami. You eat them alone, though sometimes we have the kind of dark brown rye bread that’s so difficult to find back home. (Borodinsky bread, flavored with molasses, coriander and caraway seeds, is perhaps the more well-known, but there are other rye breads available here that are slightly sour and sweet but without the pungent spices of Borodinsky.)
Sweet, milky coffee
When I used to drink coffee, I would usually take it black or with just a splash of plant-based milk. I don’t anymore, but what we make in the morning here is weak enough that it doesn’t count. I have it along with everyone else, with lots of sugar and warmed milk.
Fried doughy treat (sometimes)
The other night was particularly tumultuous between Grandpa and Miro’s awakenings, and I guess Nadiya couldn’t sleep either, because she got up early to make oladyi. Oladyi (recipe coming) are small round pancakes made with kefir. (The diminutive “ladushki” is also the word you say when babies clap their hands together, which is probably how it got into Nadiya’s mind to make.) I was so tired in the morning that I thrust Miro into Anthony’s arms and went to take a bath, but a heaping plate of fresh oladyi with black currant jam brought me back to feeling so good it was almost as if I’d slept.
Syrniki (see my twist on them here) — which is basically tvorog in another form — are another fried treat that can make it to the breakfast table. If there are leftover crepes, those might be rolled and filled with tvorog and cooked in butter. If there are leftover vareniki, sometimes we have vareniki at breakfast. Sometimes we’ll buy a jelly doughnut the night before, or a package of poppyseed rolls.
Sometimes there is bread with butter and caviar
For breakfast, why not?
This trip is the first time we tried chocolate butter, which somehow bypassed Anthony’s childhood though it was popular in the 90s as one of the cheapest and most available desserts. The ingredients are just butter, sugar, and cocoa powder. You spread it on bread, particularly the gorbushka (end of the loaf).
Miro seems perfectly fine eating straight tvorog, but sometimes he has his own breakfast dishes. Nadiya grated some pumpkin and cooked it with pieces of dried apricot, which he thinks is pretty amazing. We also make kasha (porridge) of buckwheat and bulgur, warmed up with milk and a couple tablespoons of homemade applesauce. He’s content with this for now, but only because he doesn’t know about chocolate butter.
Very very cool. Thank you for sharing this peak at your family’s breakfast table. Really enjoyed reading this.