This weekend, my older son’s school hosts its second-annual Culture Night. It’s awesome: The cafeteria and gym transform into Epcot Center (minus alcoholic beverages and rides). Families from all over the world set up stations showcasing their heritage. Last year, there was an Indian buffet, West Virginia folk dancing and Hawaiian leis. It’s affirming to see all of these cultures come together in a space where kids are usually devouring string cheese and chocolate milk.
For their inaugural year, my husband took control. One of my best friends started the event, and he was gently pressed into service to make Polish galumpkis—beef- and rice-stuffed cabbage rolls simmering in tomato sauce. This was pretty simple, since there are plenty of recipes out there and since he remembers his grandmother making them.
This year, it was my turn. I eagerly signed up to make Belarusian food, proud to corner the market on a somewhat niche demographic.
But I quickly realized that it would be an abstract exercise. Yes, I wanted to make something spotlighting my father’s side of the family, but there was a small problem: I don’t remember eating any actual meals with my father’s side of the family. My grandmother always came to holiday events hosted by my mother’s Irish clan. It wasn’t the other way around. It’s just how it was. I didn’t think it was unusual or felt I missed out on anything…until now.
I scoured the internet searching for workable recipes, a hybrid of Baltic, German and Slavic offerings. Potatoes were a common theme. Sausage, too. No, these would not be dishes that I remembered eating as a child. They would be dishes that I could easily transport to a school cafeteria without poisoning anybody.
I quickly ruled out meat sauce with buckwheat pancakes—messy. Sashni, fried potato cutlets stuffed with cottage cheese, probably wouldn’t do well sitting on a display table for three hours. Bringing a bottle of vodka would be frowned upon.
I asked my father what he remembered eating as a kid for holidays. His grandparents lived nearby, and his own grandmother did a lot of cooking. He told me that she made honey cake. Honey cake! That seemed easy enough, and just a tiny bit exotic. I gamely completed the school’s Sign Up Genius form and hoped for the best.
I set out to find recipes for Belarusian honey cake and was relieved to find this easy sweet-and-spicy rendition using ingredients I’ve already stashed in my cabinet, spiced with cinnamon, vanilla, cloves and cardamom, topped with slivered almonds. Attractive…and aromatic!
No, it’s not a longtime family recipe, but it’s a creative, tangible way for my family to get out of their comfort zone: I never bake anything except for Duncan Hines brownies. My son will be my sous chef. We will represent Belarus with pride! Maybe it’ll become our own family recipe.
While I’m on a culinary heritage kick, I’d love any other (somewhat easy) Belarusian recipes (ones that include vodka are fine). I’ll let you know how it goes!