Five recipes from Zuza Zak's new book, Amber & Rye

Discover five recipes from Zuza Zak's second book, Amber & Rye, which takes readers on a journey through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

By Zuza Zak
Published 11 Jun 2021, 08:06 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:38 BST
Syrniki pancakes with summer berry salad and chocolate buckwheat.

Syrniki pancakes with summer berry salad and chocolate buckwheat.

Photograph by Yasin Salazar

1. Syrniki pancakes with summer berry salad and chocolate buckwheat

Made with curd cheese, Syrniki are pancakes that are eaten in many guises across the Baltic states. They’re often served for breakfast, topped with sour cream and berries, but once I’d eaten them with chocolate buckwheat, there was no going back. The trick to making them truly fluffy, I find, is to use an extra-soft, fine flour — although if none is available, plain flour will also be fine. You can buy kasza gryczana (roasted buckwheat) and twaróg (a traditional white cheese) from Polish food shops.

Serves: 4
Takes: 25 mins

300g twaróg or curd cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ tsp salt
4 tbsp ‘00’ pasta flour or plain flour
2 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
rapeseed oil, for frying
sour cream or crème fraîche, to serve

For the summer berry salad
200g mixed berries, such as blackberries, raspberries and quartered strawberries
handful of torn mint leaves
marigold flowers (optional)

For the chocolate buckwheat
2 tbsp roasted buckwheat
15g butter
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp cacao powder

1. To make the summer berry salad, combine the berries with the mint leaves. If you’re using marigold flowers, pull off some of the petals and mix them into the salad, saving a few whole flowers for decoration. Set aside.
2. To make the syrniki mixture, add the twaróg, eggs and salt to a large bowl and mash together with a fork. Add half of the flour and all the sugar and vanilla extract and continue mashing until the ingredients are well combined (if you’re using twaróg, the mixture will retain some texture). Cover and leave to chill in the fridge.
3. Meanwhile, make the chocolate buckwheat. Pour around 2 tbsp rapeseed oil into a heavybased frying pan set over a medium heat. Add the buckwheat and cook, stirring, for 2 mins until it smells nutty and has turned a shade darker. Melt the butter with the honey in a saucepan set over a medium heat, then stir in the cacao powder. Scoop out the buckwheat from the frying pan, drain on paper towel and tip into a heatproof bowl. Pour the honey mix on top and stir well, then set aside to cool.
4. Heat oven to 110C, 90C fan, gas ¼. Scatter the remaining flour over a plate. Mould tablespoonfuls of the syrniki mix into balls and roll them in the flour. Heat another couple of tablespoons of rapeseed oil in a large, nonstick frying pan set over a medium heat, ensuring the bottom of the pan is covered with a thin film of oil. Working in batches, fry for 3-4 mins on each side until golden-brown, flattening them slightly as you do so (they’ll also spread as they cook). Drain on paper towel, then keep warm in the oven as you cook the rest.
5. Serve with the chocolate buckwheat, sour cream and summer berry salad. Decorate with the reserved marigold flowers, if using.

Greta’s gran’s potatoes with kefir and summer vegetables

Photograph by Yasin Salazar

2. Greta’s gran’s potatoes with kefir and summer vegetables

I first met Greta in a south London cafe, where we talked about her childhood in Lithuania. She remembers staying at her grandmother’s dacha (summer cottage), which overlooked a vegetable patch. They used to eat a simple dish of dill potatoes with kefir and fresh vegetables straight from the garden — ripe tomatoes, prickly cucumbers and spring onions. I’ve also added radishes to the recipe, as I can’t resist tangy kefir with salty radishes.

500g new potatoes
handful of chopped dill
2 tbsp cold-pressed rapeseed oil
2 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 spring onions, finely chopped
2 prickly cucumbers or ½ cucumber, peeled and diced
50g radishes, thinly sliced
150ml thick milk kefir or kefir yoghurt

1. Cook the potatoes in a saucepan of boiling salted water for 15 mins, or until  soft but not falling apart. Drain well and leave to cool.
2. Cut the cooled potatoes in half, then mix with half of the dill.
3. Pour the oil into a frying pan set over a medium heat and fry the potatoes until lightly browned. Transfer to a serving bowl or platter and set aside.
4. Combine the tomatoes, spring onions, cucumbers and radishes in a bowl. Season with plenty of salt, then pour over the kefir and gently mix. Spoon the vegetables and kefir on top of the potatoes, sprinkle with the remaining dill and serve.

Springtime millet ‘risotto’ with young beetroot.

Photograph by Yasin Salazar

3. Springtime millet ‘risotto’ with young beetroot

Beetroot season tapers off in the depths of winter, but this versatile root vegetable stores well and is generally available year-round. Baltic cooking involves a lot of beetroot, and the bright colours in this ‘risotto’ immediately scream spring to me. At other times of year, however, you could replace the young beetroot leaves and stalks with about 200g of spinach leaves — simply stir them into the ‘risotto’ near the end of the cooking time. As I like to use local ingredients, I use crumbly, tangy Lancashire cheese when making this dish at home, but feta or goat’s cheese would work equally well.

Serves: 4
Takes: 40 mins

3 young unpeeled beetroots, with stalks and leaves (or 200g spinach leaves, shredded, if you can’t find beetroot with leaves)
3 tbsp cold-pressed rapeseed oil
1 small red onion, finely chopped
250g millet grain
125ml white wine
1 litre hot vegetable stock
1 garlic clove, crushed to a paste with a pinch of salt, using the flat of a knife
2 tbsp chopped dill, plus extra to serve 1 tbsp lemon juice
100g Lancashire cheese, feta or goat’s cheese, crumbled
15g butter 2 tbsp fermented beetroot elixir (optional, see recipe below)
5 tbsp sour cream fermented garlic scapes (optional, see recipe below)

1. Cut the stalks and leaves off the beetroots, keeping them separate. Roughly chop the stalks and tear any larger leaves. Cook the beetroots in a saucepan of boiling salted water for around 30 mins. Drain and leave until cool enough to handle, then peel and dice the beetroots. Set aside.
2. Pour the rapeseed oil into a large frying pan set over a medium heat. Add the onion and fry for 2-3 mins until soft and translucent, then add the beetroot stalks and fry for another minute or so, stirring regularly.
3. Stir in the millet, then immediately pour in the white wine. Let it all bubble for a moment to allow the alcohol to evaporate, then add a ladleful of stock and stir until it’s absorbed. Repeat until you’ve added around half of the stock, then stir in the garlic. Continue slowly pouring in the stock, stirring often, until it’s all been added and the millet has been cooking for around 15 mins.
4. Add the beetroot, beetroot leaves (or spinach) and dill. Continue cooking and stirring until the beetroot is heated through and the leaves have wilted.
5. Season with the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste, then test the millet — if it’s not soft enough, but you’ve run out of stock, add a little boiling water and keep cooking until it’s done to your liking.
6. Stir through the cheese, butter, fermented beetroot elixir (if using) and most of the sour cream. Sprinkle with the extra dill, scatter over a few fermented garlic scapes (if using), add a final dollop of sour cream and serve hot.

4. Fermented beetroot elixir

While you can easily buy ordinary beetroot juice, this fermented beetroot juice with garlic is something rather special. I like to add a little to beetroot dishes at the end of cooking.

Makes: 1 litre
Takes: 10 mins, plus 5 days’ fermenting
You will need: 1 x 1-litre bottle (ideally glass)

1kg beetroot, peeled and cut into medium
1 bulb garlic, cloves separated and peeled
1 tsp good-quality, additive-free salt (such as Maldon)
1 litre freshly boiled filtered or bottled water, left to cool a little

1. Put the beetroot and garlic into a ceramic bowl (or a fermenting crock, if you have one), sprinkle with the salt and pour in the boiled filtered or bottled water. Find a plate with a smaller diameter than the bowl's, set it on the beetroot and put something heavy on top, such as a large glass jar, to weigh down the plate and press out the juice. Cover with a tea towel, if you like, and leave to ferment at room temperature for 5 days. 
2. On the day the elixir is ready, sterilise your bottle: either put it through a hot dishwasher cycle or hand-wash in hot, soapy water. Half-fill the bottle with boiling water and leave for 5 mins, then pour out the water and allow the bottle to air-dry.
3. Strain the fermented juice through a fine-meshed or muslin-lined sieve into the bottle and seal. The fermented juice will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

5. Fermented garlic scapes

Unless you grow your own hardneck garlic, scapes can be tricky to find: in their mid-summer season in the UK you can buy them from online specialists, or you may be able to find them in farmers’ markets. Otherwise, you can substitute foraged three-cornered leek, which has a similar garlicky taste when fermented. Do make sure you know exactly what you are picking, though. I’d recommend letting it ferment for no longer than three days and then keeping it in the fridge for up to a week, whereas garlic scapes can take four or five days of fermenting and will happily sit in the fridge for as long as a month.

Makes: 800ml 
Takes: 10 mins, plus 3-5 days fermenting 
You will need: 1 x 800ml jar and fitted lid 

625ml freshly boiled filtered or bottled water, left to cool a little
1 tbsp good-quality, additive-free salt (such as Maldon)
250g garlic scapes, trimmed
1 garlic clove, peeled

1. First, sterilise your jar and lid. Either put them through a hot dishwasher cycle or hand-wash in hot, soapy water. Half-fill the jar with boiling water, put the lid loosely on top and leave for 5 mins, then pour out the water and allow to air-dry.
2. Pour the still-warm boiled filtered or bottled water into a jug, then mix in the salt to make a brine. Leave to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. Wash and dry your garlic scapes thoroughly, then lay them horizontally in the jar so they curl around the sides (this means they should stay in place and you won’t need a weight to keep them submerged). Place the garlic clove in the jar, nestling it among the scapes so they hold it down. Pour in enough brine to fill the jar, then loosely cover with the lid and leave at room temperature for 3 days.
3. Use clean tongs to lift out one of the scapes and taste to check the level of sourness — if you’d like the flavour to be a little more intense, let them ferment for another day or two. Once you’re happy with your ferment, secure the lid and store in the fridge for up to a month.

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Published in Issue 12 (summer 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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