As we continue “Cooking Off The Beaten Path” with our Winter 2022 season of cookbook club, our culinary journey is now taking us from Portugal to the Baltic through the cuisines of three distinct cultures. Visit Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania with author Zuza Zak as she takes us on a personal exploration of the markets, pantries, and kitchens of three countries through stories and recipes.
And you can do it without leaving your own kitchen (except, maybe, a trip to the market!).
a sea. a region. a complicated history.
The Baltic Sea boarders Northern and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. The three countries that make up what are known as the Baltic States, or Baltics (an unofficial geopolitical term) are along the northeastern part of the Baltic Sea. As a whole, they boarder Poland, Russia, and Belarus. All were once part of the Russian Empire, then the USSR. Now all three are sovereign nations that are members of the European Union.
Although grouped geopolitically, they are each distinct culturally. Amber & Rye begins with a helpful brief (not inclusive) introduction to Baltic history. For many North Americans, this may be their first time learning some of this – maybe even a first time hearing of the places. That’s what I love about this cookbook club – It’s a delicious way to learn just how much there still is to learn.
•Once connected the Baltic with Ottoman Empire.
•Napoleon called Vilnius “The Jerusalem of the North”.
•Culinary influences from Polish, English, French, and German.
•Warmer climate so different foods and techniques.
Still 25% Russian
So many forests, so much preserved fish!
Riga Market: 5 old zeppelin hangars converted into a UNESCO heritage site: one of the largest markets in Europe
•Most progressive of the 3
•1st to join the EU
•The “silicon valley” of Eastern Europe (Skype was invented here)
•Language: Uralic – more like Finish
•Not religious, more folk culture
•Singing Revolution (1987-1991)
Have you heard of the Singing Revolution? Or the Baltic Way?
I hadn’t (or didn’t remember) until I read it here (then researched it more, because… geek). In the late 1980s in Estonia, people gathered by the millions in peaceful protest of the Soviets by singing traditional folk songs together in public.
In 1989, the peaceful protest spread throughout the region. On August 23, 1989, without social media or even the internet, approximately 2 million people came together and held hands forming the Baltic Chain of Freedom aka The Baltic Way that stretched nearly 420 miles crossing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
Cookbooks are not just for cooking. They can be catalysts for curiosity and lifelong learning if you let them.
about the book
Amber & Rye began as a personal journey for the author. Zuza Zak was born and spent her childhood in Communist Poland listening to her grandmother’s stories of an “idyllic childhood in Lithuania.” Those stories created vivid images in her mind that she longed to experience in real life. She, her partner, and her young daughter took a road trip of a lifetime. They immersed themselves in day-to-day life, setting up temporary homes in villages and cities throughout the region, shopping in the markets, eating with, and like, the locals. This book is the story of that experience.
So, is this really an “authentic” cookbook since it’s written by a visitor to the place? Authentic is a loaded word when we’re talking about culinary culture. What I can assure you is that Amber & Rye is authentic to the author’s very real (and beautifully photographed) lived experiences. It is not written as a textbook or a treatise on culinary history of the Baltics. It is a travelogue with recipes and thought-provoking stories.
Those recipes? Well, that’s the questionable part. Some work. Some don’t. OK… Many don’t. In the end, it wasn’t the culture, the authenticity, or the style of cuisine that led to a lukewarm reception from the cookbook club group. After two weeks cooking with Amber & Rye, it was inconsistency of the recipes.
This was, so far, the least favorite book of the dozen or so we’ve cooked from together. Still, I’m happy we cooked from it. As a window into another world, as a glimpse “off the beaten path”, as a catalyst for exploring deeper into the cuisine and culture of a place, it was priceless. And there were several recipes that truly stood out as exceptional – though maybe not the ones we expected to when we started… read on!
the cooking part…
For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. Here’s what we chose from for this book…
breakfast syrniki pancakes hemp butter and honey toast kama yogurt with plum butter snacks wild mushroom pumpkin terrine crescent moon pastries with herby cheese filling soup Baltic fish soup creamy fish soup tangy sauerkraut soup main course baked trout with roasted buckwheat cepelinai potato dumplings with lentils and lovage crispy duck breast with red currants and roasted pumpkin desserts rye bread and chocolate mousse wintery cranberry meringue roulade homemade fudge with poppy seeds challenge time! there’s a whole chapter on ferments & pickles - have fun! check out the drinks section too. Kvass and kefir are unique to this region and are non-alcoholic. There are a couple fun recipes for spirits fans, as well.
notes on what we cooked
Syrniki pancakes were one of the author’s favorites and were loved by those who made them. Light, fluffy, perfect with berry compote.
Kama is a blend of blend of grain flakes and seeds that get sprinkled on yogurt and such. This is another keeper recipe and great addition to your pantry. Not only is it good on yogurt, it’s great as a crunchy topping on waffles & in ice cream (in the book), it’s also great to stir into oatmeal for a textural flavor boost.
Hemp butter & honey toast is something I will make regularly. In fact, hempseed butter is now a staple in my pantry. I prefer mine with unhulled hempseeds and with a bit of salt and honey blended into the puree. The flavor is earthy, satisfying, and gives a burst of healthy energy to the morning (or maybe that’s my imagination).
Hemp butter is also used in hemp butter and white chocolate cookies that are also highly recommended.
Wild mushroom pumpkin terrine. Several people tried their hands with this one and all reported back that they would definitely make it again. It’s on my list for future vegetarian entertaining options.
Creamy fish soup. I altered the recipe quite a bit and loved what I ended up with. I’ll credit the book with the inspiration.
Tangy sauerkraut soup was not one I expected so many to enjoy, but they did. Now I need to make it myself!
Cepelinai potato dumplings with lentils and lovage. This is one of those that may or may not work out well… but the flavors are great if you can finesse the recipe.
Homemade fudge with poppy seeds. This recipe made me sad. I really wanted to love it.
Wintery cranberry meringue roulade was the huge surprise of the book. Apparently, it’s quite a showstopper dessert. Powdering dried cranberries may not be the easiest thing in the world, but one of our bakers tried a second batch with raspberries and freeze-dried raspberry powder and loved it.
Have you cooked from Amber & Rye? Have you visited the Baltic? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment.
Reminder, if you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.
Note: all the links in this post are here because they’re products or services I personally support. I do not receive any sort of payment for having them here. My compensation is in no way tied to your clicks, purchases, or registrations.