German-Russian Cooking Recipes: A Culinary Heritage

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German-Russian Cooking Recipes: A Culinary Heritage
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German-Russian Cooking Recipes: BorschtThe German-Russian cooking tradition is a testament of a people’s self-sufficiency, frugality and a humble affection for their ancestral origins.  Sam Brungardt, author of the German-Russian cookbook Sei Unser Gast (Be Our Guest), presents an intricate look into the German-Russian cuisine past and present, and the rich history that has made the culinary tradition what it is today.

 What characterizes German Russian cooking in your opinion?

German-Russian cooking is basically peasant cooking.  It’s not fancy, but the kind of plain and substantial cooking that was needed to nourish hard-working farmers.

The German Russians came mostly from German-speaking areas of Western Europe, so the cuisine reflects these diverse origins; with dishes that one would have encountered in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg or Alsace 150 to 200 years ago.  Depending upon where these German-speaking people settled in the Russian Empire, the cooking of the colonists was influenced to various degrees by their Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian and other, non-German neighbors.  Sometimes this hybridization is seen in the adoption of a particular ingredient, such as syrup made from the juice of watermelons, a sweetener that appears to have originated among the Tatars.  In other cases, the German-speaking settlers adopted dishes, such as Borscht, a Ukrainian beet soup.  However, nearly always, the German Russians gave the dishes they adopted their own twist.

German-Russian cuisine was also influenced by the climates of the German colonists’ new home.  For example, those in the Volga region had access to few fruits other than apples, tart cherries and small fruits, such as strawberries, gooseberries and currants.  This was because the climate there was bitterly cold in winter and generally hot and dry in summer.  So, watermelons were very important in their diet; they ate them fresh through the summer and pickled, Russian style, in winter.  In contrast, those colonists who settled near the Black Sea where the climate was much milder were able to grow many kinds of less cold-hardy fruits, such as grapes, peaches and plums, and their cooking reflects this.

So, with German-Russian cooking, we have a cuisine that’s basically German, but influenced by other nationalities and the climate where the Germans settled.  It uses ingredients that could be produced on the farm: flour, dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry, and produce, particularly potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, root vegetables, squash and melons.

When German Russians emigrated to the Western Hemisphere, they incorporated ingredients and dishes into their cuisine that they encountered in the United States, Canada, and South America, particularly Argentina.  So, today many of the Volga Germans who live in the Great Plains states make American-style pies and German-style Kuchen from Schwartzbeeren, the berries of an edible form of black nightshade that they encountered in Russia.

To sum it up, German-Russian cooking is very much traditional cooking, but it is not static because it has always reflected the cuisines of the peoples that the German Russians came in contact with in their new homes.

How has location and time affected the German-Russian cuisine?

To understand German-Russian cooking, one must know something about history -- about the German-speaking people who came to be included in the Russian Empire.  In the 1760s, Catherine the Great recruited settlers for Russia’s newly acquired lands along the Volga River, near Saratov.  Most of these colonists were from what is now Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and the French province of Alsace.  Later, when Russia wrested territory north of the Black Sea from the Ottoman Turks in the early 1800s, Czar Alexander I recruited settlers from southern Germany and Alsace, as well as Mennonites from East Prussia.  As the borders of Russia expanded, other German-speaking people in Eastern Europe became German Russians (an example of this were the Germans in Bukovina, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

The one thing that all these colonists shared in Russia was the freedom to maintain their German language, religion, and culture.  Starting in the 1860s, many German Russians emigrated to the United States, Canada and Argentina.

Today, most people of German Russian descent generally do not eat German-Russian foods on a daily basis, just as they do not speak German as their first language; but the beloved traditional foods are served on special occasions and in this way they help today’s German Russians preserve their cultural identity.

What is the significance of passing down traditional dishes to the preservation of cultural identity?

Foodways are probably the most enduring aspect of culture.  My mother was a first-generation American who spoke only German as a child and whose Russian-born mother prepared the German Russian dishes she learned to make from her mother and her mother-in-law.  I know enough German to follow a conversation and recite traditional New Year’s wishes, and like my siblings, have learned to prepare many of the German-Russian delicacies that our mother made for us.  Most of my nieces and nephews do not speak German, but they love traditional German-Russian dishes and will undoubtedly prepare some of them for their children.

When I eat or prepare German Russian dishes, I am reminded of my people’s humble origins and their self-sufficiency, practicality, frugality and straightforwardness; the belief that cleanliness is of utmost importance; and of our passage through the ages.

Could you single out several recipes that have become symbols of the German-Russian kitchen?

In German-Russian cooking, breads, dumplings, noodles, fresh and preserved vegetables and fruits (particularly potatoes, cabbage, cucumbers and watermelon), sausages, and homemade dairy products (e.g., sour cream, butter and cottage cheese) are basics.

Of course, each German-Russian group has its signature dishes.  Let’s consider the three largest:

Signature dishes among the Volga Germans are Krebbel (deep-fried crullers dusted with sugar), fruit or Streusel-topped Kuche’, potatoes cooked with dumplings, Butterball Soup, Bierock or Runza (baked turnovers filled with cabbage, onion and beef), Herzje cookies, Pfeffernisse (sweet buns flavored with black pepper and watermelon syrup), and licorice root tea.

Among the Germans from South Russia, Plachinta (baked pumpkin- or meat-filled turnovers), Borscht, savory Strudel, Fleischküchle (deep-fried beef and onion turnovers), a soupy lettuce “salad” that was served with dumplings, Pfeffernüsse cookies, and custard-based Kuchen are signature dishes.

Typical German-Russian Mennonite dishes include Zwieback (butter-rich, double-decker buns), Borscht, Plumamoos (dried fruit soup), Wareniki (filled noodles), and a bewildering number of different kinds of Pfeffernüsse cookies.

But if one considers dishes that are common to these three groups, cucumber and lettuce salads, deep-fried beef turnovers, jellied meat, chicken noodle soup, brined dill pickles, pickled watermelon (the flesh, not the rind), Russian-style fruit preserves (varenye), and cheese-filled pasta stand out.

What do you see as the future of German-Russian cooking?  Do you see current trends that are bound to become more prevalent?

German-Russian cooking will undoubtedly continue to evolve, influenced by the cultures that the German Russians are exposed to wherever they live.  Traditional German-Russian cooking is very calorie-laden and today many cooks take steps to make the traditional dishes lower in fat.

German-Russian Recipes

Could you share your favorite recipe with our readers?

Let me suggest several:


The Volga Germans make Bierock (pronounced bee-ROCK, their version of pirog, a Russian “pie”).  Other names for these turnovers are Runza (meaning “paunch”) and Krautbrot (cabbage bread).  Indeed, in lean times Bierock were made without meat.  Whatever the name, they’re good.  They also freeze well if any are left over.  This recipe is from the Sei Unser Gast (Be Our Guest) cookbook published by the Germans from Russia North Star Chapter.

1 tsp. oil
2 lb. ground beef
6 c. shredded cabbage
2 c. chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 tsp. salt
ground black pepper to taste
2 loaves frozen bread dough, thawed, or 1 recipe Yeast Roll Dough

If you are not using frozen bread dough, first prepare the Yeast Roll Dough (recipe below).

To make the filling, heat the oil in a deep, heavy skillet.  Crumble the ground beef into the skillet, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned.  Add the onion, cabbage, garlic, salt, and pepper.  Cook on low heat about 30 min. more, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and let meat mixture cool to room temperature.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

Roll out the dough about 3/8-inch thick and cut into 4-inch squares.  Place about 3 Tbsp. of filling in center of each square.  Bring the four corners of the dough over the filling and pinch together.  Then pinch all the edges together tightly to seal.  Place on a baking sheet, brush lightly with oil, and let rise 20-30 minutes.  Bake at 350° F. for 25-30 min.  Serve hot, warm or even at room temperature.

Yeast Roll Dough
1 pkg. active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1 c. warm water
1 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbsp. butter, melted
3 to 3-1/2 c. all-purpose flour

In a bowl, mix the yeast and 1 tsp. of the sugar into 1/4 c. of the water.  When foamy, add the salt, egg, butter (that's been allowed to cool to lukewarm), and the rest of the water and sugar.  Stir in 3 c. flour.  Turn onto a floured surface and knead several minutes until smooth, working in a little more flour, if needed.  Put dough into a large greased bowl, turn over, and set in a warm place until dough is double in bulk.  Prepare the filling while the dough is rising.


Volga German Roast Beef Dinner (Broda)

When I was growing up in Kansas in the 1950s, roast beef seasoned with pickling spices and onion was served at Volga German wedding and funeral dinners and at the all-you-can-eat suppers at parish bazaars.  Beef roasted in this manner fills the house with a mouth-watering aroma.
3-lb. chuck roast
salt and pepper
2 tsp. (rounded) mixed pickling spices
1 bay leaf
1 onion, thickly sliced
3 c. water
6 potatoes, peeled and quartered
6 carrots, scraped and cut into chunks
cornstarch and water for thickening
Rub meat with salt and pepper and place in a roaster.  Tie a teaspoonful of pickling spice in each of two squares of cheesecloth.  Tuck the spice bags, the bay leaf and the sliced onion next to the roast.  Add the water to the roaster.  Bake, covered, at 350° F for 1 hr. and 45 min.
Remove roaster from oven.  Rub the potatoes and carrots with drippings and place around and atop the meat.  Bake, uncovered, about 45 min. more, until the vegetables and meat are tender and browned.
Serve the meat and vegetables on a platter, accompanied by a gravy made from the liquid in which the roast was cooked, thickened with cornstarch mixed with a little water.

Cucumber and Onion Salad
My mother served sliced tomatoes and cucumbers prepared in one of several ways at dinner and supper every day through the summer.  And if that weren’t enough, a salt shaker sat at the ready at the garden gate for anyone who couldn’t wait until mealtime.

Although mom used homegrown slicing or pickling cucumbers in this salad, the greenhouse or “English” cucumbers that one now finds in supermarkets work admirably for it, as do the burpless cucumbers that many people now grow.

1 greenhouse cucumber or 3 immature slicing cucumbers or an equivalent amount of young pickling cucumbers
1 onion
2 tsp. salt
5 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 cup white or cider vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
2 or 3 ice cubes
chopped fresh dillweed (optional)

You need not peel the cucumbers if you are using greenhouse or burpless cukes.  But if you’re using slicers or picklers from the garden, it’s best to peel them because the skins are tough and often bitter.

Slice the cucumbers and onion, crosswise, 1/8 inch thick.  Layer the slices in a bowl, sprinkling each layer with some of the salt.  Let stand 30 min. or longer.

Drain the sliced cucumbers and onion thoroughly in a sieve, then put into a serving bowl.  Sprinkle sugar over the cucumber and onion, then pour the vinegar over all.  Season to taste with pepper.  Top with the ice cubes.  Let stand 10-15 min., tossing a couple of times.  Garnish with the chopped dillweed if desired.

Black Sea German Kuchen

This recipe is from Carol Just, a former North Dakotan farm girl.  Germans from Russia are the largest ethnic group in North Dakota.  The ancestors of these German Russians emigrated to the Dakotas in the late 1800s and early 1900s from South Russia (now Ukraine, the Crimea, and Moldova).

The following recipe makes 8 pie-size Kuchen, a dessert so loved by Germans from Russia that they have succeeded in getting it named the official dessert of South Dakota.  Once cooled, Kuchen can be slipped into a plastic bag and frozen.

2 packages active dry yeast
1/4 c. lukewarm water
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 c. solid shortening, melted
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 c. warm water
2 tsp. salt
all-purpose flour (about 7 c.
Sliced fresh peaches or apricots or pitted prunes or dried apricots
Custard Topping (recipe follows)
Ground cinnamon
Additional sugar

Stir the yeast and 1 tsp. sugar into 1/4 c. warm water; set aside until bubbly.  Mix the proofed yeast with the shortening (which has been allowed to cool to lukewarm), 1/2 c. sugar, the eggs, 2 cups warm water, and the salt, with enough flour to make a soft dough (about 7 c.).  Knead the dough until it is smooth and pliable

Divide the dough into 8 pieces.  Roll out each piece of dough to fit a pie pan.  Place each round of dough in a greased pie pan and with the fingers, pat the dough up the side of the pan to form a rim. 

Let the dough rise about 30 minutes.  Place slices of fruit over the dough in each pan.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Prepare the Custard Topping and spread the topping over the fruit in each pan.  Sprinkle the custard topping liberally with sugar and dust with cinnamon.

Bake the Kuchen for about 30 minutes, or until brown.  Cool on a wire rack, then slip out of the pie plate and serve, cut into wedges.

Custard Topping: Mix 2 c. sugar, 5 Tbsp. flour, 5 eggs (beaten), 4 c. sour cream, and 2 tsp. vanilla extract.

German-Russian “Ravioli”

This cottage cheese-filled pasta can be either savory or sweet; served as a main dish or even for dessert.  The Volga Germans called them Käsemaultasche’ or Käsenudel’; the Germans from South Russia know them as Käseknöpfle; and to the Mennonites, they are a kind of vareniki.

Prepare the dough at least 30 minutes before you want to use it.  Mix 2 c. flour, 2 slightly beaten eggs, 1/2 tsp. salt and 4 Tbsp. milk or water.  Knead until the dough is smooth and moist, but no longer sticky.  Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let rest.

Next, prepare the filling:  On a plate, mash 12 oz. of dry-curd cottage cheese with a fork.  For a savory filling, mix the cottage cheese with 1 beaten egg, a little minced onion or chopped green onion, 3/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out 1/8" thick, and then cut it into 4" squares.  Place a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of each square, being careful to not get any at the edges.  Bring the corners of each square together over the filling and pinch the edges together tightly, making a pyramid-shaped pocket.  Or, you can simply put a spoonful of filling in the center of each square, fold the dough over the filling and pinch the edges together.

Add to 2 tsp. of salt to a large (6-8 qt.) pot of boiling water.  Add a few of the “ravioli” and cook them at a gentle boil for about 10 minutes.  When done they’ll have floated to the top.  As each is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon and drain well in a colander.  Keep the cooked “raviolis” warm.

When all have been cooked, melt ½ c. of butter in a skillet, add some freshly torn bread and brown the crumbs.  Pour the butter and browned crumbs over the “ravioli” and serve.

Or, if you want to make the savory German-Russian Mennonite version, fry some ham or sausage in a skillet until done.  Remove the meat from the skillet and add 1 c. of cream to the drippings, and cook over low heat until thickened.  Pour this over the vareniki and serve with the fried meat.

To prepare the sweet version, mash 12 oz. of dry-curd cottage cheese on a plate.  Mix this with 1 slightly beaten egg, 1/4 c. sugar, and 1/2 tsp. of ground cinnamon or 1/4 tsp. of ground allspice.  Make the “ravioli” as above.  When they have been cooked, garnish with a Schmeltz, made by boiling ¼ c. butter with 1/2 c. sweet or sour cream in a heavy skillet until thickened.


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