Medivnyk: Ukrainian honey cake
By Marisa Romano
Ukrainian potato dumplings are served more often these days, a sign that world events are once again shaping our dinner tables.
While we in Ottawa were unwinding after the liberation of our downtown from the truck convoy, tanks were rolling into the Eastern Ukraine republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. It was February 22, the dawn of a senseless war and an attempt to eradicate a culture.
The response from Ukrainian expats and supporters has been to turn towards that culture under threat and preserve its richness. Varenyky (as pierogis are known in Ukraine) and pysanky (decorated Easter eggs) are words now familiar in many Canadian households. Together with the Ukrainian choral tradition, they embody the taste, colours and sounds of a land and a people with a long history of struggle for their independence.
I connected with an old friend of Ukrainian descent for a closer look at her ancestral culture and spent an afternoon in her kitchen with recipes and personal stories about her cherished heritage. When choosing a dish to prepare on our culinary afternoon, Kim Ostapyk proposed Medivnyk, the Ukrainian honey cake – her baba’s favourite.
Key ingredients of this symbol of Ukrainian households – wheat and honey – represent major products of one of the world’s richest agricultural lands. Known as Europe’s breadbasket – but a source of wheat for African and Asian countries as well – Ukraine is one of the world’s top wheat exporters. Ukraine is also Europe’s largest producer of honey. The beekeeping tradition in Slavic-Baltic regions goes back millennia, back to the time when beekeepers tended wild bees nested in natural hollows of trees. Nowadays, wild-hive beekeeping is a tradition still practised in northern Ukraine where hives are made from hollowed out logs hung on forest trees. The honey harvested from these hives is praised for its special flavour.
Medivnyk is a dark, spongy cake with a decisive taste of the precious golden nectar. Buckwheat honey, reminiscent of molasses, is one of the most popular sweeteners for the batter, but the cake can be baked with other dark or light and sweeter honeys like clover. There are many versions of this recipe, as many as there are Ukrainian babas (grandmothers). Various spices, nuts and dried fruits can be added to the basics, but the simplest – the one we baked – is the one Ostapyk’s baba loved.
Ostapyk’s mama, Sally, joined us for tea as soon as our baking was out of the oven. She brought with her the photos and the memories of her trip to the little Ukrainian village where her mama came from. As an active member of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Sally honours her heritage by helping with the activities organized there and the popular Ukrainian festival where visitors line up for bags of handmade varenyky and enjoy traditional singing and dancing.
Honey cake was also the favourite of Michael Koros’ baba Zelinsky. Like Ostapyk’s baba, she also left western Ukraine and found refuge in Canada with her husband. A neighbour and first tenor in the Ukrainian Men’s Choir of Ottawa, Akord (akordchoir.ca), Koros honours his heritage by bringing traditional songs – “musical pieces from the fields, steppes and mountainous Carpathian regions of Ukraine”– to audiences across Canada. “It is a tragedy and crime beyond comprehension,” says Koros about the current situation. “Pray for Ukraine, that is all we can do.”
Marisa Romano is a foodie and scientist with a sense of adventure who appreciates interesting and nutritious foods that bring people together.
Medivnyk: Ukrainian Honey Cake
This is the gluten-free version of the traditional Ukrainian honey cake. In this recipe, two cups of white flour are replaced by gluten-free alternatives. We baked both versions of the cake to compare. They both received two thumbs up from all who indulged.
¼ lb butter, at room temperature
½ cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup liquid honey (buckwheat honey is the traditional choice, but other honey is good too)
1 cup sour cream, full fat
1½ cups gluten-free flour
½ cup almond flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 cup walnuts, finely crushed
Beat butter and sugar until fluffy; beat in the liquid honey, then the eggs. Dissolve the baking soda in the sour cream and mix it into the batter, alternating with the flours, ending with flour. Stir in the walnuts. Pour the batter into a prepared 9×13 baking pan. Bake at 350F for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cut when cooled.
The taste improves with time and is best after two or three days, but how would I know? Our cakes were all gone by then!