Cure All Your Winter Woes Like a Russian Grandma
Kachka chef Bonnie Morales's grandma says vodka and raspberry jam can cure a lot of things.
All photos by Farideh Sadeghin
Bonnie Frumkin Morales is a child of Mother Russia, born in the U.S. Her parents were immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and she still has family in Belarus. She makes a habit of taking some of the staff of her restaurant Kachka, in Portland, Oregon, on "culinary research trips" to St. Petersburg and Minsk, to give them a real taste of the Old World cuisines she's adapted for her menu. In November, she and her husband and Kachka co-owner Israel just released their new cookbook, a collection of updated Eastern European classics.
On a blustery December day, the duo visited us at the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen to show us how to make something to warm us to the core. They treated us to fluffy, golden ponchiki, and a cozy cocktail lovingly titled Baba Sima’s Tonic, after Bonnie's grandmother.
Ponchiki are a Russian-style doughnut that Bonnie laced with apple and cheese, then dusted post-frying in sugar and thyme. It’s an un-yeasted dough, with both apple puree and chunks of apples, and chunks of soft, salty farmer’s cheese. “We make sure there’s pieces of the farmer’s cheese that are large enough so you get a little bit throughout the dough,” she says.
Using an ice cream scoop, she drops the dough into heated oil, then turns the doughnuts occasionally, until they’re perfectly golden all the way around.
When they’re ready, she lets them drain, then tosses them gently in sugar and thyme leaves, and the Test Kitchen smells like heaven.
While she’s frying, Israel sets to work on the cocktail. It’s a warming blend of Earl Grey-infused brandy, over-proof rum, and a bit of hot water. It’s served with a spoonful of raspberry jam on the side. “My grandmother insists that you can cure a cold in Russia with black tea, vodka, and raspberry jam all mixed together,” Bonnie says.
“The original drink is fifty-fifty over-steeped black tea, and vodka, then a spoonful of raspberry jam on the side,” adds Israel. At Kachka, they serve it with brandy and rum instead.
“What’s the goal of the jam?” we ask.
“That’s where the vitamins are!” says Israel, and who are we to argue with Bonnie’s babushka’s wisdom?
He pours a bit of the tea-infused brandy into each ornate Russian tea cup, then a bit of rum over a sugar cube resting on a spoon atop the cup like an absinthe drip, and lights the cube on fire to caramelize it.
While it’s burning, he passes the zest of an orange through the flame to release the citrus oils, and once again, the kitchen smells like a cozy dacha on a cold winter’s night. He drops the sugar cubes into the liquor, and stirs as he adds hot water.
MAKE THIS: Russian Apple Doughnuts (Ponchiki)
“In Russia, in general, people, even if they don’t have sweets when they have tea, at least have a little spoonful of jam on the side,” Bonnie says. “Raspberry jam is considered to be like a health tonic.”
The doughnuts have a perfectly crunchy, golden exterior, and the subtle apple-and-cheese dough gets a tart pop from a dollop of the raspberry jam. The cocktail has a rich and heady aroma, and the bright note of the orange peel cuts clean through the haze. If all it takes is a little jam on the side to make this a health tonic, then we definitely won’t be needing to visit the doctor this winter.