One of the great mysteries and foundational themes of Russian cuisine is tvorog, a dairy product whose closest English equivalent is farmer’s cheese, or cottage cheese.
In Russia, even in the times of post-Soviet scarcity, the dairy sections in supermarkets had a bewildering array of tvorogs, mostly soft white blocks wrapped in soft, white paper with coloured writing on it. Now, in Moscow’s lavish specialty markets, the selections can run into the dozens.
Russians eat tvorog for breakfast with jam or toppings; make pancakes called syrniki with it; whip it into a confection with sour cream and raisins; use it as a sweet-cheese filling for Russian-style pies, danishes and dumplings; make it into a large cheesecake called a vatrushka; or turn it into a crustless baked dessert called a zapekanka. Some items that resemble packaged-breakfast-yogurts are actually little tvorogs. In other words, this delicious dairy product is everywhere, and, since it has its foundations in peasant cuisine, there’s a lot of variety within the category as well.
Some tvorogs are hard and almost crumbly. Some are soft and milky-mild. Some have a slight zing. A recipe that asks you to “grate” your tvorog won’t turn out well if you use a soft one, and vice-versa a recipe that calls for tvorog to be just mixed up with other ingredients may not work well with the harder variety.
Below is a recipe for syrniki, a tvorog pancake that is one of the most elegant, decadent and delicious of all Russian breakfast options.
225g Russian tvorog, farmer’s cheese, ricotta or other substitute
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
6 tbsp flour; plus additional flour for shaping
Sour cream, condensed milk, jam, or other toppings of your choice
Butter to fry
Combine the cheese, egg, sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl, and stir to combine. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt over the mixture, then the flour, and stir until well-mixed.
In order to shape, take a handful of flour and spread it on a plate or on your countertop. Divide the batter into four portions (about 90g each), scoop out a portion with a spoon and drop it onto the flour. Sprinkle some flour over the top and on the sides of the lump of dough so your fingers won’t stick to it, then shape it into a round, flat cake, about 7cm across and 3cm thick. Repeat with the other portions.
Fry the cakes in butter on medium-low heat, about 5-8 minutes per side. You want them to be golden on the outsides and the flour should cook through. They can be squishy in the middle but should not be raw. Serve with the toppings of your choice.
Quick Tvorog at home
1 litre carton of full-fat buttermilk
(in a paper carton, not a plastic one)
Place the carton of buttermilk, unopened, in a large pot of water so that it is fully submerged. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn off the heat and allow the carton to cool completely in the water. Line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth, then open the carton and pour the contents through. The buttermilk will have separated into curds and whey. Gently lift the curds up inside the cheesecloth so they form a ball, and squeeze out extra moisture. Allow to drain in the manner of your choice for several hours (or less if you’re in a rush). The Russian way is to tie the cheesecloth with its contents to the spigot of the sink.
Photos: Cover – Danilova Janna/Shutterstock , 1 – Vladislav Noseek/Shutterstock , 2 – Work2506/Shutterstock , 3 – Genitchka/Shutterstock , 4 – MargoChistova/Shutterstock