Political vitriolic nattering and scandals aside, I’ve been pondering Russia. Specifically what goes on in and comes out of some extraordinary or even perhaps ordinary Russian kitchens and bakeshops. Pies. Stunning pies and tartelettes.
Come Sunday, I’ll be teaching a week of domestic and international pie-making at the John C. Campbell folk school, and pie is my very favorite scheme for bringing friends, family and any old body to the table. And even though the relationship between “us and them” is, er, rather contentious these days, what I wouldn’t give to stand at the elbow and learn pie secrets from a Russian babushka pastry queen. Or even my own great-babushka/bubbie, who was long gone by the time I was born.
As it turns out, I am the granddaughter of a kinda, sorta, at one time, illegal Russian immigrant/refugee. As a little kid crouched on my West Virginia school’s cloak room floor in 1960s Cuban missile “duck and cover” fashion, I lived in abject terror that my Russian heritage would be discovered. Not so now, of course, because people are people wherever we live, rolling out our version of pie dough for our loved ones who will soon gather with us at our table for a bit of pie and prattle.
Around 1920, my then 20 year old grandfather, Itzrok Svilikovski, fled Kiev (now Ukraine), following a very messy period in Eastern Europe’s history. Revolutions, pogroms, property-seizing, hunger and other hardships that I cannot begin to fathom, brought my young Jewish Grandpa to Romania. Shortly thereafter, he sought a sponsored passage to Canada where he lived for about a year with cousins in Montreal. Until one very mysterious day, he took a train to upstate New York, arriving as Isadore Swillikowsky. Which is where the story becomes a bit murky.
I had always heard that Isadore sneaked over the Canadian border to the US, leaving his family in Russia, some of whom would follow in his footsteps and others who would later die as victims of the Holocaust. But as it turns out, my grandfather was just probably unsponsored, perhaps due to quota laws which were enacted at that time to curb the influx of thousands of Eastern European Jews into America. Anyway, he settled in the Bronx of NYC, changed his surname to Swill and later to Swell, obtained citizenship, married my Polish grandmother, became a dry goods peddler (speaking Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Italian and English) then had three kids, including my dad. Interestingly, my dad does not know much about his father’s life prior to his arrival in the U.S. It was a new beginning for him and that was that. Good thing for my sister, Laura’s diligent genealogical sleuthing … together with my father and my Aunt Lila as well as other lost and found family members, our forgotten/hidden past is becoming clearer.
Indeed, more family stories came forth last week as my dad and I recreated a couple of his favorite childhood Thursday night vegetarian dishes … cheese blintzes to honor his Polish mother and Ukrainian Borscht as a nod to his father’s homeland.
I am forever grateful for this delightfully quirky loving family with its storied heritage and also that my grandfather’s harrowing journey ended with the great honor and opportunity to become an American citizen. Surely if Grandpa Isadore could do all that and speak five languages fluently, I could learn enough Russian to translate the name of these little pastries, (which were the inspiration for my applebag pielets). If any of you out there can help me out with that, jump in! And for this New Year, may your table be graced with friends, family and those in need of good conversation as well as heated debate. And maybe even a plateful of warm fishnet applebag pielets. Here’s how you make them:
PS I’ll soon write a post on how to make my super flaky butter pie crust, but in the meantime, my pie book is only $5.95, and it’s also available on Amazon as both a paperback and Kindle.
- One recipe for a two crust 9-inch pie, divided into 4 balls and refrigerated overnight
- About 8 apples, mixture of tart and sweet, peeled and grated
- 1/2 cup golden raisins soaked in Calvados apple brandy, rum, or bourbon (optional but excellent)
- 1/4 cup white or brown sugar, to taste. I sweeten my apple pies with a drizzle of cider syrup (cider reduced 4:1, simmered until syrupy in texture)
- Pinch of cinnamon and nutmeg
- Grating of lemon zest (about a teaspoon)
- Pinch of salt
- Peel, core and grate apples.
- Combine with remaining ingredients and let sit about 30 minutes or so until some of the juices are released. Cook apples just until softened and juices are syrupy, but apples gratings still hold their shape. Refrigerate from 30 minutes to overnight
- Meanwhile, roll out your flaky butter crust. That you made last night and is now in the fridge. Use a dessert plate as a template for cutting out four 7-8 inch circles and divide each into quarters. See photo for assembling the pielet. Brush tops with cream or milk and sprinkle with sugar. Place on parchment and bake in a 375 oven about 15 minutes until nice and brown.
Oh, Barbara…. bless your little Russian-Polish mountain girl heart. These are absolutely adorable. I will get them whipped up this weekend… well maybe after the ice storm passes. Have fun next week at JCCFS. Wish I was there.
I’m gonna miss you like crazy at the pie class this week, Gina. We’ll be making a big British meat pie …. you’re a hard act to follow!!!!
Lovely Barb! Glad to hear about the English meat pie. Will it be a pork pie? Or a raised game pie? I had a (hot) ox cheek pie with a crispy suet crust this week. Delicious!
Well Nick, it will be a Jennifer pie, with pork and no cheeks!
Hi Barb, your dad sent me your blog. It’s just fabulous!
Wonderful history and pielets.
Oh so honored you liked hearing about the “other” side of our wonderful family, Linda! xoxoxo
Loved your story and photos and yummy looking pielets! My grandparents, and/or great grandparents are from Romania too! And Lithuania. Their stories are mostly lost, though I heard one was a horse-trader and they fled pogroms/violence against Jews.
Keep telling stories, please!
Horse trader? Love it. I do wish we knew more … Have you read A Bintel Brief? My very old copy is falling apart from being well-loved, but I’m sure an updated version is still in print. It’s a collection of six decades of letters from mostly Eastern European Jewish immigrants written to the Jewish Daily Forward in NY starting in 1906. These folks told their amazing stories & asked for advice and you sure get a descriptive glimpse of what these families went through to get here, not to mention what they dealt with once they arrived.
Hi Barbara ~ so glad I found your website via a comment on Kate’s Art of the Pie website! I’ll get to the Folk school someday, as I’ve been following their classes for years. I would love to take a class in your log cabin home if you still teach there! I live in southern California, and would love to travel to your beautiful part of the country! ~ Laurie Lasala-Tuttle
Thanks Laurie! I’d love to have you visit our beautiful mountain town. Will keep you posted about future log cabin cooking classes. I have a week-long pie camp scheme in the works, maybe this fall.