NPR journalist Alina Selyukh makes oreshki, a cookie from the former Soviet Union. The walnut-shaped cookies, which have a rich, nutty filling, were popular during a time when people had to make do with limited ingredients. Selyukh tells us about her memories of making it with her mother back in Samara, Russia, where she grew up.
Alina Selyukh grew up in Samara, a city in southeastern Russia. One of her favorite childhood desserts is oreshki, a walnut-shaped cookie with a rich, sweet filling of highly concentrated condensed milk. Sometimes, nuts are also thrown in.
"They were a staple birthday party treat," says Selyukh, a tech reporter for NPR. "The thing I liked most about oreshki is that they come with really delicious scraps that can be consumed while you're 'helping' your mom make them."
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The cookie was also popular in other eastern European countries. In Romania, people call it nuci and it's made with chocolate filling. In Georgia, they were available in bakeries.
"I don't think there is a single confectionary in Georgia that does not make them," writes Giorgi Lomsadze, a journalist based in Tbilisi, in an email. To him, oreshki is among the treats that defined the "sweet taste of childhood."
Oreshki's popularity across the former Soviet Union goes back to the food shortages of the era. "A lot of things were in shortage, so people got really creative with very simple ingredients, like flour, sugar, eggs, margarine," says Selyukh. "The variety of pastries, savory hand pies, various desserts, that came out of those very basic ingredients were just immense." Oreshki was one of them.
We've reported before about how people in the former Soviet Union became creative with their food preparations and presentation during times of shortage. As Pavel Syutkin, author of The CCCP Cookbook: True Stories of Soviet Cuisine, told The Salt in 2015, "Food shortages made housewives show more imagination in plate serving." Syutkin talks about advice found in a 1989 cookbook. "The author instructs cooks to serve canned sprats on a plate, placing the fishes like a sun's rays and decorating with carrot slices."
But creativity with food during times of shortage isn't exclusive to the former Soviet Union.
Last year, The Salt wrote about Nitza Villapol, the Cuban cooking show host and cookbook author who taught people in Cuba how to cook traditional dishes with simple, local ingredients. This was after imported ingredients like rice, lard and pork slowly disappeared after the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
In many African and Asian countries, people in rural areas often eat certain plants that are considered to be weeds elsewhere. They are not cultivated, but available locally and often eaten by locals, like pigweed, a species of amaranth.
One of the more surprising stories about culinary creativity during lean times has to do with Italian cuisine, says Carol Helstosky, a historian at the University of Denver. "We have all these images of abundance when we think of Italian food – lots of great food, artisanal cheese, sausages," she says. But in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Italy's economy — "primarily agricultural with pockets of industrialization" — wasn't strong, she says. And many Italians were emigrating to North or South America or to other parts of Europe.
When Helstosky looked at old studies by sociologists and medical professionals for what Italians who stayed behind were eating at the time, she found that "it was dominantly some type of carbohydrate, supplemented by very little else." In the north of Italy, people mostly ate polenta and bread, she says. In the south, it was either pasta or bread.
But "even in the face of scarcity, people could be really creative [in the kitchen]," says Helstosky. Take the varieties of shapes and sizes of pasta, she says. What went with the pasta would often depend on people's incomes. "Poor people would use garlic and oil, or a little bit of grated cheese could go a long way," she says. "If they had fresh produce and didn't sell it," they would add it to their pasta.
And this type of culinary creativity in the face of shortages seems to be "the default position for most people throughout history," says food historian Rachel Laudan.
Until the late 19th century, when people had good and reliable modes of transportation to move large amounts of food between places, most people – especially in small towns and rural areas – had to get creative during times of shortage, relying on whatever was available locally, she says. Most people were in a situation which Laudan describes as "the tyranny of the local." "No sugar, no tea, no spices," she says. "You had to be ingenuous with what you collect or grow locally."
Alina Selyukh's Oreshki Recipe
3 glasses of flour (Alina's note: In Russia, we measure things using a glass, which is slightly larger than a cup, but cup measurements should work here, too.)
1/2 glass of sugar
250 g margarine (butter)
1/4 tsp soda
1/4 tsp salt
vanilla to taste
Froth the egg whites; mix the egg yolks thoroughly with sugar.
Pour a tiny bit of vinegar into a teaspoon with soda to set off a reaction.
(Alina's note: This step doesn't seem necessary at all, but it is fun. Plus, who am I to question this age-old recipe?)
Rub the margarine with flour, adding vanilla. (Alina's note: Here, vanilla refers to vanillin powder, so it's added to dry ingredients. If using liquid vanilla, you can add it to the liquid ingredients.) Mix everything well into a thick mass.
1 can condensed milk
7 ounces nuts
Boil the can of condensed milk for 2 hours. Give the can plenty of time to cool before opening, then mix in chopped nuts. (Alina's note: Instead of cooking the can of condensed milk, you could use dulce de leche.)
Instructions for the cookies
Make dough into balls 25-30 mm in diameter, add them to the press, close it and remove the excesses with a knife. Heat each side of the press for 30-40 seconds at a time until ready. Cooled-off shells can be filled with cream, jam or any other filling and then combined together.
Finished cookies should be placed in the fridge or another cool place for 1-2 hours. (Alina's note: Good luck with that.)
(Alina's note on the cookie mold: You can search for "oreshnitsa" or "oreshki" online and find a few of the stove-top presses for sale. Other options I've seen recommended by food bloggers and people in their comment sections are a waffle maker with cookie-shape attachments, an oven mold from eBay, an electric press and a cakelet pan.)
Correction July 13, 2017
A previous version of this story described Romania as being part of the former Soviet Union. It was in fact under Soviet influence, but not formally part of the U.S.S.R.