I find myself apologizing and bending the truth. Did I really add three tablespoons? I am sure I could safely say it was only two. I am sorry I used it, but the rest of the ingredients were healthy and nutritious. Or, maybe I could omit it altogether? I know the flavour would be different, but it would surely still taste good, right?
I always feel guilty using mayonnaise when cooking. And I know exactly why.
Mayo dominated Soviet cuisine for the past hundred years. With no variety and no access to sauces, and condiments, mayo, mustard and ketchup (less common) were the only available options. Even in the 20th century, dressing salad in mustard did not seem like a good idea. And so people experimented and Soviet food was born – smothered in mayo, with piped mayo rosettes on the side.
In the late 90s, at the dawn of culinary Internet, just as I started becoming interested in cooking, there was a mayo backlash all over Russian websites. Breaking out of their Soviet shell, Russians finally had access to ingredients and techniques that were only glimpsed in foreign films before. Mayo was out; yogurt was in.
Countless cooking forums condemned the use of mayo and I, regrettably, got caught in the anti-mayo frenzy. I denounced my childhood favourites: French meat (one-inch thick beef slices, sprinkled with onion, drowned in mayo, covered in cheese, and baked to a slow and leathery death for three hours); herring under fur coat (herring, onion, boiled potatoes, eggs, beets all layered onto a platter with a thick coating of mayo between each ingredient); and cheese salad (grated Havarti-like cheese, garlic, mayo – simplicity at its best). I avoided any recipes where mayo played a major role. I used sour cream instead, and later Greek yogurt. I turned away from my background, my memories, my grandmother’s food.
For the past 15 years, I've been apologizing for the use of mayo in my cooking. But something changed recently. I want to say I became older and wiser, but that’s not true. Older – yes. Wiser – doubtful. I became more retrospective. I no longer want to distance myself from my Russian heritage. Instead I want to embrace it in the form of the food I make. I want to honour my grandparents, their life, and their love in my cooking. And so I find myself looking for those classic Soviet recipes that my grandmother used to make, full of mayonnaise and nostalgia. I continue making substitutions and decreasing the amount of mayonnaise. Yogurt is still in, but mayo is back.
My grandmother was famous for her cabbage pies - not just one, she made many kinds. Everyone in the family had their favourite. Grandpa loved the kind with crust made of farmers’ cheese, butter, and flour, reminiscent of traditional pie dough but still pliable and flakey. Mom liked cabbage pie with a few layers of thin strudel dough. The thinness of the pastry allowed her the fantasy that she wasn’t indulging in a fat-laden and carb-rich pie. I liked yet another kind made with thick yeasty dough: feather light, slightly sweetened, and full of butter and egg yolks. But really I loved them all: thick and thin, soft and crisp; all made with years of experience, all made with unconditional love.
Years later, already in Canada, elaborate yeast doughs and thin strudel layers became too difficult for my grandma to manage. Still, she’d indulge us once a year in her made-from-scratch cabbage pies. Growing older she started using ready-made puff pastry and quick mayonnaise batter. The first time I tried that new and unfamiliar mayo version of the pie, I loved it. The top crust was soft, spongy, and savoury. My grandma smiled at me waiting for questions, anticipating a request for the recipe. But once I found out it was made with excoriated mayo, I did not write the recipe down and refused a second helping.
I still remember the last time I had my grandmother’s cabbage pie, a few short months before she passed away. We had dinner at my mom’s place - three generations of women, all born in the country that no longer exists, all living in the country that only I call home. I asked my grandma to bring her famous cabbage pie. I was hoping she’d make the one with fluffy bread dough, but she was 80 years old and used store-bought puff pastry. I was disappointed, but taking the first bite still transported me back to my childhood. The filling of the pie was just as I expected: chopped and cooked cabbage mixed with boiled and diced eggs -- bathed in melted butter. I remember my grandma looking at me expectantly, worrying that I’d complain about the different kind of dough. I told her I loved it and asked for the recipe.
I never got my grandma’s mayo cabbage pie recipe, so this one I developed in her memory.
For the filling:
Savoy cabbage, shredded - 4 cups shredded
Dill, chopped - 1/3 cup
Eggs, boiled and chopped - 3 large
Salt, pepper to taste
For the batter:
Eggs - 3 large
Greek yogurt - 1/3 cup
Mayo - 1/3 cup
Sugar - 2 teaspoons (optional)
Baking powder - 1 1/2 teaspoons
Flour 1/2 cup
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Prepare the filling:
- Boil shredded cabbage for about 10 minutes until soft. Drain, squeeze excess liquid and cool.
- Mix cooled cabbage, dill, and chopped eggs. Add seasoning as required.
- Prepare the batter:
- In a large bowl whisk together eggs, greek yogurt, and mayo until well combined.
- Add sugar if using.
- Add baking powder and flour. Mix well.
- The batter will be the consistency of a very thick yogurt.
- Butter the pie plate, place the filling in the pie dish, pour the batter over and spread.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the batter is golden brown and is springy to the touch.
- I like a touch of sweetness in savoury foods, so I always add sugar even to salty pies, but sugar can be omitted in the recipe.
- The batter become spongy and a bit like a savoury cake.
- Savoy cabbage takes less time to cook than regular cabbage. If you are using regular cabbage for the pie, then it might need to be boiled for longer.
- For extra indulgence, boiled cabbage can be sautéed in butter.