It’s one thing for a dish to be an indulgent treat. Within moderation, these treats really illustrate the joys of decadent or, you might say, even sinfully good food.
To actually feature it, however, in a celebration of “last indulgences” requires a dish that can really live up to hedonistic expectations.
Lucky for the Ukrainians, then, that there’s plenty of nalysnyky to enjoy during the celebrations of Masnytsya.
(NOTE: Want to save this recipe for later? You can take home a downloadable PDF version of this recipe by clicking here.)
Nalysnyky, Masnytsya and the “Cultural Transfer”
Before diving into the actual festival of Masnytsya, we’ll start by taking a look into what shaped the overall Ukranian culture.
As a prominent part of the Eurasian connect, the land that makes up modern day Ukraine has been a bed of some of the longest human activity in history. Some of the most prehistoric archaeological findings, for example, document Neanderthal remains as far back as 45,000 years.
Throughout the periods of ancient history and into the common AD era, there were two key advantages to the Ukrainian land. First, its location made it a valuable connector and hub for trade routes between European and Asian civilizations. Second, much of the land is blessed with chernozem, a rich black soil extremely rich in very fine mineral particles as a result of prehistoric wind movements. The incredible fertility of the land had traditionally made the Ukrainian lands an agricultural hotbed and actually recently again since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Thanks to this chernozem-rich land, much of the Ukranian cuisine you’d see is fairly simplistic in its preparation and instead relies on taking abundant advantage of the incredible local agriculture grown in this valuable soil.
Because of these two factors, the area proved to be one worth fighting for between different tribes and civilizations. The time period between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD saw the dominant power change hands between the Goths, the Slavs, the Bulgars and the Khazars.
The Kievan Rus’ State
By the 9th century AD, the city of Kyiv would be once again conquered and taken away from the reigning Khazars. The new ruling tribe, the Varangians, would begin a long period of rule and develop a state that would eventually become Kievan Rus’.
Before its dissolution in the 12th century, the predominantly Slavic state of Kievan Rus’ grew at its apex to be the geographically largest state in all of Europe. It was actually during the time of the Kievan Rus’ state that the name Ukraine, or “native land,” began appearing in historical documents from the 12th century onwards.
One of the most impactful and important changes for the region as a whole happened during the time of Kievan Rus’: the acceptance and spread of Christianity throughout the kingdom in 988 AD. Most traditionally, many of the region’s tribes had their own forms of pagan worship, although Judaism was also briefly introduced during the time of the Khazars.
It was this overarching transition from paganism to Christianity that brings us to the current day Masnytsya celebration… and nalysnyky.
The Masnytsya Celebration
Before diving into the history behind Masnytsya, it’s fun to note that some other non-Slavic names for the holiday include Butter Week, Crepe Week and Cheesefare Week. These should, above all else, give you an indication of the decadence of the nalysnyky to come.
Masnytsya can currently be traced back as far as the 2nd century AD and to older pagan, pre-Christian traditions. In this old Slavic mythology, the festival was a celebration of the god Volos, or the god of Sun, as the end of winter turned into the beginning of spring.
With the acceptance of Christianity, the Masnytsya festival was adapted and integrated into the local Orthodox calendar. Now, instead of celebrating an old pagan sun God, Masnytsya served as a pre-Lent week of celebrations and indulgences prior to periods of fasting and religious observances. In a way, Masnytsya became the Slavic version of what Mardi Gras and similar carnivals are to other areas around the world.
For the Ukranians especially, nalysnyky has played an important role all throughout Masnytsya. During the pagan times, the roundness of the crepes and the golden color closely resembled the sun and hence were an appropriate food-related tribute to Volos.
In the Orthodox Christian celebration, however, it is more the ingredients in nalysnyky that make it stand out as a common food. As a combination of ingredients like eggs, butter, cheese and milk, these crepes serve as one heck of a “last hurrah” before Lent, when these ingredients aren’t permitted to eat.
And a “last hurrah” the Ukranians certainly do have. Starting on the Monday of the week before Lent, the traditional celebration begins with the building of a straw Kostroma effigy. While the effigy is built, nalysnyky is prepared and distributed throughout the community to enjoy, especially for the poorer members.
By Tuesday, unmarried men are expected to find a woman to marry following the end of Lent, as they’ll have to meet their soon-to-be in-laws the very next day. At this Wednesday meeting between mothers- and sons-in-law, the key food prepared are – you guessed it – sweet and savory nalysnyky crepes.
Thursday through Saturday involve further activities between the future family members, and the week of indulgent celebrations ends on “Foregiveness Sunday.” On the day before the begin of Lent, members in the community will ask one another for forgiveness in hopes of having a “clean slate” prior to the begin of Lent. Since it’s the last day that dairy products can be enjoyed until the end of Lent, all types of nalysnyky are made for the community to enjoy together.
At the end of the day, everyone gathers to watch a burning of the Kostroma straw effigy, which marks the official end of the weeklong celebrations. It’s at this point that leftover nalysnyky will be thrown into the fire as a symbolic move of fertilizing the crops for the upcoming spring.
About the Recipe
There are several different pieces to making a truly traditional nalysnyky:
At the heart of the dish is the crepe itself. The crepe is actually very similar to other types of crepes, most notably its famous French counterpart. You’ll start by creating a runny batter made by mixing milk, eggs, some flour and a little dash of butter until you have a smooth and non-lumpy consistency.
Once you have your batter, you’ll heat up either a skillet or a pan to get really hot, at which point you’ll add a nice dollop of butter to melt into the pan. As the butter starts to brown (but before it begins to smoke), you pour a bit of the batter into the pan and, much like you would with French crepes, spread it as thinly as you possibly can.
To do this at home, we came across a nice trick you can use. Start by tilting the pan with one side much higher above the other. Pour the batter in at the top such that the batter will begin to run down across the pan. As this happens, rotate and move your pan around such that you can guide the batter to cover the entire circular surface of your pan. You shouldn’t need more than ¼ cup of batter in order to get a really nice, thin layer of crepe cooking in your pan.
You’ll cook your crepes for no more than 45 seconds to 1 minute each, at which point you set them aside once they’ve all been made. Afterwards, you can shift your focus to the next key component that makes nalysnyky so special: the filling.
Technically, there are all sorts of different fillings for the nalysnyky to have. You can have sweeter crepes, or you can fill it with more savory fillings. One of the most recognizable fillings – and certainly one super appropriate for Masnytsya – is a rich savory filling made with cheese and cream.
In a bowl, you’ll combine some cream cheese and heavy whipping cream together and mix about. To help create an even richer sauce, you can also throw in an egg yolk and maybe even some herbs like scallions and dill.
Mix your sauce well together, then proceed to spread a thin layer of the sauce onto each and every crepe you’ve prepared. With a thin layer of filling applied, you can then roll up your nalysnyky, cut it into several smaller pieces (optional), and place into a baking dish or in a pouch of aluminum foil.
Why this last part, you might ask? Because this is the last and distinctly Ukranian piece for this nalysnyky preparation: the “Ukranian frying.”
The Final Cooking: “Ukranian Frying”
Even though you already have a rolled crepe mixed with already delicious filling, you’re not yet done with your nalysnyky.
In a method sometimes referred to as “Ukranian frying,” you’ll want to take your crepes and essentially cook them again either in an oven or with your broiler. This unique heat treatment – especially used for meats and vegetables – is unique to Ukranian cuisine across all types of dishes.
In terms of nalysnyky, most recipes will suggest “Ukrainian frying” a pouch of aluminum into which to place your smaller cut pieces of rolled-and-filled crepes, although you’ll see later on in our version that we approached this slightly differently. Nevertheless, you’ll put all your “crepe-ettes” into a baking dish, sprinkle with an added touch of melted butter before covering and baking for 45 minutes.
Once it’s done baking, some of your filling will have melted into and made the crepes even more rich and decadent. For the filling that stays intact, it becomes a delightfully gooey and sinfully good filling for the overall dish.
Our Take on the Recipe
For as celebrated a dish as nalysnyky is, it was tough to find reasonably documented recipes to work with. There were a couple, though, and we found two in particular that were very easy to follow and served as great original reference recipes. Nevertheless, we did make several substantial changes to the original recipe into our own version.
Some of the greatest changes we made came into the filling. The original recipes called for either quark or a room temperature cream cheese cheese, although we saw in other recipes (including some directly linked to Masnytsya) that cottage cheese can be a more commonly used product in dishes like nalysnyky and others like varenyky. We therefore used cottage cheese as our base dairy product for the filling, although we also did add a touch of cayenne and some spring onions into the mix as well.
For the crepes themselves, we added a greater proportion of full-hull buckwheat flour from Bob’s Red Mill (affiliate link) into our batter. Traditional crepes as we’ve come to learn them are better if they feature more buckwheat flour in them, and we personally prefer having the more fibrous full-hull type of buckwheat that yields a darker color. The taste and everything else, however, comes out roughly the same even if you were to use refined buckwheat flour.
Also, we added a bit of club soda in place of regular water into the batter to help create a more aerated dough. It was a subtle change and probably didn’t make all that much more of a difference, but we liked it enough as a tweak to keep it in our version.
In the baking portion, we made a slight adjustment and simply lined the uncut crepes up into a greased baking dish instead of in an aluminum foil pouch. There wasn’t that much added benefit or change to using the aluminum foil pouch when we tried, and it was simply easier for us to manage in “Ukranian frying” the nalysnyky this way.
Otherwise, the nalysnyky is a delicious, decadent and fairly straightforward recipe to prepare. So long as you’re not in a period of stricter Lent observance, we’d even gather that this is a treat that can be enjoyed year round.
What filling would you put in your nalysnyky? Comment below!
(NOTE: Want to save this recipe for later? You can take home a downloadable PDF version of this recipe by clicking here.)
Disclaimer: The link to the Bob’s Red Mill full-hull buckwheat flour is an affiliate link. If you click the link and decide to buy the flour, a little portion of your order supports Arousing Appetites and the operational costs of this blog. There’s no need to click and buy from this link at all, and we’re only mentioning it here because we used the flour in the recipe ourselves and loved the result. If you do decide to click and buy, we very much appreciate the contribution and are grateful to you.