By Prudence Wade
For Olia Hercules, cooking is normally her therapy, her safe space – but she lost this when Russia invaded her native country, Ukraine.
“For the first two months or so, I couldn’t really cook – it was a weird feeling,” the 38-year-old remembers. “Normally it’s an act of meditation and stress relief. If it’s a normal, everyday stress, I cook – especially if I make something a bit more involved, like dough, breadmaking, dumplings – something like that, it’s amazing.
“But when you’re going through trauma, it was completely different. I felt guilty eating at first, then I felt guilty cooking. It was a horrible feeling, and I couldn’t shake it off.”
Now, Hercules says she realises cooking is “an act of resistance and defiance, and not letting Putin and his goons take all the joy away from us – because that’s what they’re trying to do”.
She also set up the Cook for Ukraine campaign with friend and food writer Alissa Timoshkina, as a way of raising awareness.
The campaign’s success exceeded Hercules’ expectations, and as well as raising awareness around the situation in Ukraine, it’s also a window into the country’s unique cuisine, which she says is “diverse, and can be fresh and herbaceous”.
Now though, Hercules doesn’t feel like she has to convince everyone that Ukraine is a rich and diverse country. It is – but she also says: “It’s time to embrace all of our potato and cabbage dishes, because they’re actually extremely delicious.”
She has one of these potato dishes in her latest cookbook, Home Food. A staple growing up, the recipe for crispy potatoes and onions is “something everybody could do – students do it – and the perfection of this dish is because you cut the potatoes in an imperfect way.”
Through writing her new book, Hercules realised how much food can connect people – regardless of where you come from. She reflects on her time in Italy (she spent a year there during university as part of an exchange program), saying: “When I lived in Italy, I immediately connected to my fellow students” through food.
Pasta with Confit Garlic, Goat’s Cheese and Thyme
2 small garlic bulbs
100ml good olive oil
Leaves from 4 thyme sprigs
200g spaghetti or linguine
200g soft goat’s cheese
Put the oil into the smallest saucepan or frying pan you have, heat it gently and spoon in the garlic, deskinned cloves. The cloves should be submerged in oil and cook very gently over the lowest heat possible.
It has to soften, mellow and colour only ever so slightly. The whole process should take about 20 minutes, but use your judgement. When ready, the garlic will smell very sweet and the cloves can be easily pierced with a knife. Take it off the heat and add the thyme.
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Put the goat’s cheese into a food processor. When there are three minutes to go before the pasta is done, ladle 200 millilitres of the pasta water into a measuring jug. Blitz the goat’s cheese with half of the measured pasta water and two to three tablespoons of the garlic oil. You will have a smooth and rather liquid sauce.
Drain the pasta and put it back into the pan. Pour the sauce over the pasta and, using tongs, pick the pasta up and down, making sure to cover the pasta in the sauce. Keep agitating it like this for a minute.
Put the pasta into serving plates and pour over any goat’s cheese sauce that remained behind in the pan. Serve with the confit garlic cloves scattered over the top and a drizzle of the garlic oil.
When you finish the pasta, pile the lettuce leaves directly into the pasta plate and add a little vinegar and salt.
Brown Butter, Miso and Walnut Cake
250g unsalted butter
30g reduced-salt miso paste
225g caster sugar
225g self-raising flour
50ml full-fat yogurt
40g broken walnuts
For the syrup:
50g white sugar
20g reduced-salt miso paste
40g walnuts, chopped
A couple of hours before you bake, put the butter in a small pan and heat until it bubbles gently. Have a bowl ready, to tip the brown butter into when it is ready. It will start smelling like butterscotch, its colour changing from light gold to amber, and its bubbling sound will quieten. Pour it into the bowl.
Whisk the miso into the warm butter; you should have 225g of butter mix. Put it into a container and leave it to cool and firm up (stir it a couple of times while it sets, to re-emulsify). You want it to be soft, like room-temperature butter.
Preheat the oven to 170C fan. Line a 20-centimetre square or round cake tin, or a 900-gram loaf tin, with baking parchment.
Put the cooled brown butter-miso mix in a bowl together with the sugar. Beat for five minutes with electric beaters or the food mixer at a high speed.
Beat the eggs one at a time into the mixture, scraping down the bowl in between. Add the self-raising flour and fold it in carefully with a spatula. Mix in the yogurt, again by hand. Spread the batter into the prepared tin, scatter the walnuts over, then push them into the batter slightly.
Bake for 40–50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool.
While it is cooling, in a pan dissolve the sugar in the measured water. Take it off the heat, add the miso and whisk it all together. Add the chopped walnuts and put the pan back over the medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring the whole time. Spread the syrup over the cake, let it cool slightly, then enjoy!
Home Food: Recipes To Comfort And Connect by Olia Hercules is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, priced £26. Photography by Joe Woodhouse. Available now.