When Craig Adcock turned his Lenexa kitchen over to in-laws and friends one recent Sunday, at first glance it appeared to be a purely social occasion.
By ANNE BROCKHOFF
Special to The Star
Adcocks wife, Teresa Erb; her mother, Judy Erb; her aunts, Mary Traxler and Colette Cole Traxler; and friends Brad and Sharon Klaus Walker laughed, kneaded and chopped in the eclectic commercial space usually devoted to producing Judes Kansas City Rum Cakes and hosting Adcocks Table Ocho dinners.
The soundtrack roamed from James McMurtry, to Christabel and the Jons, to Neil Diamond. Bloody Mary makings lined the bar.
But the group was there for more than a good time. They had gathered to share foods from their common Volga German heritage, one-time standards that some now feel are fading from the family table.
I dont want these things to be lost, said Sharon Walker as she browsed the half dozen dog-eared community cookbooks scattered along the counter.
Food has served as a cultural anchor for the group, also known as Germans from Russia, since the first German-speaking settlers arrived in Russias Volga River Valley in the 18th century. They came at the behest of Catherine the Great, who offered farmland in exchange for perks including exemption from military service and taxes.
More than 25,000 Germans established 104 colonies in the region between 1763 and 1768, according to the Kansas Historical Society. But Czar Alexander II revoked Catherines manifesto in 1871, sparking an exodus to America. Volga Germans settled throughout the Great Plains, including western Kansas, where the Erbs, Traxlers and Walkers still have roots.
Judy, whos originally from Bird City, learned Volga German cooking from her former mother-in-law and friends while raising her family in Bazine, and then taught Mary. Colette, whose forebearers settled in Bison after leaving Russia, shared her own favorites when she married Judy and Marys brother.
Sharon grew up in Hays and learned to make special dishes like galreigh (jellied pigs feet) and everyday ones like galuskies (cabbage rolls) from her mother.
Sharons galuskies arent so different from Polish, Czech and other versions, partly because of how Volga Germans were influenced by the cuisines they encountered. Flavors from their native Germany combined with those of Russia, Ukraine and their neighbors, and then those recipes were handed down through generations.
A lot of the foods they had in Germany traveled with them to Russia and then to the United States, said Betty Pfannenstiel, who lives in Munjor and helped found the Sunflower Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia.
To make her galuskies, Sharon mixed ground beef, ground pork, rice and chopped onion. She then mounded handfuls onto softened cabbage leaves, rolled them into tidy packets and placed them in a large pot. After dosing them with sauerkraut, a can of tomato soup and a little water, she put on the lid and left the galuskies to simmer for two hours.
That didnt mean taking a break, though. It was time to make butterballs. Judy, Colette and Craig had already mixed the breadcrumbs, melted butter, cream, eggs and allspice and chilled the dough.
The rest of the crew pitched in to roll out the dozens of small balls that would be added to homemade chicken noodle soup or frozen for later use. Its definitely a communal task, and Teresa laughed as she recalled the time Judy forgot the allspice.
She remembered after wed rolled them all. She made us put them back in the bowl and then start over, Teresa said.
You have to have the allspice, Judy agreed.
Butterballs are a holiday staple at Colettes house, but she recalls also serving them at the concession stand during high school basketball games when her kids were in school. Out-of-towners even those of Volga German descent were often stumped when asked if they wanted butterballs in their soup. Thats not unusual, Judy said.
Sharons family is 60 miles away in Hays, and they make things we dont, she said.
Even familiar foods vary, both in substance and in name. Take hearts, a cookie that also goes by the German hertz, herzher, hertzchen or hertzyer. Das Essen Unsrer Leute, which was published jointly by seven Volga German communities in 1976, includes eight recipes, each with varying quantities of flour and sugar. Some use cream, others sour cream. A few call for cinnamon.
Its the same with bierocks, a meat-stuffed bun the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford University Press; 2007) calls the canonical dish of Germans from Russia. Judy sticks with the traditional combination of ground beef, finely chopped onion and shredded green cabbage cloaked in bread dough, although other recipes call for sauerkraut, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, onion soup mix and cheese.
Plenty of cooks still make dough from scratch, but many substitute frozen dough (Rhodes is the preferred western Kansas brand) or a boxed mix. Its all fine, said Ethel Younger, who edited Sharing Our Best, a community cookbook published by the St. Fidelis Church in Victoria thats now in its fourth printing and has sold more than 11,000 copies.
Anybody who works uses those shortcuts, she said. Years ago, the mother and the family were at home, and she had time to make all those things. Its a different world now.
Still, recipes have remained largely unchanged over the centuries. Most rely on farm staples like flour, cream, butter, eggs, cabbage, onions, potatoes, beef and pork. There are plenty of homemade breads and noodles, and dumplings combine with everything from fruit and potatoes to sauerkraut and green beans.
Indeed, green bean dumpling soup was long a Lenten staple among Volga German Catholics, according to GermanCapitalofKansas.com, a website devoted to preserving the German heritage of Ellis County. It can be made with fresh, frozen or canned green beans. Some cooks add flavor and thicken the soup by browning a bit of flour first; others add cream before serving. A few, Sharon and Hays Smokin Co. BBQ among them, even flavor it with bacon.
I know its not traditional, but I like it that way, Sharon said.
Fruit also plays a big role in the Volga German kitchen, particularly with treats such as the coffee cake-like kuchen. Many versions layer apples, peaches, plums or other familiar fruits over sweet bread dough and then add a custard or crumb topping, while others incorporate unusual ingredients like watermelon syrup.
The syrup dates to the Russian settlements, where sugar was hard to come by and watermelons were plentiful, Sam Brungardt explained in Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans From Russia, a documentary produced by Prairie Public Broadcasting of North Dakota. Cooks would boil watermelon juice until it was thick, black and shelf-stable, a labor-intensive process only a handful of Volga Germans still undertake.
More readily available, at least to those with western Kansas connections, are the pea-sized, black berries called schwartzberra (also spelled schwartzberren or schwartzbeeren). Immigrants brought seeds for the edible nightshade plant from Russia, said Brungardt, also the editor of Sei Unser Gast: Be Our Guest (Society of Germans From Russia, 1998), and theyre now something of a volunteer crop. Not that its widely recognized.
They used to tell us years ago that theyre a weed, that theyre poisonous, Betty said. But weve been eating them since we were kids.
Schwartzberra can be eaten raw, although their tartness makes them better suited to baking. When Colettes son brought her a package of frozen berries grown by a friend, she and Judy knew they had to make a kuchen.
The rest of the group was clearly glad they did. Relaxing around Adcocks table after a frenzy of cooking, sipping wine and picking at the remaining kuchen, soups and bierocks, Teresa summed it all up: This is just so good, she said.
The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (Oxford University Press; 2007) calls bierocks the canonical dish of Germans from Russia. This version is from Judy Erb of Overland Park.
Makes about 1 dozen
1 1/2 pounds hamburger
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small head of green cabbage, shredded
Salt and pepper to taste
1 (16-ounce) box Pillsbury hot roll mix
Melted butter, for
Heat a large skillet and cook hamburger until no pink remains. Stir in onion and cabbage, reduce heat, cover and cook until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare roll mix according to package instructions. Transfer meat mixture to a strainer and allow to drain and cool while dough rises.
Once dough is ready, divide in half and roll each half into a large rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick. Cut rectangle into smaller rectangles, about 3 inches by 4 inches. Mound some of the meat filling in the center of a rectangle, pull opposite corners together, stretching dough slightly. Pinch closed, repeat with other two corners and then pinch remaining edges closed. Place seam-side down on a parchment-lined or greased baking sheet. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rise again for about 30 to 60 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake bierocks for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Brush baked surfaces with melted butter. Serve.
Per bierock: 182 calories (65 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 43 milligrams cholesterol, 5 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams protein, 153 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Green Bean Dumpling Soup
Green bean dumpling soup was long a meatless Lenten staple among Volga German Catholics, according to GermanCapitalofKansas.com. This recipe from Sharon Klaus Walker is unusual in that it calls for bacon. Using an eggshell to measure the water guarantees the perfect egg-to-water ratio, she says.
Makes 8-10 servings
4 cups green beans, fresh or frozen
1 or 2 red potatoes, peeled and diced
2 slices bacon, cut into pieces (optional)
1 cup (or slightly less) heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus extra to form the dumplings
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggshells water
Heavy cream, to serve
Place beans, potatoes and bacon in a large pot, cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, make the dumplings: Combine flour, eggs, salt, pepper, baking powder and water in a medium bowl and mix until dough forms. Mixture should be stiff but still wet; if it is runny, add a bit more flour.
Bring soup back to a boil, use a teaspoon to scoop out small amounts of dumpling dough and drop into the hot soup. Cook until dumplings rise to the surface. Season with salt and pepper, stir in cream and black pepper and serve.
Per serving, based on 8: 212 calories (55 percent from fat), 13 grams total fat (8 grams saturated), 95 milligrams cholesterol, 19 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 332 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Knebel and Katoffel (Dumplings and Potatoes)
Dumplings are popular throughout Volga German cooking. This version from Sharon Klaus Walker combines them with potatoes.
Makes 6-8 servings
2 to 3 medium red potatoes, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggshells water
1 to 2 slices of bread, torn or cubed into small pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 to 3 tablespoons butter, as needed
3/4 cup warm heavy cream, to serve
Boil potatoes in salted water until cooked through. While the potatoes cook, make the dumplings and bread topping.
For the dumplings: Combine flour, eggs, salt, pepper, baking powder and water in a medium bowl and mix until dough forms. Mixture should be stiff but wet; if it is runny, add a bit more flour. When potatoes are ready, use a teaspoon to scoop out small amounts of dough. Add to potatoes and cook until the dumplings rise to the surface.
For the topping: In a skillet, fry bread cubes and onion in butter until lightly browned. Drain potatoes and dumplings, place into a serving dish. Pour warm cream over and sprinkle with bread topping. Alternatively, after draining the potatoes and dumplings, you can fry them in oil until lightly browned, and then serve with cream and bread topping.
Per serving, based on 6: 253 calories (53 percent from fat), 15 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 117 milligrams cholesterol, 24 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 622 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Galuskies (Cabbage Rolls)
Galuskies vary among Volga German cooks. Sharing Our Best, a cookbook published by the St. Fidelis Church in Victoria, has six versions, some calling for ingredients like potatoes, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar and bullion cubes. This traditional take is from Sharon Klaus Walker of Loch Lloyd.
Makes 8-10 servings
1 large head of cabbage, frozen
2 pounds ground beef
1 1/4 pounds ground pork
1 onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup)
1 1/4 cups uncooked instant rice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 (14-ounce) can sauerkraut, liquid reserved
1 (10.75-ounce) can tomato soup
Defrost cabbage and separate leaves. Mix beef, pork, onion, rice, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Make a meatball with about 1/3 cup of the meat mixture in the center of each cabbage leaf, fold edges in and roll tightly. Line a large pot with a single layer of cabbage leaves, and then add cabbage rolls, placing them seam-side down. Drain sauerkraut, reserving liquid. Spread sauerkraut over cabbage rolls. Mix reserved sauerkraut liquid with tomato soup and pour over top. Cover and cook on stove for 2 hours. Serve with mashed potatoes.
Per serving, based on 8: 661 calories (54 percent from fat), 40 grams total fat (15 grams saturated), 136 milligrams cholesterol, 38 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams protein, 679 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Butterball soup is popular during the holidays. Judy Erbs recipe makes enough butterballs for several batches of chicken noodle soup; the extras freeze well.
Makes 8-10 servings
56 ounces white bread or buns, toasted
1 pound butter, melted
1 1/2 tablespoons of allspice (or to taste)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
12 eggs, beaten
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup oil or butter
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
3 to 4 quarts chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
16 ounces home-style egg noodles
1 (3- to 4-pound) chicken, cooked, cooled and meat chopped into bite-sized pieces
White or apple cider vinegar, to taste, to serve
For butterballs: In a food processor, grind bread to fine crumbs. Pour in melted butter and stir until all the crumbs are coated. Mix in seasonings. Mix eggs and cream, add to bread crumb mixture and mix well. Scoop mixture out with a small cookie scoop and roll to form smooth balls. Place on a lined baking sheet. Freeze until solid and then package in a freezer bag or container. This will make approximately 100 butterballs, enough for several batches of soup. When making soup, remove only the number of butterballs needed (about 3 to 4 per person) and leave the rest in the freezer.
For soup: Heat oil or butter in a large pot. Add carrots, onion and celery and sauté until they just begin to soften. Add chicken broth and seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are soft. Return to a boil, add frozen butterballs and cook until broth begins to boil again. Add noodles and cook until noodles are done. Stir in chicken and simmer until meat is heated through. Adjust seasoning. Serve with vinegar so guests can add it to their own taste.
Per serving, based on 8: 622 calories (52 percent from fat), 40 grams total fat (15 grams saturated), 213 milligrams cholesterol, 39 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams protein, 949 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Judy Erb uses schwartzberra, a pea-sized, black berry grown in western Kansas, for her coffee cake-like kuchen. You can substitute blueberries, apples, peaches or another fruit.
Makes 1 (9-by-13) kuchen
1/2 of (16-ounce) box Pillsbury hot roll mix
3 cups schwartzberra, or blueberries (fresh or frozen)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare hot roll mix according to package instructions. Press into a greased 9-by-13 pan. In a bowl, combine schwartzberra or blueberries, flour and
1/4 cup sugar, then spread evenly over bread dough. Mix 1 cup sugar, cream and eggs, and then pour evenly over schwartzberra. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes.
Per serving: 178 calories (36 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 67 milligrams cholesterol, 27 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 24 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Cucumber Freezer Pickles
Volga Germans grew several kinds of vegetables in their gardens, including cucumbers. Most were used in salads; Sharon Klaus Walker learned this pickle recipe from her mother.
Makes 10 to 12 (1 1/2-cup) portions
10 to 12 cucumbers, peeled and sliced thinly
1 extra-large white onion, sliced thinly
2 teaspoons of salt
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
Mix cucumbers, onion and salt; allow to sit for about two hours. Drain liquid. In a saucepan, combine vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil and cook until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and pour over drained cucumber/onion mixture. Stir to combine. Place in small freezer containers and freeze for 24 hours. Allow to thaw partway; fluff with a fork and serve while still slushy. Freeze for up to 6 months. Once thawed, pickles keep for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
Per portion, based on 10: 163 calories (2 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 40 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams protein, 333 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
For more information on Volga Germans and their culinary heritage, go to:
•KSHS.org (search for Germans from Russia)
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food and beverage writer and a regular contributor to The Stars Food section.