I have a family recipe and don’t know how to spell the title. I searched in my German-Russian cookbooks, and practically every recipe for it that I find is spelled differently. So, of course, I turned to the internet. I first searched for the spelling that most closely resembled how it sounded to me, “plagenda.” That turned up numerous “placenta” sites which was definitely not what I was looking for. Then I searched for “pumpkin pastry” and found lots of recipes for empanadas, which looked really similar to what I remembered, but they aren’t German or German-Russian. Next I tried searching for some different spellings that I found in one of my cookbooks and finally found some recipes and pictures. I still couldn’t find a consistent spelling so I’m just going to use the one that I found most frequently,“plachinda.”
You’re probably thinking, what the heck is plachinda? It’s an apple or pumpkin turnover; dough wrapped around a fruit filling and baked. So your next question probably is — what is a German-Russian? That is a long story that began over two centuries ago. My ancestors migrated from Germany to Russia in the 18th century when Catherine the Great invited Germans to settle in Russia, encouraging them with attractive incentives such as exemption from military service, self governance, tax breaks, a stipend, and free land. The Germans in Russia initially struggled, but eventually thrived in the Black Sea area, now the Ukraine. Apparently the Germans had good reputations as thrifty and productive farmers, and that was why Catherine the Great was keen on having them move in. That, and the fact that Catherine herself was German. The political situation for the Germans in Russia deteriorated in the late 19th century, some time after Catherine’s reign ended, and as a result many Germans migrated from Russia to the United States and settled in the Great Plains.
When they moved, they brought along their recipes, and my family and community cherished those traditional foods made from recipes that may be centuries old. I have no idea whether the plachinda recipe is from their time in Russia, or maybe even earlier when they lived in Germany. After my search for the correct spelling I began to wonder why there are so many spellings for plachinda. Is it because we’re slowly losing our language, or is it because it was never written down until contemporary times? Was our tradition mostly oral? I know that my grandmother didn’t follow recipes, she just knew how to make food from memory and lots of practice.
My mother was determined that all of her children do household chores every day after school and learn how to cook, bake, and clean. When I made a recipe, she had me write it down so I could create my own recipe collection. My mother often told me that she had to cook and bake when she was a girl because her mother worked out in the fields. Mom had to learn “on the job” because she didn’t have any recipes to follow. That must have made her all the more determined that her children would at least have a good collection of recipes when we left home and had to cook for ourselves and our families.
My son and his wife brought along some pumpkin that they grew in their garden when they visited for Christmas. Actually, the pumpkin volunteered in their garden — it sprouted everywhere that they buried compost that happened to contain pumpkin seeds. I decided to make plachinda instead of pumpkin pies since I haven’t made them for a long time, and I think that my two-year-old granddaughter and her parents may enjoy a little treat that would be fairly nutritious. While she’s taking her nap, I pull out the large yellow ceramic bowl that I inherited from my mother. I have fond memories of mixing up cookie dough and cake batter in it when I was a child. During the holidays, and especially when I’m making some of my family recipes, I think of my mother and those times doing chores after school. It’s a little like she’s looking over my shoulder while I work. We didn’t always get along very well when I was growing up, but now that I’m a mother and grandmother, I see her in a very different light. I feel that much of what I am today is due to her tenacity and foresight.
I haven’t made this recipe in a very long time, and I’m a little uncertain of myself as I mix up the dough, roll it out, and cut it into squares. How big should I make the squares? How much filling should I put in each one? I don’t like to have too much extra dough when I fold them over and pinch them closed, but if I put in too much filling it squishes out and leaks onto the baking sheet. No matter how good the directions are, they just don’t tell me everything that I need to know. I still have to learn by trial and error and make adjustments. It is much the same as being a mother or grandmother. Whatever the task, there are some things I just don’t know and sometimes it is best not to be too sure that I’m always absolutely right. Sometimes what seems like the right answer turns out to be wrong in retrospect.
As I slide the baking sheet into the oven, I think of a poem by John Brantingham called “Putting in a Window.” I often remember these lines when I’m working on a project:
“… The only good carpenter
is the one who knows that he’s not good.
He’s afraid that he’ll ruin the whole house,
and he works slowly. It’s the same as
cooking or driving. The good cook
knows humility, and his soufflé never falls
because he is terrified that it will fall
the whole time he’s cooking. The good driver
knows that he might plow into a mother
walking her three-year old, and so watches
for them carefully.”
The oven timer is beeping and it is time to take the plachinda out of the oven to cool. Served with a mug of mulled cider they’ll make a nice snack for our family when my granddaughter wakes from her nap.