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Cheesecake for breakfast
Welcome to my never ending search across Ukraine for the perfect syrniki - curd cheese pancakes: my absolute favourite breakfast, or at any time of day!
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This is a story about my favourite Ukrainian dish - syrniki. Small, curd cheese pancakes, sometimes with raisins, sometimes without - essentially a way to eat cheesecake for breakfast, what's not to love?
I have made it my mission to track down the very best places for syrniki in all of Ukraine, from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the east, in cool cafes in Kyiv and beautiful restaurants in Odesa. I even got a special masterclass in syrniki making from our wonderful Bake for Ukraine co-founder Maria Kalenska.
Here's my round up of some of my favourites, for you to save for the time after victory when I hope many of you will be able to come and visit beautiful Ukraine.
Always ordering syrniki
My very first syrniki were in the amazing Trattoria Sicilia in Kharkiv in October last year: my friend Svitlana had already told me all about how wonderful it was, the amazing food and astonishingly cheap prices. It was the first place we headed to when we arrived in the city: many place were boarded up and closed down at the time, but Trattoria was warm and welcoming and serving a more or less full menu. There were all sorts of Italian specialities but I only had eyes for the syrniki, served with a sour cherry compote and sour cream. They were superb, I couldn't believe I had never tried such a thing before. I ordered them every time we went in, until the last day when the Trattoria waitress told me I had to try something else from their extensive menu. It was good, but I missed the syrniki. And it set a high benchmark for future syrniki to live up to.
Best Kharkiv breakfast at Trattoria
I met restauranteur Oleksandr Prokhorenko at the 'forest dinner' I went to outside Kyiv, and he immediately told me I had to come and try the syrniki at one of his cafes in town. "We have a special recipe, you will love it" he said, promising the best syrniki I could possibly hope to try. They were pillowy and not too sweet, and came with a generous side of sour cherries and some caramel whipped cream.
Back at my favourite Kyiv bakery Bakehouse, I was excited to see they had put syrniki on the menu, a generous portion served with a coffee custard cream along with sour cream, cherries and roasted hazelnuts, and were very good indeed. At my friends' neighbourhood favourite, Moon Rabbits Local, the syrniki came in a pool of condensed milk with poached apple and blueberries, also delicious.
Kyiv 128’s version
But it was in Odesa where the syrniki truly went up a level. There's a variety of curd cheese there made with fermented baked milk, or ryazhenka, which has a pale golden colour and a unique caramelized flavour. I found two places which made syrniki with it - and they truly won my heart. Chef Nazar Gomenuk at the excellent Jela restaurant plated them with a perfect quenelle of salted caramel cream, and a rich, dark berry compote - sitting outside on their small terrace area on a sunny Sunday morning, it was the perfect brunch. Although I'm happy to eat syrniki any time of the day: and to prove it, we ordered some for dessert after a wonderful dinner at Maman na Fontane: one made with regular curd cheese and a sour cherry compote, the other with the caramelised cheese, covered in salted caramel sauce - so decadent, so delicious: I can't wait to go back there and have them again.
Syrniki with baked milk curd cheese at Jela, Odesa
I watched Maria making a batch at her flat in Odesa, after a visit to the local food market where there were many kinds of freshly made curd cheese for sale, which you could try to make sure you’d chosen exactly the one you needed. Maria homes in on her favourite stall, considered several kinds and brought one which was fresh and creamy with a bright, dairy taste.
Ready for the cooking lesson
Back at the flat, she got to work, mixing in egg and just enough flour to bind it all together without making the syrniki too heavy - along with golden and black raisins for sweetness. She lightly dusted them in flour before frying them just long enough to crisp up the outside and cook them through to the centre - and they were perfect, straight from the pan, with a drizzle of local honey and some fresh berries. I could try to recreate them myself, with tvorog from a Polish shop, although I'll need a lot of practice to get them anything like as good as Maria's. But it is a worthy mission. Syrkini for life, not just for breakfast!