This is a good offering for a vegetarian or vegan Christmas roast. The only problem – you won’t fancy roast potatoes as a side dish.
Where does potato babka come from?
Potato babka is a classic albeit obscure dish from the eastern parts of Poland, North Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, the part of the world that the Poles (rightly or wrongly) call ‘the outskirts’. Even though some Old Polish cooking traditions come therein (sumptuous borscht, caviar-filled blinis and pierogi – celebrated Polish dumplings), it was mainly peasant kitchen, based on potatoes.
Potato is king in the Eastern outskirts – they surely could teach the Irish a thing or two about the inventive use of spuds. Forget gnocchi – kopytka are the original potato dumplings. Latkes, weirdly served with soured cream and a sprinkling of sugar, are eaten for dinner. There are potato-filled pierogis and potato kiszka or babka.
What goes in it?
The basis for the latter two is grated raw potato mass, quite like for preparing latkes or Swiss rösti. It is seasoned, traditionally just with salt, pepper and marjoram, and mixed with sweated down onions and diced bacon.
The ‘kiszka’ is then stuffed into a sausage casing and roasted as if it was a genuine sausage; the ‘babka’ is loaded into a loaf tin pretending to be a meatloaf.
Peasant food is by principle about very little meat going a very long way, hence the pretend meat in the shape of potatoes studded and flavoured with a little of what was available as a special treat: sausage casing, bacon or sometimes just lardons.
The cooks from two or three hundred years ago would be gob-smacked by today’s vegans and their vegan ‘sausages’ or ‘burgers’: to be able to have meat and consciously spurn it in favour of an ersatz, that’s unthinkable.
And so I turned the dish on its head in order to, hopefully, do justice to a frugal peasant recipe and at the same time to satisfy modern dietary choices.
How to prepare potato babka?
The main chore is peeling and grating the potatoes but a food processor will do a quick and easy job out of it. No food processor? No problem – guess what, you can whizz the potatoes in a blender in no time at all.
The mass needs to be drained or we get a baked potato gruel at the end of the journey. Let them sit on a sieve set over a bowl draining in an organic way (they might darken on the surface which is oxidisation, which is perfectly all right) while you slice and dice other ingredients, or you can apply brutal force and squeeze the moisture out by a handful of grated spuds.
The other additions to my babka, peppers, mushrooms and onions, need to be cooked before mixing in, otherwise the whole squeezing/draining exercise is in vain. Then it’s seasoning and mixing time, rustically using your hands of course – but seriously, that will be the most effective method. Add the vegetables at the end, so they don’t get crushed too much in the mixing.
Then it is packed down in the tin and off it goes for a looong bake – 2 hours to be safe, and it’s virtually impossible to overbake it. I personally prefer it a bit drier and crispier so I like it best on the following day: sliced and seared in the pan on both sides with a little oil or butter.