Children of Catherine the Great: the Germans From Russia


Russia’s Catherine the Great can take credit for an intriguing, little-known facet of California’s ethnic cookery.

During her reign (1762 to 1796), the former German princess was determined to civilize the lower Volga region, which was overrun with robbers and ruffians, so she opened the doors to German immigrants. She offered land, religious freedom and other incentives for them to settle in the Volga villages.

Thousands responded, and all went well for about 100 years. Then the political situation deteriorated and thousands departed. A substantial number came to the United States, many putting down roots in Lincoln, Neb., which is now the headquarters of the American Historical Society of the Germans from Russia. Some moved on to California, settling around Fresno.

Among the Fresno contingent was a young couple, Jacob Heinrich and his wife, Elizabeth. Heinrich’s great-great-grandfather, a carpet weaver, had settled in the Volga colony of Kukkus in 1767. Jacob was born there in 1882 and moved to the United States in 1902. He married Elizabeth “Lizzie” Felsing, another immigrant, in 1904.


Their descendants include granddaughter Karen Heinrich Shea of Lake Forest, who has become a chronicler of the Germans from Russia, especially their recipes.

A tall, striking woman and an excellent cook, Shea has compiled “Heinrich Family Favorites,” a thick cookbook of recipes from descendants of Jacob and Elizabeth Heinrich. Along with the family genealogy, it tells how the Germans from Russia lived, worked and celebrated.

Elizabeth Heinrich cooked on a wood stove, put up jelly in half-gallon jars and made virtually everything the family consumed. “Grandma ... Heinrich’s cooking day often started at 5 a.m., the ‘crack of dawn,’ ” Shea writes in the book. “All cooking was from ‘scratch,’ no mixes or shortcuts. The family rarely, if ever, bought bread at the store, at 9 cents a loaf a terrible extravagance.”

The Heinrichs had bought vineyard land on which to raise raisin grapes, and when they lost it during the Depression, they settled on 20 acres in Biola, about 10 miles from Fresno.


Although hard-working, honest and thrifty, the Germans from Russia were discriminated against. “Rooshian town” was the disparaging term for the part of Fresno where the early settlers congregated. They spoke different dialects according to the villages from which they came, and their Russian-influenced food was unknown to other Germans.

So obscure is this group that Shea, who was born in Fresno, says, “I never knew I was a German from Russia until I was in high school.”

“Heinrich Family Favorites” contains more than 500 recipes. Only about 60 are the old Russian-influenced family recipes, but they are treasures.

Beerocks, for instance. These are big yeast rolls stuffed with beef, cabbage and onions, a “hand-held meal,” as Shea describes them. Some Fresno churches sell beerocks at fund-raisers. “It’s the longest recipe in the book. All my aunts and uncles wanted their version in,” Shea says.

Shea’s beerocks are light, tender oval buns generously stuffed with juicy filling. The counter on which they sat was draped with colorfully embroidered black shawls that her grandmother brought from Russia. The shawls, in perfect condition, had obviously been reserved for special occasions.

The sausages were made by Shea’s father, Philip. Philip still uses his father Jacob’s early-1900s meat grinder and sausage stuffer. His recipe, which calls for 15 pounds of pork and 12 pounds of “good beef,” is in the book.

Shea’s parents live on a grape ranch in Madera. From 1937 to 1954, they ran three bakeries in Fresno called Phil’s Pastry Box. “They did beautiful wedding cakes, pies, candies, bread,” Shea recalls.

Several recipes from the bakery are in the book, including oatmeal raisin cookies and a lemon cake glaze, both dated 1938. The streusel coffee cake that Shea served is her mother Maxine’s recipe. It is topped with a sour cream mixture, then streusel and finally cinnamon sugar. Shea says she likes a variation topped with Thompson seedless grapes.


Other family favorites in the book include pork ribs and sauerkraut--"We have that quite often,” Shea says--and Elizabeth Heinrich’s turkey stuffing with raisins.

There are several recipes for blina (pancakes) and one for vareniks, stuffed dumplings that are boiled and then fried. “After making a batch of 150 vareniks, I know why my grandmother had skinny arms,” Shea says. The dough has to be kneaded, then each varenik rolled out separately. The book gives a choice of potato-sauerkraut, apple, berry and cottage cheese fillings.

The recipe is laborious but not difficult. “None of this is very hard,” Shea says. “It’s just that most of us don’t cook that way anymore.”

She has had a gratifying response from other Germans from Russia who have bought the book and rediscovered the foods of their past. “The letters I get from people are what keep me going,” she says.

“Heinrich Family Favorites” is “meant to be a family book,” Shea says, “but what I truly hope is that other people will write down the things from their families before they are lost.”

To order a copy, send $15, which covers shipping and handling, to Cookbook, 21352 Avenida Manantial, Lake Forest, CA 92630. Make checks payable to Karen Heinrich Shea.


Preparing beerocks is easy if you make the filling a day ahead and refrigerate it overnight, then stuff the buns the next day.



3 pounds beef shank meat


1 small bay leaf

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 large head green cabbage, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon allspice

Scant 1/2 teaspoon sugar

Scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste


1 (1-pound) package hot roll mix or 1 pound frozen bread dough or homemade yeast bread dough

5 tablespoons shortening



Place shank in large pot and cover with water. Add bay leaf and chopped 1/2 onion. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until very tender, about 1 hour.

Remove meat from broth and cool. Chop coarsely. Reserve broth.

Place chopped meat in large pot. Add most of reserved broth and chopped large onion. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Add cabbage and cook, covered, until tender-crisp, 15 to 20 minutes.

Drain mixture well in colander. Return to pot. Add salt, allspice, sugar and cayenne and mix. Filling should be juicy. Add more broth if needed. Place in covered container and refrigerate overnight.


Prepare roll mix according to package directions, adding shortening. Knead well. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, 30 to 40 minutes.

Punch dough down and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each into ball shape. Set balls on floured wax paper and sprinkle small amount of flour on top. Cover with dish towel or wax paper and let rise about 15 minutes.

Roll out each dough ball to size of large saucer or salad plate. Place generous 1/2 cup Filling in center of each. Dampen fingers and/or edges of dough round and pull dough up around filling, pinching edges together to seal. Shape should be large oval with gently pointed ends. Place seam side down on oiled baking sheets. Cover lightly with wax paper and let rise 20 minutes.

Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, 20 minutes. Cool on rack. Serve hot, or cool completely, wrap tightly in foil and freeze.

8 beerocks. Each beerock:

449 calories; 736 mg sodium; 82 mg cholesterol; 48 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 31 grams protein; 0.58 gram fiber.


Karen Heinrich Shea likes to vary the cake by adding fruit or jam over the sour cream topping. If using jam, add 1/2 cup per cake. If adding berries, space about an inch apart so they do not make the cake wet and heavy. The kuchen is lightly sweetened, which allows for the addition of sweet toppings. If you prefer a sweeter coffee cake, add another tablespoon of sugar to the dough.


1 (1-pound) package roll mix or 1 pound frozen bread dough or homemade yeast bread dough

3/4 cup hot water

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon sugar

5 tablespoons melted shortening

1/4 teaspoon salt


1/2 cup sour cream

3 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 egg, beaten


1/2 cup sugar

Dash salt

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

1 cup flour


Fruit or jam, optional

1/4 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon


Dissolve yeast from hot roll mix in hot water (120 to 130 degrees). Mix egg with yeast. Add yeast mixture, shortening, sugar and salt to flour from mix package. Mix well and knead thoroughly. Place in oiled bowl, cover with paper towels, set in slightly warm place and let rise until doubled in volume.


Mix sour cream, flour, sugar and egg.


Mix sugar, salt, butter and flour until lumpy.


Divide Kuchen Dough between 2 greased cake pans, either 8-inch-square pans or 9-inch-round pans, and pat evenly into pans. Top dough with Sour Cream Topping. Add fruit or jam, if desired, then streusel. Combine sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle to taste over dough. Let rise until doubled.

Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes.

12 to 16 servings. Each of 12 servings:

312 calories; 340 mg sodium; 50 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.03 gram fiber.