Olga Koutseridi turned to baking and cooking as she went through an identity crisis several years ago.
The home chef from Mariupol, Ukraine, originally from Austin, felt detached from her Eastern European roots, which include family ties to Russia and Ukraine, in addition to Greece. She had a difficult relationship with her ethnicity because of shame stemming from negative stereotypes about Russia and had long suppressed her Eastern European affiliation, she told the American-Statesman in March .
“I was going through my own identity crisis when I left university in 2016,” Koutseridi said. “I didn’t really know who I was or what I wanted and part of that identity building process was embracing my different ethnicities through food.”
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When she decided to build a bridge to her Eastern European heritage, she started cooking her mother’s Ukrainian recipes and baking the kinds of hearty rye and sourdough breads she couldn’t. find in his new Austin home.
As Vladimir Putin’s Russian army invaded Ukraine in February and began destroying the city of Mariupol, Koutseridi’s grandmother and aunt sought refuge with a group of about 15 people in the basement of a friend, where they sheltered for more than a month without electricity or running water.
Koutseridi lost contact with her grandmother and aunt and began researching the social media app Telegram, becoming an amateur photographic forensic investigator as she attempted to discern conditions on the ground in Mariupol by scouring photos and videos online.
The footage revealed a city devastated by the Russian onslaught, with every school, community center, hospital or commercial bazaar Koutseridi could identify razed to the ground. Koutseridi has reposted many of the images, as well as old family photos, to his Instagram page, giving his followers perspective on the land of terror.
“I actually allowed myself to start this grieving process a few days ago,” Koutseridi said in late March. “With each passing day, all the information coming out of this city becomes more and more graphic. So I think it struck me on Sunday how destroyed the city is.
Once again, Koutseridi turned to baking as ballast.
The senior graduate student coordinator for global mobility at the University of Texas had been selling an assortment of baked goods through a newsletter and Instagram for a few years. She decided to spend her baking time making her burnt Basque cheesecakes and selling them to raise money for UNICEF relief efforts in her home country.
“Pastry gave me a sense of agency and purpose,” Koutseridi said. “Many of us feel helpless. Raising funds through my bakery and micro-bakery is my way of helping the people of Ukraine.
Those unfamiliar with Austin’s niche world of home bakers may not be familiar with Koutseridi, who posts as Ogi the Yogi on Instagram. The Ukrainian-born and now a naturalized US citizen, whose parents currently live in Spain, makes a sublime Burnt Basque Cheesecake.
Wobbly cakes with their tawny-walled edges and paper-thin caramel-colored top layers exist in an undefined state somewhere between solid and liquid. Slice the chilled cake with a fork and the milky center oozes out in slow motion like relaxed triple cream Brie.
Chef Page Pressley, a former Emmer & Rye partner and now the Pearl’s culinary director in San Antonio, was one of Koutseridi’s first fans in the local food community and says the home cook’s cheesecake is “the greatest expression of dairy products” that he’s ever tasted.
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Koutseridi sells the Burnt Basque Cheesecake, which weighs about 5 pounds and feeds eight people, for $64. All proceeds are currently going to UNICEF, with Koutseridi having already sold around 100. Fundraising will continue until the end of April. Sign up to receive a dozen cheesecakes each week available every Sunday via a link on Koutseridi’s Instagram page.
Rosen’s Bagel Co. and Nervous Charlie’s Bagels both donated 60 pounds of cream cheese to Koutseridi, who says she’s been overwhelmed with the support she’s received personally and in her fundraising efforts.
“For me, cooking has always been about helping people. Before the war, it was about helping people bring some joy or fun into their daily lives,” Koutseridi said. “During war, it’s about helping people survive.”
Almost four weeks after first entering their makeshift bunker, Koutseridi’s family members were able to let Olga and her sister, Svetlana, know they were safe. A day later, one of the group was killed as he left the cellar to cook a meal outside.
Koutseridi’s grandmother and aunt have since fled to Saint Petersburg, where they live with their family. Koutseridi says the Mariupol compound was bombed the next day.
The fact that Koutseridi had Russian and Ukrainian heritage, as well as family in both countries, made the Russian invasion even more difficult. She says that while some of her family members in Russia have been “brainwashed” by Putin’s propaganda, other relatives think Putin is a danger.
“I feel like I’m going through two distinct forms of grief. We see the city with which I have a close link completely destroyed. So that is being erased – the culture I hold dear is being destroyed,” Koutseridi said. “The other form of grief is that the intruder or aggressor is my other ethnic self. Seeing where Russia is going, turning into another totalitarian state, has been incredibly painful for me, and it’s just going to get worse.”
Koutseridi says his family members who escaped the war hope to return home to Mariupol, but thinks the idea of returning is almost like a coping mechanism that keeps them going. Whether there is anything to come back to remains a difficult proposition.
The mayor of Mariupol said this week that “more than 10,000 civilians died in the Russian siege of his city, and the toll could exceed 20,000”, according to the Associated Press.
In the meantime, Koutseridi continues to throw himself into his baking to cope and find purpose in a time of helplessness.
“Ukraine is known for its baking culture,” Koutseridi said. “It is the breadbasket of Europe. I can’t cook without thinking about Ukraine. The reason I cook is because of the meaning it has for me and my Ukrainian identity.