Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Belokranjska Pogača, Slovenia's answer to focaccia

Belokranjska pogača is one of Slovenia's official EU-protected specialty foods. Although the name means "pogača from Bela Krajina," it is often translated as "caraway flatbread" or "salted cake."

When I first spotted this delicacy on the official Slovenian tourist website, here, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.Yeast-raised flatbread is hardly unique to Slovenia. Many Balkan countries have their own versions of pogača (poe-gotch'-a). So do Italians, who call it by a more familiar name: Focaccia.

But then it came up again, in my Slovenian language class. In the spring, we were studying the food traditions of the Dolenjska region, a rural area south of the capital that was the original home of my own ancestors, along with many other Slovenian immigrants in the early 1900s. And there it was again, on a list of regional food specialties. (Bela Krajina, the "official" source of the bread, is a smaller region that borders Dolenjska.)

Now I was intrigued. I decided to give this Slovenian-style focaccia a try.

What makes Belokranjska pogača unique? The yeast dough itself is straightforward: flour, salt, yeast and water, with a touch of oil and sugar. But there are very precise specifications for the formation of the loaf.

Here's the official word from the Slovenian government:

Belokranjska pogača
Bela krajina flat bread

Belokranjska pogača is a type of flat bread and is produced according to a unique recipe. It is round with a diameter of approximately 30 cm. In the centre it is 3 to 4 cm thick, thinning to 1–2 cm at the edges. With oblique lines, it is incised into squares with an approximate distance of 4 cm, coated with a whisked egg and topped with cumin seeds and coarse salt crystals. When baked it is broken along the incised angled lines rather than being cut and is best served warm.

from Slovenian Protected Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs, a government publication


There are a number of recipes available on the Internet, with just a few small differences among them. Should the yeast be proofed before the dough is mixed? Should the topping be limited to coarse salt, or is it better to add caraway seeds? Or cumin seeds?

For my first attempt, I opted for proofing the yeast before making the dough. I sprinkled the entire loaf with coarse salt, and then I added some cumin seed on one side. Unfortunately, because of a small miscalculation, I made the circle of dough too small--just half the specified diameter!

The result was a round, high loaf that looked beautiful. Inside, the bread was moist and tasty, with a coarse grain. But it certainly wasn't a flatbread. It was too thick to break, so I had to slice it.

It was a lovely country-style loaf of white bread.  But not up to European Union standards for Belokranjska pogača.

For my second attempt,  I made the dough with the much faster "all in one bowl" method. I was careful to follow precise measurements, so I ended up with a thin, large circle of dough that was exactly 30 centimeters across. For the topping, I used a mixture of coarse salt and caraway seed over the entire loaf.

This second pogača came out just right. Pretty enough, I thought, to appear on one of those official government websites. It broke into squares easily and made a tasty accompaniment to a nice bowl of mineštra.

The verdict? I enjoyed the lightness of the first loaf, even it wasn't quite the flatbread I was expecting. Partly it was the rounder shape, but I think proofing the yeast made a difference. I liked all three toppings, although cumin was certainly the most unusual.

I will certainly make this again. I will stick to proofing the yeast, even though it adds an extra step.

I might also aim for an in-between thickness. A compromise between my first two loaves.

I realize this might be breaking with tradition. But I doubt the  EU pogača police will bother me in California.


Belokranjska Pogača

500 g flour (about 4-1/4 c)
1 T salt
1-1/2 t. sugar
1 package dry yeast
1 T oil
350 ml lukewarm water  (just under 1-1/2 c)

For topping: 1 egg, coarse salt, cumin or caraway seed

First, prepare the dough.

The easy way: Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center, add the oil and water. Mix until you have a soft dough that is not too sticky to be kneaded.

The better way: Warm a little of the water (about 50 ml) in a small bowl and stir in part of the sugar.  Add the yeast and allow it to proof. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and the oil. Mix into a soft dough as above.

After mixing the dough, knead until it is smooth and not sticky. Place in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for thirty minutes.

After rising, punch down dough and place on an oiled baking sheet or other flat surface. Pat and stretch it into a circle that is about 30 cm (12 inches) across. It should be 1-2 cm thick in the middle and a little thinner at the edges. Slice the dough into squares, using diagonal lines that are about 4 cm apart. Brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cumin seed or caraway seed. If desired, let rise briefly again before baking.

Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees F (200/220 degrees C) for 25 to 40 minutes. Let cool. To serve, break into squares.  Best served warm.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Caraway Meatballs: A Healthy Update

I first made these simple but flavorful meatballs in June of 2012, during my inaugural year of weekly Slovenian dinners. The foundation was a recipe I'd spotted in Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, my first vintage cookbook. Meatballs flavored with caraway, cheese, and bacon sounded like an intriguing Slovenian alternative to the more familiar Italian version of the dish.

My first version of caraway meatballs turned out well. It soon became a favorite.

Two years later, I decided to create a healthier version, with no added salt and fewer carbohydrates.

In some respects, I followed Woman's Glory more closely: chopped fresh pepper instead of celery, and no matzo meal or bread crumbs in the meat balls. Since I skipped the salt, I compensated by increasing the black pepper and adding some garlic. I used turkey bacon instead of regular bacon in the sauce. Finally, I served the meatballs over spaghetti squash instead of pasta or polenta.

The result was delicious. Full of Central European flavor and guilt-free.


Caraway Meatballs with Sauce (low salt, low carb)


1 lb. ground beef (or beef/pork mix)
1/4 c. grated sharp cheese
1 t. caraway seeds
1/4 c. green or red pepper, chopped
1 T. fresh parsley
pepper, black and cayenne
1 egg
1 clove garlic


1/2 c. chopped onion
3 strips turkey bacon, diced
24 oz. jar strained tomatoes
pepper and garlic to taste
parsley to taste
1/4 t. sugar

Mix all the ingredients for meatballs. Form into balls and set aside.  For sauce, brown the bacon and onions, then add meatballs and brown.  Add tomatoes and seasonings.  Simmer an hour, or longer if you like, adding water as needed.

Serve over spaghetti squash (to make it healthy), polenta, or spaghetti.  Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese, if desired.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sweet Omelet Sponge for Father's Day Breakfast

What does this photo look like? A sponge cake? A soufflé? A giant pancake?

This traditional Slovenian dish is called Pohorska omleta--in English, Pohorje omelet. It is a sweet egg-based dish from Pohorje, a mountainous area in the northeastern part of the country. I had seen photos and recipes on a few of the Slovenian government's tourist websites that proudly feature traditional national dishes. Not much to this one, I thought. Just a sweet omelet that is lightened with beaten egg whites. I did wonder about one odd touch: a little flour added to the omelet batter.

It wasn't until last month that my interest in the Porhorje omelet was piqued by the Professor, a Facebook friend in Slovenia. (He's an American who teaches translation at the University of Ljubljana.) He posted a photo and a recipe, and then asked his American friends to weigh in: What would you call this dish in English?

The usual translation is "folded omelet" (aren't they all?) or "biscuit omelet" (like a British cookie?).  Omelet itself seems like an odd name for a dish that Slovenians usually serve for dessert, with a generous garnish of sweetened whipped cream and jam or fruit sauce. Cranberries are a traditional accompaniment. 

This translation challenge turned into a cooking adventure. I decided to whip up a Pohorje omelet for Father's Day breakfast. I wanted to see for myself what this dish ought to be called.

I found plenty of recipes on the web, all variations on the same theme. Separated eggs, small amounts of flour and sugar, and perhaps a bit of vanilla and lemon rind.  Except for the proportions, it sounded just like baking a sponge cake layer.

A number of these recipes specified an identical formula of three's:

3 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter to grease the pan

I liked the ease and simplicity of this formula--although I did increase the measure to 4 of each ingredient, since I thought our visiting son might be joining us. And since this was a breakfast dish, I skipped the whipped cream and used a simple fresh berry mix, sweetened with a little sugar and Amaretto.

Before and after baking, the omelet looked like a familiar sponge cake layer:

It was easy to remove from the pan, top with fruit and fold in half.  The finished product looked pretty. Almost good enough to be on one of those official government websites.

I couldn't wait to cut into the omelet and solve the mystery.

The result? Delicious!

Pohorje omelet turns out be a simple but unusual dish, with an elusive texture that is difficult to categorize. It is more eggy than a sponge cake--but lighter and drier than an omelet, thanks to the beaten whites and the touch of flour. It does resemble a soufflé, but it has more substance--and it won't collapse!  It is definitely a hybrid. An ideal breakfast or brunch dish, especially with fresh fruit. Whipped cream and jam transform it into a fine dessert.

The origins of this lovely dish also seem to be mysterious. One official Slovenian website says it is "an example of the invention of heritage in the period after the end of the Second World War."

"Invention of heritage" sounds like an oxymoron! Cooking expert Janez Bogataj puts a slightly different slant on it: The dish was created by "chefs who were flirting with international cuisine" after the war ended.

But what "international cuisine" could have inspired this dish?  There is nothing quite like it in any sources I have consulted.  I would like to think of this as a uniquely Slovenian twist, somewhere in the border region between several more familiar dishes.

The name? The best I can offer is sweet omelet sponge. Why not make it and decide for yourself?

Pohorje Omelet (Sweet Omelet Sponge)

4 eggs whites
4 egg yolks
4 T. sugar, divided
4 T. flour
1 t. vanilla
lemon rind, grated
4 T. melted butter (or less) for pan

Filling: jam or fresh berries (cranberries are traditional)
Topping: confectioners sugar or sweetened whipped cream

If using fresh fruit, mix and set aside. I used fresh strawberries and blueberries, mixed with a little sugar and amaretto.

Beat egg whites with half the sugar until stiff but not dry. In another bowl, beat yolks, remaining half of sugar, vanilla, and lemon rind until thick. Fold egg whites into yolk mixture. Sprinkle flour on top and fold in, taking care to avoid deflating.

Melt butter in a 10-inch pan. Pour in batter and gently spread. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned and firm to the touch. It will resemble a sponge cake layer.

Let cool slightly, loosen edges, and turn out on a platter, top side down. Spread with jam or fruit filling and carefully fold in half. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar or sweetened whipped cream. Slice into pieces to serve.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Albanian Mystery Cake Revisited

Our son was visiting from Kosovo, so I decided to make an encore version of the delicious meal I had prepared from the Albanian-American cookbook he had sent me for my birthday in January.

The main dish, a beef and eggplant moussaka, had been a standout, so I was eager to serve it again.The dessert, on the other hand, was more of an experiment. The women of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church in Massachusetts (the authors of the Albanian Cookbook) called it Authentic Albanian Cake, but I had my doubts. It was definitely a Mystery Cake.

The recipe had seemed straightforward: a simple, one-bowl affair, with ingredients that can be found in anyone's kitchen. In fact, it reminded me of a frugal American cake that has gone by various names over the years: Depression cake, eggless-butterless-milkless cake, or (my favorite) wacky cake. But this Albanian version turned out to be full of surprises. 

For starters, the batter was so liquid that it bubbled in the pan. After baking and cooling, the dessert ended up in layers, with a dense, pasty filling sandwiched in between two crust-like layers. The flavor was mild and inoffensive. Perhaps this was meant to be a sort of poor man's baklava. This dessert was odd and hard to categorize, at least by American standards. I wondered what my son would think of it. 

Authentic Albanian Cake, Version #1

For this second attempt, I made a couple of small changes to pep up the flavor. A touch more sugar--and brown instead of white. More cinnamon, plus a little vanilla. A mix of walnuts and almonds.There were also two unplanned changes: Italian 00 flour (often used to make pasta) because we were out of all purpose flour. And extra baking powder, when I discovered that the three cans in my pantry were all a little (or a lot) past the expiration date.

This time, the result was completely different. Unbaked, the batter was thicker. After baking, it had a familiar texture: uniformly light but moist. Very much like an easy, old-fashioned American spice cake. Or even a "wacky cake," although the Albanian version is lighter on the sugar and heavier on the oil.

Authentic Albanian Cake, Version #2

I strongly suspect that the unusual texture of the first cake was the result of two mistakes: Forgetting to reduce the water when I cut the original recipe in half, and using baking powder that was long past the expiration date. The second cake was lighter because the baking powder was more potent--and perhaps because of the touch of acidity introduced by the brown sugar. The American approach to this kind of cake always includes a bit of vinegar, so it makes sense.

Now that I have made the cake the proper way, I still wonder: Is this really a traditional Albanian dessert, or is it simply an adaptation of an American standard? The jury is out on that one. I'm hoping one of my readers in Kosovo or Albania will weigh in.

Whatever its origins, this is an easy and pleasant cake. It is a perfect dessert when time is short and you need to work with simple ingredients that are already at hand. It is also a good, basic foundation that can be enhanced with more spice, more nuts, and additions like dried fruit or coconut.

Update: In doing some additional research on America's long-popular wacky cakes, I've made a few interesting discoveries that offer modest support for the possibility that this really is a traditional Albanian sweet.

Even though this frugal American cake is typically associated with the Great Depression or the Second World War, historians note that it dates back to the early 1900s, if not earlier. I also discovered a fascinating new name variant in a few places, like this in this typical recipe for a white wacky cake. According to some sources, it's also known as Patrushka cake, which offers more than a hint of Eastern European origins. 

Authentic Albanian Cake (with a strong resemblance to Wacky Cake!)

--adapted from the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

1-1/2 cups water
2 cups flour
1 cup oil
2/3 cup sugar (I used brown; increased from 1/2 cup) 
1/2 cup nuts, chopped (I used half walnuts and half almonds)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (increased)
1 teaspoon vanilla (my addition)
2 teaspoons baking powder
confectioners sugar for topping

(For the original version in the cookbook see my previous post)

Combine flour, cinnamon and baking powder together in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, beat oil, sugar and vanilla together until thick. Beat in water. Stir this liquid mixture into the dry ingredients. Fold in nuts.

Pour batter into an ungreased (or paper-lined) 8 x 11 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown. When still warm, sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Cut into squares to serve. 

(Note: A much simpler mixing approach should also work. The original Albanian recipe calls for mixing everything together in a single bowl, in no particular order. American wacky cakes are often mixed directly in an ungreased baking pan.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Djuveč Revisited: Chicken, Low Sodium, and Accident-Free!

.Djuveč, a versatile meat/vegetable casserole, is another one of those Turkish-origin dishes that is popular in Slovenia and throughout the Balkans.

The first time I made it, I used a traditional pork and lamb mix.  It was delicious--despite an unfortunate finger injury from too much multi-tasking!

A few months ago, I decided to revisit the dish. I'd discovered a chicken version in one of my vintage Slovenian cookbooks and I wanted to give that a try. I also wondered whether this fairly mild dish could be made without added salt.  So I substituted an "herbes de provence" seasoning mix and added some garlic and white wine. For a further flavor boost, I used both parmesan and feta cheese on top. One more little change: I added some yellow and green squash to go along with the eggplant.

The result: Very tasty--and much easier to enjoy without my finger in a splint!

Recipe follows.

Chicken Djuveč

1 lb skinless boneless chicken breast, cut into large cubes
1 medium eggplant, cubed
4 small yellow and green squashes, sliced
1 large onion, sliced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 green pepper, cut in strips
1 red pepper, cut in strips
olive oil
2 potatoes, sliced
1/3 cup rice, uncooked
small bunch parsley
black pepper 
herbes de provence (or other salt-free seasoning mixture)
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
panko or other bread crumbs
white wine
parmesan and feta cheese, for top

Cube and salt the eggplant and set aside in colander to drain. Rinse and pat dry.
Cube chicken and season as desired. 

Brown onion and garlic in olive oil. Add eggplant, squash, peppers, seasonings, and a little wine or water. Cover and cook until vegetables are slightly softened. Push vegetables to the side, add more oil if needed, and brown the chicken cubes, adding a little more wine as needed.

Oil a large rectangular glass casserole.  Layer half the chicken-vegetable mixture, half the sliced raw potatoes, seasonings, half the rice, and half the parsley. Repeat layers.

Top with sliced tomatoes and bread crumbs. Drizzle with olive oil.  Add some wine or other liquid. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until rice is tender.  Cover for part of the time. Add liquid if mixture gets too dry.  In last 10 minutes, sprinkle with parmesan and crumbled feta. Garnish with more parsley before serving. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Chocolate Domestic Friends (Domači Prijatelj) with a touch of ginger

Chopped chocolate is a one of my favorite additions to domestic friends (domači prijatelj), Slovenia's answer to biscotti. But I had never tried an all-chocolate version. When I discovered a tin of exotic Viennese cocoa in the cupboard, it seemed like the perfect time to experiment.

As a foundation, I used my egg-rich Slovenian Christmas biscotti recipe. I just substituted a little cocoa for part of the flour. For extra zest, I added some chopped candied ginger.

The result? A tasty variation, with a chocolate flavor that is intense and bittersweet. These are definitely cookies for adults!

Recipe follows. Enjoy!

Chocolate Domestic Friends (Domači Prijatelj) with a touch of ginger

3 eggs
140 g white sugar
100 g flour
40 g cocoa*
20 g dried cranberries
60 g candied ginger
120 g pecans or walnuts
1 t vanilla

*Note: You can reduce the cocoa for a milder flavor. Just increase the flour, so that you have 140 g when the flour and cocoa are combined.

Combine flour and cocoa and set aside. Beat eggs, sugar and vanilla until thick. Fold in flour-cocoa mixture. Stir in cranberries, ginger and nuts. Pour the batter into an oiled rectangular pan (about 7 x 9 inches) that has been lined with parchment. Bake at  350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until firm. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. 

Turn the cooled cake out of the pan. It will resemble a firm sponge cake or genoise. Cut it lengthwise into two pieces, then slice. For the more traditional Slovenian style, cut into slices that are about 1/2 inch thick and let cool on a rack. Or cut into very thin slices (under 1/4 inch) and bake for about ten more minutes or until firm. Let cool. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Albanian-American Dinner: Best-ever Moussaka and Authentic Albanian Cake


Moussaka ("Eggplant with Hamburg")
Green Salad
Authentic Albanian Cake
Cviček (Slovenian red wine from Dolenjska)

My first Albanian dinner was a success, so I was eager to expand my horizons. Unfortunately, English language resources for the aspiring Albanian cook are in short supply.

But my resourceful son managed to find a true gem: the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), put together by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church in Worcester, Massachusetts.

I was excited when my shiny red copy arrived in the mail. This new edition was a much more polished affair then my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks--and it did a better job of maintaining a clear focus on traditional ethnic food. Not a jello salad in sight!

But one thing was familiar: Multiple versions of the same dish, often with minimal differences in the ingredients or method of preparation. This seems to be part of the inclusive spirit behind these collaborative cookbook projects. Everyone has a voice.

I found seven recipes for moussaka, a layered casserole that is popular throughout the Balkans. Four recipes used the familiar ground beef and eggplant combination, two called for  potatoes instead of eggplant, and one used both. All had variations of a custard topping.

One moussaka recipe stood out because of three unique ingredients: cheese, wine and cinnamon. Was this the Greek influence? Whatever its origins, this take on the dish appealed to me.

After I had assembled the moussaka, I went back to the Albanian Cookbook to search for an easy dessert. In the pastry section, I found the expected variations on baklava and halva, as well as some unfamiliar sweets. Most of these treats were rich and elaborate concoctions.

One dessert caught my eye. It had a straightforward name, Authentic Albanian Cake, and an equally simple method of preparation: Mix up some water, flour, oil, sugar, nuts, cinnamon, and baking powder in a bowl. Bake, sprinkle with sugar, and serve.

No eggs. No butter or milk. No frills. Was this really Albanian? It sounded suspiciously like some American cakes that used to be popular in the past, with names like Wacky Cake or Depression Cake.  But it was easy enough--almost too easy, so I took a little more care with the mixing. I'm not sure it made much difference.

I served the moussaka with a green salad and a nice bottle of Slovenian cviček, a light red wine that is a specialty of my ancestral region of Dolenjska.

That moussaka was a winner. Perhaps it was the unique combination of flavors. Or the authentic Greek kasseri cheese. Or the fact that I took the time to salt and drain the eggplant and to pre-bake it well. But it was the best moussaka I have ever tasted. It was even better the next day.

As for the cake?

Well, it was a surprise, especially once I cut into it. It looked like one of those trays of dense, filled pastries that are common throughout the Balkans and the Middle East:

During baking, the batter had magically separated into a light cakey layer on the bottom and top, with a dense, paste-like filling in the middle. Perhaps this was intended to be a quick, economical  mock-baklava for a crowd.

The flavor was very mild. My husband liked it. If I were to make this again, I would increase the sugar and nuts. I might also substitute brown sugar for white and almonds for the walnuts.

Recipes for both these intriguing Albanian dishes follow below. Enjoy!

Update: A month later, I made one more attempt at the Authentic Albanian Cake--with very different results! Go here for details.

Moussaka (Eggplant with Hamburg)

--from the Albanian Cookbook (2000, 1977) by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

1 pound ground beef
2 medium eggplants
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 T. tomato paste
cracker crumbs
1 cup kasseri cheese, grated or crumbled
2 eggs, extra large
2 cups milk
salt, pepper, cinnamon
1/2 cup water

To prepare eggplant: Slice eggplant, salt the slices, and let drain for an hour or two to remove the bitter taste. Rinse and pat dry. The eggplant slice can be sautéed in oil (as the original recipe suggests) or my way: brush slices with oil and bake on a cookie sheet until brown. (Turn once during baking.) Set  aside to cool.

To prepare the meat filling: Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan. Add meat, salt, pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon to onions and continue to brown. Dilute tomato paste in wine and water, then stir into the meat-onion mixture. Simmer uncovered until most of liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

To assemble: Oil a 9 x 13 inch baking dish and sprinkle with bread or cracker crumbs. Add half the eggplant slices, sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese, then add the meat. Cover with remaining eggplant slices. Beat eggs, milk, and remaining cheese together and slowly pour over the eggplant, tilting pan so liquid is absorbed Dot with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour.

Authentic Albanian Cake

--from the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

3 cups water
4 cups flour
2 cups oil
1 cup sugar 
1 cup nuts (I used chopped walnuts) 
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking powder
Confectioners sugar for topping

(Note: I cut the quantities above in half and used an 11 x 8 inch pan to make a smaller cake.)

The cookbook offered brief instructions: Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and pour into an ungreased 11 x 15 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. After cooking, sprinkle the cake with sugar and cut into squares.

This sounded like a very large cake, so I divided all quantities in half and used an 8 x 10 inch pan.  I also added a couple of extra steps to the mixing. I combined the flour, cinnamon and baking powder in one bowl and then beat the water, oil, and sugar together in a second bowl. Next, I stirred the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Finally, I folded in the nuts and baked as directed.