Friday, August 29, 2014

Back Home Again; Still Unpacking

Klobasa Shop in Ljubljana, Slovenia

I have been back home in California for a month.  And I am still unpacking.

The suitcases are emptied but I am still sorting out photos, memories, and impressions from the trip.  It was magical in ways I had not imagined.  From Venice to Slovenia to Kosovo. Visits to ancestral villagea. A day trip to the mountains of northern Albania.  At the end, celebrating the welcome news of a family engagement.  Dizzying and a little disorienting.

For a week after our return, I woke up each morning and thought I was in Albania. The end of the trip must have made an impression, since the first new recipes I attempted were Albanian.

We never had a bad meal.  Hotel breakfasts, airport cafeterias, farmers markets, street vendors, and destination restaurants.  Always good.  Sometimes memorable.   But not the most important part, although I will be writing more about food.  As soon as I finish unpacking.




In the Mountains of Northern Albania

Sunday, July 6, 2014

American Slovenian Nut Horns for Graduation Day; On To Slovenia!



This is the second installment of my cookie "show-and-tell" for my Slovenian language class in late May.

I was the only beginner when I joined the ongoing language class at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall in January. Five months later, I was still playing catch-up. I knew the end-of-term presentation would be a challenge, because some of it had to be done in Slovenian. I felt like a third grader as I tried to use simple, halting language to tell a complicated story: how my maternal heritage was almost erased and then recovered. A few ethnic cookies on the side might help.

The first cookie, buckwheat thumbprints, was something I had made once before. For my second offering, I decided to try something new: American Slovenian nut horns, a fitting choice, considering the source, a 1970s cookbook compiled by a Slovenian class in Willard, Wisconsin.

Kuharice iz Willarda (Cooking from Willard) offered two virtually identical recipes for American Slovenian nut horns. It was a familiar cookie/pastry hybrid, with a rich dough wrapped around a nut filling. I had seen similar recipes, sometimes referred to as "rogljički" in European sources. The American touch in this version seemed to be cottage cheese in the dough rather than cream cheese or sour cream.

The recipe reminded me of rugelach, a Jewish favorite I had made many times. In fact, I consulted some of those recipes, which offered more detailed suggestions for shaping.

The recipe below follows the original Willard version, with my modifications noted. Cinnamon in the filling is well within Slovenian tradition.  The chocolate chips?  Probably more at home in the American Jewish kitchen.

To find out how the recipe and the presentation turned out, read on!





American Slovenian Nut Horns (rogljički)

1 c. butter
1 c. small curd cottage cheese
2-1/2 c. flour
1 t. salt (I omitted)

1 c. ground walnuts
1 c. sugar
milk to moisten
cinnamon to taste, if desired (my addition)

(Another filling option: A sprinkle of chocolate chips!)


For filling: Grind nuts. (Use an old-fashioned hand grinder, if possible!) Mix with sugar, cinnamon if using, and enough milk to moisten. (I ended up with a thick paste.)

For pastry: Cream butter and cottage cheese. Add flour (mixed with salt if using) and combine with pasty cutter or cut in with knives. Knead lightly until smooth.

To shape: Divide dough in half. Roll each half into a circle and cut into 12 wedges.  Put 1 teaspoon of filling at end of each wedge and roll up. (Filling goes on wide end of wedge. Roll from wide end to the point!) Place on ungreased baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Let cool. Makes 24 nut horns.

Another approach to filling and shaping, from a Jewish rugelach recipe: Divide dough into three portions and roll each into a circle.  Before cutting, spread or pat on the filling over the entire surface, except for a small circle in the middle.  (This uncovered circle in the middle will keep the filling from oozing out after shaping.) Cut each circle into 16 wedges. Roll up, shape and bake as above.  Makes 48 smaller nut horns.




The result?  Delicious!

I had my doubts about the cottage cheese, but the pastry turned out light and crisp. The simple walnut filling was wonderful, thanks to the old school hand grinder and the touch of cinnamon.  I might even try it with the family potica recipe. The chocolate chips were fine for variety's sake, but I preferred the original plain walnut filling.

My Jewish husband could see the resemblance to rugelach, but he thought these Slovenian nut horns  had a distinctive quality of their own.

Both cookies, the buckwheat thumbprints and the nut horns, were well-received in my Slovenian class. I did get some ribbing from a couple of the men, when our teacher Mia announced at the start of class that I had brought cookies to share, during the break later in the evening.

"Oh...cookies!  Well, now we already know we'll like your presentation!"

We all laughed.  I started to relax.

Time to begin.  The title slide flashed on the screen.

"My Slovenian Roots: Lost And Found."

Another slide.  My family tree.  I took a deep breath and said the words in Slovenian: Družinsko drevo.

And the next slide, with photos of poticas I had made over the years.

I read the caption in Slovenian.  Kako je moja dediščina preživela: POTICA!

How my heritage survived.  Potica.



It's the truth.  Potica was the one thread that linked the generations, past to present. Everything else, including the Slovenian language, was erased in my mother's family.

Lost and found again.

I will be taking a short break from this blog for a very good reason: I will be in Slovenia for most of the coming month.   Look for more recipes and stories in August.  

Nasvidenje!  See you soon!







Sunday, June 1, 2014

The New Improved Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies, with Walnuts and Rum



Here is the updated recipe for buckwheat thumbprint cookies.  Ajdovčki, as I explained to my Slovenian language class. They are at the top left in the photo above.

I wanted to impress my classmates with these unusual cookies.  Unfortunately, my previous attempt had turned out dry and a little bland. I decided to go back to the original Slovenian recipe and follow it more closely this time.

(For the background story, and version #1, go here.)

A few changes were definitely in order. Walnuts and rum.  Nuts ground the old-fashioned way, with my newly-acquired antique hand grinder.  And closer attention to the metric conversions, which meant a little more cocoa and a smaller volume of nuts. For the spices, I used the Slovenian measure: a knife tip!  Finally, I used two new, sweeter fillings: apricot jam and lemon curd.


The result?  Delicious!  The one little problem: The lemon curd got absorbed into the cookies, so I'd recommend sticking with the jam or preserves of your choice.  

And for complete confidence: use a scale.  It's the European way. 





Ajdovčki, or Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies (with walnuts and rum, the Slovenian way!)

2/3 c. white flour
1/2 c. buckwheat flour
2/3 c. ground walnuts (90 g by weight)
5 T. cocoa
7 T. butter (1 quarter-pound stick, less 1 T.)
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1 knife tip cinnamon
1 knife tip cloves
2 T. rum
Preserves or jam of your choice for filling


Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips. Mixture will be crumbly. Beat egg yolk and rum together and sprinkle over mixture. Work with hands until mixture holds together.  If necessary, add a little more rum or water until you have a stiff, dense dough.

Form dough into small balls, about the size of a walnut.  Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Make a depression in each ball with the handle of a wooden spoon, a chopstick, or your finger.

Bake at 330 degrees for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Enlarge hole with your finger and add a bit of jam.  Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 5 more minutes. Let cool.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Cookie "Show-And-Tell" for my Language Class



Remember back in grade school, when you had to do your first class presentation? Visual aids were always a good idea, in case you became tongue-tied or didn't have much to say.

That's exactly how I felt as I prepared to do a short presentation in my Slovenian language class. It was about losing and finding my heritage. A few short sentences in Slovenian. A powerpoint presentation, with some photos and my family tree.

And one more bit of "show-and-tell": some homemade Slovenian cookies.  After all, food is an important part of the story.  Not to mention the fact that my culinary skills are way ahead of my Slovenian language skills.

I decided to try something old and something new.

The old recipe?  Buckwheat thumbprint cookies, or ajdovčki.  An unusual cookie and not bad the first time around.  I thought they might have been better if I had stuck more closely to the original recipe, from a young woman blogger in Slovenia. Walnuts and rum, instead of almonds and cognac.  And maybe a touch more sugar.

So I made those few tweaks to the original recipe, and it did the trick. (Update: The new improved version is here.)

The new recipe is from my latest vintage Slovenian American cookbook: Kuharice iz Willarda, or Cooking from Willard.  It was compiled in the 1970s by a Slovenian language class in Willard, Wisconsin.  My son found the old cookbook for sale online, assumed it must be written in Slovenian, and ordered it for me as a gift.  The book turns out to be mostly in English, with a judicious smattering of Slovenian sayings and recipe titles. That made me smile.  I would have fit right in to that Slovenian class.

In that 1970s cookbook, I spotted a recipe called American Slovenian nut horns: little cookie/pastries, with a rich dough wrapped around a nut filling.  Very similar to many other Slovenian recipes I had seen before--and also to ruggelach, a Jewish favorite I had made many times.  But there was one interesting (and healthy)  difference: cottage cheese instead of the more usual cream cheese in the dough.  (Update: the nut horn recipe is posted here.)

Recipes will follow soon.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to my Slovenian homework.

Dober tek!


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Great Gedempte Chicken Mystery



"Why don't you make your father's gedempte chicken?" I said to my husband.  "I'll be the scribe."

It was Passover week, a time when traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes appear on many American tables, including ours. I was eager to document another piece of family culinary history.

I had recently written about Murray's Kreplach.  Gedempte chicken, another one of my father-in-law's recipes, seemed like the perfect follow-up.  He had learned to make both dishes by watching his mother Rose, who emigrated from her village in Poland at around the same time my grandfather left Slovenia.

Murray had introduced us to this rich chicken dish during one of our visits.  The second time he made it, my husband watched and made notes.  Back home, he reproduced it, using his father's cooking as a model.

Gedempte chicken is an unusual dish with simple ingredients.  It is a rich, onion-laden stew or fricassee with a twist: little meatballs simmering along with the pieces of chicken. The seasonings are nothing more than salt, pepper, paprika, with a touch of catsup at the end.  The key is to brown the ingredients well and then simmer slowly, so the meats and onion release their juices.  In theory, no additional liquid is need to create a thick sauce.

"Why don't you check your notes?" I suggested to my husband, before he started to cook.  I wanted to be sure we came as close as possible to his father's original version.

"Notes?" He looked puzzled.  He didn't have them. In fact, he didn't recall writing anything down.

Hmm.  I could swear we had an old envelope with a rough sort of recipe jotted down. Oh well. I suggested he call the source, Murray himself, for a quick refresher course.

When he got off the phone, my husband gave me an odd look.  "There are no meatballs."

"No meatballs?  You mean he's changed the recipe and now he leaves out the meatballs?"

"No.  He says he never used meatballs.  That's not part of the dish."

We were both baffled.  Had we imagined those little meatballs, the most distinctive element in the dish? Or perhaps my husband picked up the idea on his own and had completely broken with Jewish tradition.

It was time for some research.  My Jewish cookbooks weren't much help, but I discovered plenty of information on the Internet. "Gedempte" is a Yiddish term that means "well-cooked." I found at least a a half dozen recipes for gedempte chicken, some with meatballs and some without.

I was relieved.  The meatball variation wasn't some rogue version of gedempte chicken my husband had invented, even if the source remained hazy.


What to do?

My husband had a good solution.  He would follow his father's latest directions, with chicken only. Then he would make a separate batch of meatballs, relying on his own memory and intuition.

When it came time to eat, we did a taste test. The first night, we ate the chicken and meatballs separately. By itself, the chicken was tasty.  In fact, it reminded us of my own Slovenian-style chicken paprikash, minus the sour cream. (Dairy products in a meat or poultry dish would violate Jewish dietary laws.) The meatballs were just fine. Matzo farfel, another Passover favorite, was the perfect accompaniment.  Other good (non-Passover) options to accompany the chicken stew immediately came to mind:  buckwheat kasha, homemade egg noodles, or even some nice Slovenian mlinci!

But this was not the gedempte chicken we had come to know and love.  So, after dinner, the chicken and meatballs went into the same pot, where they mingled overnight. The next day, the flavor was even better after reheating.

Our verdict:   Gedempte chicken is great, however you make it.  But mixing in the meatballs takes the dish to a whole other level.

But why take our word for it?  Try it yourself!

Recipes follow.




For the chicken:

1-1/2 lb chicken breasts, bone in
1-3/4 lb chicken thighs
2 large onions, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. paprika
salt
black pepper
2 T. catsup


Sprinkle paprika, pepper and salt on chicken.  Brown thighs, skin side down, in Dutch oven. Remove and brown the breasts.  The goal is to brown the skin and remove some of the fat. Remove chicken from pot.  Saute onions with additional paprika, salt, and pepper until softened. Add chicken.  Cover and simmer for several hours.  You should not need extra liquid, but if you must, add a little water or broth. Add catsup in last hour. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.


For the meatball option:

1 lb. ground beef
1/4 c. matzo meal
1 egg
salt
black pepper
2 t. paprika
1 large onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. catsup at end

Mix beef, matzo meal, egg, and seasonings well. Form meat mixture into small balls the size of a walnut. Brown in vegetable oil in a large saucepan.  Drain off fat. Add onion and garlic.  Return meatballs to pan. Cover and simmer for several hours. You should not need extra liquid, but if you must, add a little water or broth. Add catsup in last hour. Taste and adjust seasonings before serving.

The chicken and the meatballs can be served separately or combined and simmered together.  Serve with matzo farfel, buckwheat kasha, noodles, or mlinci.



Sunday, March 30, 2014

Murray's Kreplach, The New Old-Fashioned Way



I posted the recipe for Murray's Famous Chicken-Beef Kreplach almost two years ago. Although I incorporated some of my father-in-law's seasoning suggestions when I made žlikrofi, the Slovenian version of the dish, I had never actually followed his complete recipe.

Murray's recipe is labor intensive.  It begins with poaching the chicken and stewing the beef.  No shortcuts in this recipe, so I would have to devote an entire day to making kreplach.

I needed something else: a hand-cranked meat grinder, to replace the one my mother had passed along to me.  She had used it to prepare the meat filling for her own version of kreplach, which was probably based on the Slovenian žlikrofi my grandmother made.  Sadly, I had lost track of that old treasure.  So I was on the lookout for a new one.  I did find one old meat grinder at a fancy antique store, but I balked at the thirty-five dollar price tag.

Finally, about a month ago, I wandered into a yard sale down the block.  And there it was: A hand-cranked meat grinder.  Old, a little rusty, but with all the parts.  A bargain at six dollars.

The time for Murray's Kreplach had arrived.



I made just a few changes in Murray's recipe. The biggest one?  No added salt.  To compensate, I increased the other seasonings.  I also used oil instead of chicken fat. Since the original recipe is quite large, I cut the quantities in half.

The detailed recipe follows, along with step-by-step photos.

But first, let's cut to the chase:  Was it worth it?

The answer:  Yes, without question.  I had no idea how good this would be. Even without the salt, the meat filling was rich and full of flavor.  It had the deep, earthy tang of chopped liver. I could swear someone had slipped in some schmaltz (chicken fat) when I wasn't looking.

The secret is in the step that Murray calls "making potted beef." Plenty of well-browned onion and a generous hand with the flour and fat leaves you with a rich, flavorful gravy that gets added to the meat filling at the end.  Do not skip this step!

Despite some healthy changes (no salt, oil instead of chicken fat) this is not diet food.  But kreplach are meant to be a ceremonial dish, filled with love and family and memories of the past.  Murray's mother Rose made them once a year, at Rosh Hashanah, and distributed them to her children and grandchildren as a New Year's gift.  Once or twice a year, I figure we can follow her example and do it up right.



Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach (salt-free)

Ingredients

Filling:

4 oz. boneless chicken breasts
1 lb.  boneless beef chuck or beef stew meat
flour to coat the beef (about 2 T.)
1-1/4 c. chopped onions
oil to brown onions, about 2 T.
1-2 cloves garlic
1/4 t. paprika, with more added to taste
2 T. fresh parsley, with more added to taste
black pepper to taste
salt-free seasoning mix (or salt) to taste


Dough:

1- 3/4 c. all purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1  T. oil
water, as needed 


Instructions for filling:

Poach chicken breasts in water seasoned with pepper and a little minced garlic.  I added some onion and a bay leaf. Drain and chill.  (Save the liquid for soup!)

Murray refers to this next step as "making potted beef." Cut beef in cubes, coat with flour, and brown on all sides in oil. Remove beef from pan. Using the same pan, brown the onion, adding more oil if needed. When onions are well browned, add beef back to pan. Add 1/2 inch of water, along with pepper, paprika, parsley, garlic and (if desired) salt-free seasoning mix.  Cover and simmer on low heat, adding more liquid if needed, for about an hour, or until beef is tender. Remove from pan and chill.  Be sure to save the onion-sauce mix that remains in the pan.

Cut the chilled chicken into chunks. Use a meat grinder (or, if you must, a food processor) to chop the chicken finely.  Set aside in a bowl.

Place the chilled beef cubes into meat grinder (or food processor) and chop or grind finely.

Combine chopped beef, chopped chicken and the onion-sauce mixture that is left over from potting the beef. If filling doesn't hold together, you can add additional oil or breadcrumbs, but I didn't need either of those. The filling should be strongly flavored, with a texture that is something like a raw meatball mixture, according to Murray. I found to be more like a firm spread that reminded me of chopped liver, in both the texture and the rich, deep flavor. Since the meat is already cooked, you are free to taste and adjust the seasonings.  Because my version was salt-free, I increased the other seasonings.

Instructions for dough, shaping, and final preparation:

The original recipe suggests using a a food processor to mix the dough and a pasta machine for rolling it out.  But I opted for the old-fashioned approach: mixing and rolling by hand. 

For a reminder on how to make egg noodle dough, go here.

Roll the dough into a thin square that is roughly 18 x 18 inches. Cut into three-inch squares. Put a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each square.  To shape, I used the simple, traditional approach I learned from my mother:  Fold the square into a triangle and crimp the edges with a fork. (Murray's original recipe, as well as many Slovenian recipes, involve a more complex tortellini shape.)

I ended up with 32 kreplach.  Bring a large pot of water to boil and drop in kreplach.  When they rise to the top, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Drain.  Coat with a little oil and keep warm.

There are many ways to serve kreplach.  In chicken broth.   Plain, topped with a little parsley and browned onions.   Garnished with ajvar and Greek yogurt.  Even fried.

With Murray's kreplach, you can't go wrong!

Murray



 


Making Potted Beef

Grinding Chicken


Ground Beef and Chicken


Shaping the Kreplach
Finished Kreplach


Friday, March 14, 2014

Nut Crescent Cookies, A Childhood Memory Revisited



Nut crescent cookies, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar, were a Christmas mainstay during my childhood. My mother made them, but so did everyone else in Cleveland, so I assumed these rich, delicate treats must be an American standard.

I used to follow a tasting ritual. First, a bite of plain cookie, butter-rich but barely sweet and not at all appealing to my child's palate. Then, a bite of a sugar-dredged crescent, with the aching sweetness on the outside that turned the bland interior into something delectable.  The contrast, and that moment of transformation, always fascinated me.

Eventually, I discovered that this style of cookie or pastry is common to many cultures in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The foundation is a mild shortbread dough, enriched by ground nuts and shaped into crescents or small balls.  In the United States, the cookies are often referred to as Viennese Walnut Crescents, which suggests Central European origins.

I discovered that my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks all had multiple recipes for these cookies, under a variety of names:  Crescents. Kipfel. Kiffel. Kipferlin. Piskoti. Contemporary Slovenian recipes generally use the name rogljički, which tranlates as croissants.

Now I was convinced:  I had discovered one more Slovenian dish my mother had made for us, without revealing its ethnic origins.

I found a likely-looking recipe from my favorite vintage source, The Progressive Slovene Women of America. The type of nut was not specified, although the name, orehovi piskoti, suggests walnuts as the preferred choice.  My mother used either walnuts or pecans. But I decided to use the freshly ground almond meal I already had in the fridge.

For the recipe and the results, read on.





Nut Crescents (Rogljički)

1 c. butter
6 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla or almond extract
2 c. flour
1 c. ground nuts (I used almond meal)
dash of salt (optional; I skipped it)


Cream buttter and sugar.  Add extract.  Mix in flour and then nuts.  Use spoon (or hands) to make a dense and somewhat crumbly dough.  Form into a smooth ball or, for ease of handling, shape into two long rolls.  Cover and chill dough for an hour. Form into walnut sized balls, then roll into 2-1/2 inch strips.  Shape strips into crescents.  Place on parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.  Let cool on sheet before moving, because these cookies are very fragile. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Store carefully.

Makes 30-35.







When I removed the cookies from the baking sheet, they were delicate and fragile. I used a light hand with the sugar: a generous dusting rather than the heavy dredging my mother used to favor.  The snowy crescents looked beautiful.

I repeated the before-and-after tasting ritual from my childhood. No doubt about it:  Nut crescents are much tastier with a sugar coating, even to a more sophisticated adult palate. Although I am a fan of almonds, I suspect that walnuts or pecans might result in a slightly less dry and more flavorful cookie.  That will be my choice the next time I make this easy but sophisticated recipe.

When I gave my mother some of the cookies, I asked her where she had first learned to make them.  From my Slovenian America grandma, perhaps?

No, my mother said.  It was from a magazine she bought, a collection called One Hundred Cookie Recipes. She wasn't sure what had happened to it.

I had an immediate image of that well-used magazine. It must have dated from the early 1950s, since the pages were yellow and brittle when she had passed it along to me, probably thirty years ago. I had no idea what had become of it.

The origin of the cookies?  My mother thought they had become popular because of a recipe that was distributed by the makers of Crisco. I had a disconcerting memory:  the big blue can of pale hydrogenated vegetable fat that used to sit in our kitchen for months on end.  It was the "modern" shortening choice for cooks in the 1950s (and even later) because it didn't need refrigeration, thanks to all that chemical alternation.  These days, Crisco has fallen into disrepute.

So much for my visions of a treasured family recipe.  But I still like to believe these delicate cookies from my childhood carried the hidden flavor of our Slovenian roots.