Monday, September 21, 2015

The new best-ever Jewish Honey Cake, sinkholes and all

Last fall, I made a wonderful honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I was attempting a low-sodium adaptation of a recipe by the great food writer Claudia Roden. To my surprise, it turned out to be the best honey cake I had ever made.

This year, I have a new candidate: Last year's recipe, made the right way!

A few weeks ago, I decided to make that wonderful honey cake again, with a few changes. The biggest one: regular leavening instead of the low-sodium adaptation. Instead of last year's plain cake, I took Roden's suggestion and added some walnuts and dried fruit. (I used cranberries instead of raisins.) As before, I used brown sugar instead of white, increased the spices, and used orange juice along with coffee. One unplanned change: half olive oil, because I ran out of vegetable oil. Finally, to save time, I baked the cake in three small loaf pans instead of a single large springform pan.

At first, the loaves rose nicely. But somewhere along the line, that dark liquid mass heaved, rolled, and fell. When I removed the honey cake from the oven, each loaf had a deep crack in the middle.  Actually, it looked more like a crater. Or like those sinkholes ("ponikve") that are common to the karst landscape in the region of Slovenia where my ancestors once lived.

I was baffled. Why had my honey cake risen so well last year, despite the always-risky substitution of those less-potent low sodium leaveners?  I didn't have time to fret about it, because I had to rush off to a Cajun music gig up north, at a winery in the hills of Napa county.

That night, we decided to try the honey cake, even though it had aged less then ten hours.

To my surprise, those misshapen slices were delicious! They were moist. Fully cooked in the center, too. The flavor was deep, dark, and tangy. The nuts and dried fruit were a fine addition. The olive oil seemed to add depth.

My husband thought it was the best honey cake he had ever tasted.

I did a little research and soon learned that sunken honey cakes are a problem for many people--even the popular food blogger Smitten Kitten.  She had also followed the honey cake recipe of a well-established Jewish baker. Her loaves were as cratered as mine.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the most frequent cause of sunken cakes is over-rising, often because of too much leavening. Smitten Kitten discovered her honey cake did better when she reduced the baking powder.

Curious, I went back to the original Claudia Roden recipe. Oh-oh. I had made an error, when I included her "regular leavening" instructions in last year's post. Roden called for 2 teaspoons of regular baking powder and 1/2  teaspoon of baking soda, but I had reversed it in my blog post.

Mystery solved!  I had followed my own misdirections and used 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. No wonder my honey cakes were over-leavened.

I have corrected the error in last year's blog post and in the recipe below. But it is hard to go wrong with this forgiving recipe.

Dober tek!

And, if you are celebrating, Happy New Year.

Best-ever Jewish Honey Cake  (adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (I used half olive oil)
1 cup dark honey
2 T. rum
1/4 cup warm coffee
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. ginger
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup walnuts, broken and 1/3 cup dried cranberries (optional)

(Low sodium option: use 4 t. low sodium baking soda and omit the salt.)

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil, then oil and dust with flour. Or use three small loaf pans, 3 x 7 inches. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a small bowl, toss walnuts and cranberries (or raisins, the more traditional choice) in a little flour to coat. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, coffee, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth. Finally, fold in the optional nuts and cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake at 350 degrees until top is firm and springs back when touched, about 45 minutes for small loaf pans for 1 hour and 15 minutes for a large spring form pan. Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two before slicing and eating.

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!