The ball season has started

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I don’t know if it’s the same in other European countries, but the ball season in Slovakia traditionally starts after Epiphany (6th January), and lasts until Shrove Tuesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.

I wasn’t originally planning to write about clothes on this site (I’m far from a fashionista), but when I spotted this fabulous dress in my news feed this week, I knew I had to share it with you. And not just because it’s so divinely beautiful. It also touched my heart.

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Slovak Haute Couture (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

The dress was sported by one of the guests at the opening of the 2017 ball season in the Slovak Opera House in Bratislava. The finely embroidered top and the headpiece both come from a traditional folk costume representing Očová village in the heart of Slovakia. The skirt was designed specifically for the occasion to complement the top and give the whole outfit a more contemporary look. Yes, it wonderfully bridges our traditional arts with today’s fashion trends, as the model – the Slovak writer, journalist and presenter – wrote on Instagram. I didn’t know Tamara in person, but I contacted her immediately, and she happily gave permission to publish the photos on this site. I understood she is a lover of all things Slovak, especially traditional folk dresses, and as you can see in the pictures, she knows how to wear them.

This is how Tamara describes the outfit she wore for the prominent ball in the Opera House:

The top and the headpiece are more than 80 years old – they were borrowed from a private collection of two Slovak enthusiasts who have preserved traditional folk costumes from around Slovakia for decades. The intricate embroidery has been done by hand with a special hook-shaped needle, and is typical for the Podpoľanie (Podpolyanyie) region, where the village of Očová lies.

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The sleeves are richly embellished with ‘carved’ embroidery (Photo courtesy of Tamara Šimončíková Heribanová)

If you wonder how the ‘carved’ embroidery on the airy sleeves is done, here is the answer: The patterns are first sewn on linen by hand, then bits of fabric are cut out with special scissors. Well yes, it does take ages -and an impeccable skill as well – to make a piece like this.

And why do I have such an emotional bond with this art? I was born in Detva near Očová, and I could not only see these fine dresses being made and worn on numerous occasions as I grew up, but I also learnt to do the embroidery, though I have to say my pieces were nowhere near the exquisite work pictured above.

Looking back at 2016

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There are events in our calendar that will repeat themselves with unfailing regularity year after year, though no two of them will ever feel the same. Silvester, which is what 31st December is named in the Slovak calendar, is no exception. No matter how many Silvesters I’ve lived through, the end of year never ceases to surprise me with new findings.

Although it hasn’t been the best year on the international level, the 2016 has brought a lot of positive things for my family and friends. We haven’t lost anyone, yet we welcomed a few new-borns. My eldest daughter got engaged, the younger one has successfully weathered an exceptionally difficult time in her professional life, our son has finally found his true vocation.

On a personal level, it’s been a very productive year. At long last, I managed to gather enough resources to publish A Taste of Slovakia – my first book, which started selling at a few bookshops around Slovakia and a couple of other venues, like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco s.r.o. Smolenice and Podpolianske múzeum Detva.

I have also shipped a few copies outside Slovakia and some buyers have taken the book as far as the USA.

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All through the year and especially during the book completion I was fortunate enough to meet passionate and supportive people, many of whom have become friends.

Thanks to you, my dear readers and fans, Cookslovak website continued growing and attracting more views. I’m extremely grateful for all your likes, comments and the positive energy you’ve brought on board.

Looking back at 2016, these top five posts have caught attention of most viewers:

1. A Taste of Slovakia

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2. Exploring Liptov

3. Let’s dance!

4. How to make ‘halushki’

5. Slovak Sour Potato Soup

It’s been really great to have you around. I hope you’ll stay with me next year and I promise not to disappoint 😉

Have a happy and peaceful 2017!

Christmas Baskets

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My mum used to simply call them Košíčky (Baskets) and that’s how these dainty cakes are recorded in my old hand-written recipe book. Mum always made them for Christmas, because she knew they would be winners and none of us would make excuses to avoid helping. It was quite a lot of work, granted, but there was also a fair chance to get a sneak lick of the cream or the chocolate icing when Mum wasn’t looking.

I can’t remember when was the last time I baked Košíčky, but it seems long enough to dust this old classic off and give it a new twist. The good thing about Christmas Baskets is that you can bake the pastry well in advance, and do the cream and icing a couple of days before Christmas. And that’s what I did.

In the recipe below I only reduced the amount of sugar for the pastry, but changed the ingredients for the cream/filling. If you want to give it a go, make sure you have enough cake moulds. As you can see in the photos below, I used a pack of fluted tartlet pans (60 mm diameter).

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Christmas Baskets

Christmas Baskets

Makes about 60

For the pastry:

  • 100 g ground nuts (I used walnuts)
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 250 g plain flour
  • 150 g butter
  • 50 g sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ sachet baking powder (about 7 g)
  • flour for dusting

For the filling:

  • 450 g thick yoghurt (Greek is perfect)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½-2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • jam (I used home-made blackberry one)
  • canned or fresh fruit to decorate

For the chocolate icing:

  • 100 g cooking or dark chocolate
  • 50 g margarine or shortening

Method:

I like to have my nuts freshly ground before baking, although they can be bought at the store these days. In Slovakia, walnuts are by far the most popular for baking.

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I use my old, but very reliable hand grinder to grind walnuts.

To make the pastry, put all the ingredients in a large bowl and combine well until a smooth, soft dough has formed. I always knead the dough by hand, but a food processor is fine as well, I guess. Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let the dough rest for an hour in a cool place.

Prepare the cake moulds and start filling them like this:

Preheat the oven to 180ºC and bake each batch for 10 – 12 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool down and remove the baskets from the moulds by tilting them gently, as seen in the photo below:

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The baked baskets slide out of the moulds easily. Store them in an airtight container or start filling them straight away.

Spread a little of the jam at the bottom of each basket.

To make the filling, mix the yoghurt with the sugar and the cinnamon in a bowl. Fill in each basket with the yoghurt mixture and level the surface. Put a piece of fruit in the middle. Cover with the chocolate icing.

To make the chocolate icing, follow the instructions here.

Let the baskets rest in a cool place for at least 24 hours, in which time the pastry will have absorbed all the flavours and softened.

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A very happy and peaceful Christmas to you all!

For chocolate lovers

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It’s that time of year again when – apart from other goodies – we also get more chocolate, at least here in Slovakia. The reason is that on 6th December Mikuláš (Slovak for St Nicholas or Santa Claus) has his day in the Slovak calendar and, by tradition, he brings packets of sweets and chocolates to children, supposing they were nice and good all through the year. In most Slovak households children clean their boots on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day, and put them up on the window sill, where Mikuláš will leave his treats overnight.

More often than not, chocolate will also adorn our Christmas trees. If you happen to be in Slovakia at this time of year, you’ll find our shops and supermarkets filled with collections of chocolate toys, figures and little ornaments packed in festive boxes. Not only are they meant to be put up on the Christmas tree as decorations, but they can be eaten as well, so we have to make sure there’s enough trinkets up there to avoid the Christmas tree going naked 😉

For people like me though, chocolate is an all-year love affair. A cup of hot cocoa is not only a sweet memory of my childhood, but it remains my comfort drink to these days. Here is how I make it:

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3. Transfer into a mug or cup, and stir in a teaspoonful of sugar or honey.

When I want to treat myself or my special people to a quality hot chocolate (horúca čokoláda), I’ll take them to a chocolate house/bar. Now, hot chocolate means different things to different people, and not only in Slovakia. I have drunk hot chocolate in Belgium, Switzerland and England, but none of them tasted the same. Depending on the venue and the price, hot chocolate can be anything from a cheap, thin mixture of some artificial powder with water (at least it tastes like that), to a more pronounced chocolaty drink (I don’t know what they make it from, but it’s more expensive and tastes much better), to a thick, rich, warm chocolate probably made by melting chocolate chips. And this is what I’d call ‘crème de la crème’ of hot chocolate.dsc_0049In Slovakia, this ‘real’ hot chocolate comes in many different flavours (vanilla, cinnamon, chilli) and with various additions (fruit, cream, liquors). Last time we went to our favourite chocolate bar with my daughter, she ordered a mix of dark and white chocolate with vanilla flavour, and I had a dark one with bilberries.

I found mine a little on the sweet side, but I suppose I could have just asked for less sugar in it before serving. All in all, it was a delightful experience, as the place had a very pleasant, cosy ambience, and a beautiful mirror ceiling.

 

Roasted ‘Encian’ with Cranberries

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Most of you will probably associate cranberries with turkey and Thanksgiving, but in Slovakia, we prefer to serve them with game and, quite often, they will also garnish grilled or roasted cheese. It should be said though that only certain types of cheese are suited to pan-roasting, and for this recipe in particular, the choice is even narrower. The good news is that the cheese you will need is available worldwide, though it might be sold under different names.

Encián is the Slovak variety of French Camembert – a soft, creamy cow’s milk cheese with a bloomy edible rind. Like Camembert, Encián is sold whole as small (80 g) or large (110 g) round cheese in cardboard boxes. In the neighbouring Czech Republic, Hermelín cheese is a very close relative to Encián, or perhaps is it vice versa? It’s really difficult to trace the origins of this simple, classic dish, as the Czechs and Slovaks lived together in one country for over seventy years, which explains why their cuisines are so close to each other.

So let’s enjoy one of the Czecho-Slovak dishes, which is perfect for a light dinner, or as a finger-licking treat for your surprise guests. In the recipe below I used the small cheese rounds of 80 g, but larger ones are perfectly fine as well, especially if your family or friends are ‘big eaters’. Also I put to good use the last bottle of the Cranberry Compote left from the previous preserving season.

dsc_0025 Roasted ‘Encian’ with Cranberries
Serves 2

  • 2 Encian rounds (80 g each)
  • 2 heaped tablespoons cranberry compote
  • salt, black pepper, oregano to taste
  • oil for frying
  • fresh vegetables to garnish

Method:

Wash and cut or slice the vegetables. Arrange them on a serving plate.

Warm a pan over a low heat. Brush the cheese rounds all over with oil. Season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and oregano to taste. Put the cheese rounds in the pan, increase the heat to medium, and roast on both sides for about 10 minutes. This will ensure the cheese is soft inside and lightly browned on the outside.

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Transfer the warm cheeses on the serving plates, top with the cranberry compote and serve immediately with slices of wholegrain bread.

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Grilled Encián or Hermelín with a cranberry sauce is often prepared fresh at open-air food festivals around Slovakia. You can also get it at Christmas market stalls, which will open in all Slovak towns and cities in about 10 days.

Good news!

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There’s nothing more rewarding for an author than to see their book on a shelf in a real bookstore. More even, if this is a first-time author who has published the book herself after years of working on it and wondering whether all her efforts ever materialize.

I’m quite good at containing my emotions (either positive or negative), and I’m certainly not the one that would dance with her book around the flat taking selfies and posting them online. I don’t go sneaking around that store checking on the number of sold copies (though gosh, how much I’d want to know), but when I got a phone call last night saying ‘we want more of your book’, it sounded like a song to my ears! And I did feel a surge of happiness welling up inside me, filling my eyes with mist. It’s not that I’m desperate to see my name out there along with other well-established authors. I just feel immense gratitude to those who, by buying the book,  quietly acknowledged its worth and dispelled a clump of uncertainties that had accumulated in my mind over the years.

dsc_0016As I said in the previous post, A Taste of Slovakia is far more than a cookbook. It blends my love of cooking and writing with a new hobby I took up on the way. It was more out of necessity that I started to take pictures – I couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer – but as soon as I grasped the basic techniques, I found myself totally immersed in the new challenge.

The Artforum Žilina bookshop is the only one at the moment to be selling the book, but I’m trying to find more outlets to bring it to a wider audience. It’s not easy, as the market for English books in Slovakia is very small and the wholesale terms & conditions are extremely tough for a self-published author, which you’d expect, wouldn’t you? We’ll have to find a way though, and I’m happy to announce I’ve successfully shipped a few copies around Slovakia recently.

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Until I find reliable, trustworthy partners to help me sell the book outside Slovakia, I can ship individual copies by Slovak registered mail at the rates below:

Europe:  18.80 € (including postage & packing)
Rest of World:  25.80 € (including postage & packing)

As I have found out, the more copies in a package, the less the postage is per item. So if you’d like to own one, just click on the ‘Contact’ button in the top right hand corner of this page and send me an e-mail. I’ll deal with the order according to Slovak trade licence conditions, and will dispatch the item(s) together with an invoice that can be paid on the arrival of the book(s).

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As you can see on Cookslovak’s facebook page, the first buyers from Slovakia have already taken a few copies of the book as far as the USA. Let’s hope the tastes of Slovakia will travel happily around the world, and inspire a good many of home cooks 😉

A Taste of Slovakia

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It was born – at long last! The book I’ve been struggling to publish for so long has finally seen the light of day. How shall I organize its ‘christening’? Will the book appeal to the Slovak public and, most importantly, will it find a way to international audiences it is aimed at? Too many questions to answer for a newcomer like me. It looks like there’s another challenge to take before I can claim myself a published author. Hopefully, I’ll be able to connect to such nice, helpful people outside Slovakia as I have been lucky enough to meet so far.

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As you can see in the slideshow above, A Taste of Slovakia is much more than a list of our traditional recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture, the way of living, the history that is – oh, so very short. And for those who will delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus …

I’m now trying to find my way through the rigmarole of book-selling and, even more daunting a task, international shipping. As soon as I have good news on this, I’ll be posting it here. I’m really looking forward to making a more tactile connection with food enthusiasts around the world!

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Stay in touch and wish me good luck, my dear reader 🙂

Jarmila

Sunday Plum Sponge Delight

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Summer is undeniably over and so is the plum season. We still get quite a lot of sunshine here in Slovakia, but the temperatures have dropped and there’s this autumnal nip in the air that makes my gait brisker and my mind more agile.

The trim jars of plum jam from last summer’s harvest still grace the preserve shelf of my pantry, and I’ve already bottled some from this year’s crop, so the last batch of luscious, dark blue plums from my friend’s garden will meet a different fate.

I’ve just remembered two ancient tins I bought years ago for Metrový koláč (or Metre-long Cake), dusted them off and am ready to experiment. My baking tin size is 30 x 10 x 5 cm each, they’re identical and quite specific, I know, but don’t despair. They can be replaced by two traditional 2lb loaf tins (900g), if you want to join in the fun. And if you can’t get hold of plums, feel free to use any seasonal fruit (preferably soft and juicy) for a nice, squidgy sponge and a lush, creamy sauce.

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Sunday Plum Sponge Delight

For the sponge:

  • 4 eggs
  • 200 g castor sugar
  • 200 g flour
  • 100 ml warm water
  • 100 ml oil
  • a packet of baking powder (13 g)
  • 400 g fresh plums
  • oil or margarine for greasing + flour for dusting the tins

For the sauce:

  • 500 g fresh plums
  • 100 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • a piece of cinnamon stick (about 5 cm)
  • 200 ml cooking cream (12% fat in Slovakia)
  • a pinch of salt

Method:

To make the sponge, grease the insides of the baking tins with oil or margarine. Make sure  you cover all the little ridges. Dust with a thin layer of flour.

Wash , halve and stone all the plums. Don’t forget to put 500 g of them aside for the sauce.

Separate the egg whites into a mixer. Put the egg yolks in a large bowl and beat them with the sugar until the mixture is light and airy. Slowly add the water, the oil and the sifted flour mixed with the baking powder. Remember to stir all the time.

Whisk the egg whites in the mixer until they form soft, white peaks. This is what we call ‘snow’ in Slovakia. Spoon by spoon, transfer the ‘egg snow’ to the batter and fold in gently.

Divide the batter between the two cake tins and gently spread out with a spatula. Immerse the plums in the batter and put both cake tins in the oven. Bake at 180°C for about 40 minutes or until the cakes turn golden brown.

Let the cakes cool down on a wooden board. After 10 minutes, gently ease the sides of the cake from the tin with a cutlery knife. Turn upside down and tap on the back of the tin to slowly release the cake onto the board. Set aside.

To make the sauce, put the the other part of the plums in a saucepan. Pour in the water, add the sugar and a pinch of salt. Throw in the cinnamon stick and stir well. Cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Put aside and let cool slightly, then remove the cinnamon stick.

Cut three slices of the cake and place on a dessert plate. Pour the warm plum sauce over them and serve immediately.

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Sunday Plum Sponge Delight

Have a great, relaxing Sunday! It looks like here in Slovakia it’s going to be another sunny and leisurely one 🙂

How to make ‘halushki’

When the Communist regime was toppled in Central Europe at the turn of 1980s and 1990s, our borders opened both ways, so we could not only travel to the ‘Western paradise’, but also had the first English-speaking tourists coming to Slovakia (part of Czechoslovakia at the time). When asked about our national dish, we found it quite difficult to explain what Halušky s bryndzou was, so the first English attempts at describing the dish went like this: It’s sort of small potato dumplings covered in bryndza (another very Slovak ingredient) and topped with fried bacon pieces.

With more foreigners sampling the dish and returning to the country (not only for halušky), the Slovak word got its English transcription, and that’s how these small dumplings are now called by their non-Slovak fans. When talking about ‘halushki’, I often refer to them as traditional Slovak pasta, because they’ve been an essential part of our cuisine for centuries. Some people liken them to German spätzle or Hungarian galuska, and indeed they look very similar, which only proves how easily cooking ideas travelled across the borders in the past.  

To make potato halushki, you will need:

  • pasta flour (when in Slovakia, look for hrubá múka, which translates as coarse flour)
  • grated raw potatoes
  • a pinch of salt
  • egg (optional)

For the exact measurements and instructions, go to specific recipes, e.g. Strapatchki

The easiest and quickest way to make those funny little dumplings is to push the potato dough through a halushki-maker, like in the photo below:

Halushki-makers come in different shapes, sizes and materials. I’m sure you can buy one in Hungary, Germany, Austria or even Switzerland. If not, come to Slovakia ;-). Or do it like most Slovaks do when staying abroad. Although this method is more laborious, it’s also more fun. All you need is a knife or a teaspoon, a small wooden board and some skill which, of course, comes with practice. So let’s start:

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Cut the small dumplings with a teaspoon …
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… or with a cutlery knife …
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… straight into the boiling water.

Halushki can serve several purposes. In Slovak cuisine, they may replace noodles in soups, or accompany meat in main dishes, like in the Braised Rabbit Thighs with Halushki. In this case, grated raw potatoes are left out, but the egg is essential, and you can add herbs of your own choice to the dough to give it more flavour or an extra kick.

My Grandma used to make halushki for a Sunday soup from her chickens’ livers. She mashed them with a fork, added some flour and eggs, a pinch of salt and a few sprigs of chopped parsley and off they went to the boiling water. Well, that was a delicacy, I can tell you!

For beer gourmets

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I don’t drink beer myself (it’s too bitter for my liking), but when I was documenting its history and production in Slovakia, I met so many wonderful people with such a great passion for what they did that I really feel tempted to give it another try. If I do, I’ll certainly go for small brewery labels, which are more expensive but, as the experts say, you’ll get more character and goodness in a couple of these curvy, original bottles than in a pack of mass-produced beer cans.

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Despite its diminutive size, Slovakia has more than 50 small breweries (or micro-breweries, as they are often called in English) on top of two medium-sized Slovak companies with a long beer-making tradition, and two giant corporations that produce ‘eurobeer’, as our beer gourmets often say with a scorn. I’m not the right person to judge the contents, but I like the variety of colours, shapes and labels small breweries bring to the market. Like the ones above and below, which I had a pleasure to shoot at Na siedmom schode beer bar in Žilina.

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On my travels around Slovakia, I learned a lot about the art of beer making. I was told that, unlike well-known European breweries, whose beer is sold in most shops and supermarkets, the ‘craft beer’ from small breweries is unfiltered and unpasteurized, which is why it is sold ‘on the spot’. In practice, it means that you can taste it in a pub or an inn adjacent to the brewery, and it often comes with wonderful local food. Turák & vnuk Brewery in Stará Turá only opened last summer, but it has already grown a sizeable body of regular visitors.

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Pivovar a pálenica Turák&vnuk
Photo credits: Martin Medňanský, Turák & vnuk Brewery

Slovak pubs that I remember from my childhood were scruffy, smoke-filled places frequented by working class men. Women weren’t encouraged to join in, so when Mum had sent us to call Dad for a Sunday lunch, we patiently stood at the door until he took notice. My university encounters with pubs weren’t much better either. I did take part in a few nights out with my classmates, but felt like a fish out of water, although I have to admit I liked (and still do) a large glass of kofola after a stressful day at school, or a long hiking trip in the mountains. Kofola is a Slovak trademark that resembles Coke in colour, but it tastes different and has much less sugar in it. It’s been sold on draught in our pubs for – well, as long as my memory can travel back in time.

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Kofola – a Slovak trademark resembling Coke

When doing my research on Slovak beer on the Internet, I came across a quaint-looking small pub that immediately caught my attention. I was curious to see the place, so I invited my son there for a pint on his birthday. What a delight it was to feel and savour the unique historical ambience of Múzejný pivovar pub near Bratislava!

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Not only did I change my view on Slovak pub culture, but I also took a few pictures for the forthcoming book. My son was a connoisseur; he had a chance to taste a new brand of high quality beer, and he was happy to show me what a good draught looks like.

Can you guess what he said the secret behind a well-draught beer was?