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?

Cooking in the great outdoors

Summer is an ideal time for outdoor parties, isn’t it? I wonder what they look like in your country. In mine, they often take the form of cooking competitions like the one I described in the post on Goulash parties last year.

But it’s not only goulash that you can get to taste when touring Slovakia in the summer. A long thread of outdoor cooking events starts as early as in May, shortly after sheep are taken to the pastures for the first time in a year. The general public is invited to salashes (wooden cottages close to the pastures), where shepherds live and work until late September. The new season will open with a meal of mutton goulash and a drink of žinčicaamong other popular Slovak drinks😉

Yes, you can often sample freshly-made sheep’s milk cheese on these occasions, as well as our beer.

On the first Sunday in June, when the Shepherds’ Festival takes place in the village of Východná, you will not only hear a tinkle of hand-made sheep bells, but also see our national dish of Halušky s bryndzou being made from scratch.

Around 24th June, when the name of Ján (Slovak for John) is celebrated in the Slovak calendar, you can experience svätojánske ohne or St. John’s Bonfires. They’re organised by some village communitites, and they always come with good music, local specialities and sometimes even a fire show.

If your Slovak friends invite you to an outdoor opekanie event, don’t miss the occasion. It’s a Slovak version of picnic and it involves frying a sausage or a chunk of bacon on a spit over an open fire. You can end up frying slices of bread, onions or anything that’s left at the end of the party.

There are dozens of music, dancing and food festivals all over the country in July and August. At the end of the summer, celebrations of summer harvest take place in a number of towns and villages.

The old tradition of outdoor plum jam cooking is coming back to the Slovak countryside as a day of shared cooking fun, singing and dancing.

This is by no means the end of the outdoor cooking season. Autumn will bring still more open-air gatherings where good, home-made food and a warming drink is never absent.

Bottled Chanterelles

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They’re springing up everywhere right now. Unlike last summer, which was extremely hot and dry, mushrooms have perfect conditions for growing this year. Warm weather and plenty of rain is what they like, so it’s no wonder our forests are filling with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. Not to mention their manifold colours and smells.

I wasn’t planning for it, but when my husband brought a sizeable batch of fleshy, aromatic chanterelles from his Saturday walk, I couldn’t resist the urge to have their golden caps preserved for colder months.

Chanterelle or kuriatko (as we call it in Slovakia) is a wild mushroom with a shiny orange colour and an unmistakable aroma. It grows in clusters from May until November and can be found in mossy places, in the grass or under leaves in our deciduous or coniferous forests. Slovaks like to preserve it as a pickle, which is a popular accompaniment to many of our dishes.

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Kuriatko jedlé – Cantharellus cibarius (Photo courtesy of Milan Zajac)

Here’s a recipe for pickled  chanterelles that I adapted from a Slovak website devoted to mushroom picking.

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Bottled Chanterelles

  • a batch of chanterelles or ‘kuriatka’
  • salt
  • sugar
  • allspice, black peppercorns
  • white vinegar
  • water

Method:

Wash and dry jars of 700 ml volume capacity.

Clean the mushrooms with a soft brush, a damp cloth or your finger. If it doesn’t remove all the forest debris, rinse them gently under a slowly running tap. Do not soak them, as mushrooms absorb a lot of water, which dulls their flavour.

Break the larger pieces and start laying them in the dry jars. Use the smaller chanterelles to fill in the spaces between the bigger ones. Continue until you have filled up all the jars or used all the mushrooms.

Stand the jars in a row on the table. In each one, put the pickling seasoning as follows: 1 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 2 allspice corns, 3 black peppercorns. If you’re using smaller jars, reduce the amount of the ingredients correspondingly.

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Add 75 ml white vinegar and fill with the water up to the grooves of the jar. Again, adjust the amount of the vinegar to your jar size.

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Bottled Chanterelles or ‘Kuriatka’

Shake slightly to help spread the pickling mixture around the jar and get rid of the air bubbles.

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Now screw on the lids and sterilize in a boiling water canner at 100ºC for 20 minutes. Store in a dark, cool place. Once opened, keep in the refrigerator and use within a week.

Wheat Kasha

This is another recipe that will appear in the forthcoming book about Slovak cuisine, although with different photographs. Wheat kasha is deeply rooted in my childhood memories as a simple yet nourishing breakfast, or a light, satisfying evening dish. I know children are fed with all sorts of ready-made cereal mixtures these days, but perhaps we shouldn’t quite abandon traditional recipes that use fresh, good-quality ingredients and take very little time to prepare.

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Wheat Kasha
Serves 2

  • 500 ml milk
  • 4 tablespoons coarse wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ground cinnamon and vanilla sugar to taste
  • fresh or home-bottled fruit
  • 2 teaspoons butter

Method:

  1. Pour the milk in a saucepan and warm it over a low heat. Add the sugar and let dissolve.
  2. Spoon by spoon add the flour, stirring well all the time. Increase the heat slightly and continue stirring until the milky mixture comes to the boil and thickens. Turn down the heat and continue cooking for another 3 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Transfer into bowls and dust with ground cinnamon and vanilla sugar. Place a teaspoon of butter in the middle of each helping and decorate with the fruit.

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Wheat kasha can be served and eaten either hot or cold, so it’s a nice dish to have on a hot summer day, especially if served with fresh local fruit.

Home-made Elderflower Cordial

I wasn’t very pleased with my last year’s attempt at elderflower cordial – I didn’t quite like its look and somewhat bitter taste but then again, I may have chosen the wrong recipe. When my friend phoned me last week saying she had more elderflowers she could possibly cope with, I was hesitant at first. But when the freshly picked elderflower heads arrived, they looked and smelt so different from last year’s crop – the clusters of creamy white flowers were sending out a wonderful summery aroma I couldn’t resist.

I knew instantly I was going to have another go at elderflower cordial, so I searched through a few English and Slovak websites before picking a recipe that looked just right to me. The end result was more than satisfying – I loved the shiny, golden hue of the cordial and its tangy-sweet flavour, which gave such a pleasingly refreshing drink when mixed with cold water.

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Home-made Elderflower Cordial

  • 2 l water
  • 40 elderflower heads
  • 1½ kg sugar
  • 3 lemons

Method:

In a large cooking pot, bring the water to the boil and let cool down to room temperature. Trim the flowers off the firm stems, leaving the clusters intact. Squeeze the juice out of the lemons.

Soak the flowers in the cooled water, add the lemon juice and stir to combine. Cover the pot with a lid and let stand in a cool, dark place for two days.

Gently squeeze the flowers in your hands before removing them from the pot. This will ensure all the flavours and aroma are caught in the extract. Strain the extract through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pot. Discard any remaining flowers and line the sieve with a cheesecloth. Pass the extract through it to achieve a clear, shiny look.

Place the pot with the extract over a medium heat and add the sugar. Warm to about 50ºC (or until you can dip your finger in it without getting burnt). Stir all the time until the sugar has dissolved. Turn off the heat.

While still warm, pour the syrupy liquid into clean, dry bottles or jars*. Screw on the lids and stand the jars upside down or lay the bottles horizontally on a table to cool slowly and ensure a good seal.

Keep in the fridge and serve mixed with cold water as a light, refreshing summer drink.

*We in Slovakia often reuse bottles and jars from other drinks, but we’ll always make sure they’re thoroughly washed and dried before filling them again.

Traditional Slovak cheeses

If you’ve already been to Slovakia, the chances are you have tried our korbáčik, parenica or oštiepok – the three cheeses that are still being made the traditional way at salashes and small mountain farms. Depending on the place and time of year, they can be more or less salty, but that’s exactly how most Slovaks like their cheese.

The history of our cheese making goes back to the 14th century when Valachian people fleeing from Romania settled in the mountainous regions of what is now Slovakia. They were tough, hardy shepherds who had brought with them sturdy breeds of sheep fit to survive our harsh winters. The Valachians quickly blended with the native population who readily accepted their way of farming – and making cheese, among other things.

I have already mentioned a book about Slovak cuisine we’re preparing for publication right now. Let’s have a quick look at the second chapter that’s just being laid out. It shows the art of traditional cheese making in Slovakia, and although the best pictures have been reserved for the book, the ones below will give a good preview.

Whether it is korbáčik, parenica or oštiepok, the traditional techniques use the pliability of sheep’s or cow’s milk cheese at temperatures between 80 – 90ºC. The hot cheese is pulled out into long threads and plaited, rolled into small drums, or simply placed in hand-carved wooden moulds.

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There are annual competitions in some mountain villages to award the best cheeses and the most imaginative works made of them.

On top of their attractive look, these little cheesy figures and ornamental flowers are also pretty edible.

Although sheep’s milk is three times as expensive as cow’s milk, it’s also much more nutritious and easier to digest, not to mention its delicate creamy consistence and strong antimicrobial effects. It’s no wonder that the demand for sheep’s milk cheese has soared in the last decade, and our sheep farming is thriving again after a long spell of decline.

If you want to try traditional Slovak food, have a glimpse of a salash life and see our cheese being made on the spot, check out this website:

http://www.syrex.sk/?lang=en

You may find more shepherds like those in the picture below, enjoying the hard work at a salash (a wooden cottage close to the pastures) and the scenic beauty of our mountains.

 

Let’s dance!

The season of food festivals, outdoor parties and dancing shows has already started here in Slovakia. It’s that time of year when we like to get together and spend weekends out in the open, have a mug of beer and a good chat with friends, or enjoy a family meal at a village fair. More often than not, these social gatherings will involve traditional folk dancing – and singing.

As much as it’s the case with food, each Slovak region has its own music, dance, and a distinctive costume embellished by old folk motifs and dazzling hand-sewn ornaments. The Podpoľanie region, where I was born and grew up in, is famous for a unique embroidery done by a krivá ihla (or a hook-shaped needle).

Detvian embroidery from the Podpoľanie region in Slovakia

The same beautiful patterns grace traditional costumes of folk dancers from the Podpoľanec (pronounced as Podpolyanyetz) ensemble.

No matter how ‘outdated’ the music may sound to some ears, it continues to capture the minds and hearts of all generations.

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You have to be really fit and train hard to be able to do all the jumps and spins, not to mention the intricate footwork this type of dancing entails.

Unlikely as it may seem, these young people are not professionals. They meet outside their working hours and train all through the year to bring exciting new choreographies out for each summer season. Clearly there must be something much stronger than money that unites this happy folk. Is it the massive applause they get from the audience, and the enthusiastic calls for repeats that keep them going on this hot afternoon?Breathless and sweating after the performance, the dancers are given instructions from their managers. Another show starts in an hour, so they have to change quickly and get on the bus taking them to a nearby town.

Do make sure you see one of the traditional summer festivals they take part in. The sheer joy, energy and passion these young people exude certainly won’t leave you cold.

Podpoľanec (or Podpolyanyetz) folk ensemble
Podpoľanec (or Podpolyanyetz) folk ensemble

Bryndza Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms

Bryndza Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms

I introduced our famed cheese in the post on Bryndza Cheese Sticks last year. With this year’s sheep farming season in full spate and some fine weather over the last month, our mountain meadows have turned into luscious pastures, so we are getting fresh supplies of bryndza cheese again.

The May bryndza, as we in Slovakia call it, is creamier and more flavourful than that made of sheep’s milk cheese stored in wooden barrels over the winter. It’s also less salty, as this is the ingredient used for preserving ground sheep’s milk cheese in the winter.

To do some aditional photography for the book I’m writing, I bought different bryndza labels a couple of weeks ago and tried a few more recipes. The one I want to share with you today also uses the bear garlic I got from my friend. Her parents have a large orchard in a remote hamlet in the mountains, so whatever she brings down from her weekend visits can be classified as bio-produce.

Bear garlic, also known under the names of ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic or wood garlic, is a wild plant that grows not only in forested areas of continental Europe and northern Asia, but also in British woodlands and eastern regions of Canada and the USA. I hear the herb can also be found in some London’s parks. If you want to have a go at Bryndza Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms outside the bear garlic season, feel free to replace bear garlic with other fresh herbs like chives, spinach or parsley greens.

To substitute Bryndza cheese in the recipe below, you can use any soft sheep’s milk cheese you can get locally, although I’m quite sure it won’t taste anywhere near as Slovak Bryndza🙂

Bryndza Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms
Serves 4

  • 12 mushrooms
  • 150 g bryndza cheese
  • 2 handfuls bear garlic
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • a little oil for frying
  • radishes or other seasonal vegetables to garnish

Method:

Take the cheese out of the fridge 30 minutes prior the cooking to let it soften.

  1. Rinse the bear garlic leaves and let them dry off on a chopping board. Rinse the mushrooms, remove the stems and make a little hole in each cap by scooping out some of the insides. Don’t discard either the stems or the insides, as they both add flavour to sauces or make a wonderful soup (they can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two days).
  2. Put the cheese in a bowl and mash it with a fork. Chop the bear garlic leaves and add to the cheese (leave some herbs to garnish if you prefer). Add the paprika and mix well to spread the bear garlic and paprika all around the cheese paste.
  3. Heat a little oil in a pan and fry the mushroom caps over a medium heat until slightly charred. If you want them tender, add a little water and let the caps sweat in a pan for 10 minutes. Set aside and cover to keep warm.
  4. In another small pan, quickly fry the sesame seeds over a medium heat to lightly char them.
  5. Put three mushroom caps on a plate, place a mound of the cheese paste inside each cap, top with the sesame seeds, and garnish with the radishes or other seasonal vegetables. Serve warm on its own or with fresh bread on the side.

Enjoy and let me know how it works for you!