Bird’s Milk

It’s time to cook something eggy, because it’s Easter and we want to put all those yolks and whites left after decorating our Easter eggs to good use. So why not prepare Bird’s Milk – a simple yet nutritious dish which is said to have originated in France, but my mind will always associate it with my Grandma’s rural kitchen in the south of Slovakia.

Bird’s Milk (or Vtáčie mlieko in Slovak) has different names in different countries. In France alone this classic dessert appears under two names as Œufs à la neige (which translates as ‘snowy eggs’), or Île flottante (Îles flottantes in plural) – the latter being the source of the English name for Floating Island(s), a popular dessert made of whipped egg whites (meringues) floating in a custard sauce. Is that why the French call this sweet sauce ‘crème anglaise’ in return? While I wait for someone to answer my question, let’s see what we need for a Slovak version of Îles flottantes.

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Bird’s Milk
Makes 4

For the cream:

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 400 ml milk
  • 40 g sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the ‘meringues’:

  • 4 egg whites
  • a packet of vanilla sugar (20 g)
  • a pinch of salt
  • cinnamon to drizzle
  • berries of your choice

Method:

To make the cream, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a mixing bowl until smooth and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and stir evenly into the egg mixture.

Heat the milk in a pot over a medium heat until steaming. Set aside. Pour a few tablespoons of the milk into the egg mixture to warm it. Stir gently and transfer the contents of the mixing bowl to the warm milk.

DSC_0084Place over a medium-low heat and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. When the mixture starts thickening, continue cooking for another 5 – 10 minutes until you achieve almost cream-like consistency. Remember to stir well all the time. Don’t let the mixture boil or it will curdle.

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‘Vanilkový krém’ stands for vanilla cream or custard in English, while the French often call it ‘creme anglaise’.

Divide the warm mixture into dessert bowls and let cool.

In the meantine, make the ‘meringues’ by whisking the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Whisk in the vanilla sugar and put aside.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Take large spoonfuls of the ‘egg snow’ and arrange them in rows on the tray. Preheat the oven to 200ºC, put in the baking tray and turn down the heat to 100ºC. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the meringues are crisp and lightly browned at tops. Let cool at room temperature.

Cover the cooled cream with the meringues, drizzle with the cinnamon and top with the berries. Refrigerate and serve chilled.

And if you ask me why the Slovaks call it Vtáčie mlieko (Bird’s Milk), I can only give a speculative answer. Those fluffy ‘meringues’ sitting in the vanilla cream remind me of bird feathers, and I’d swear I’ve heard it on some occasion that they can be shaped and decorated like birds. I may give it a try next time. 😉

Decorating Easter cookies

As Mother Nature is awakening after a long winter sleep, so is our need for more warmth, sunshine and brighter colours. Not only do they show on the streets, in the parks and more still in the countryside, the spring colours also enter our kitchens, land on our tables and brighten up our food.

I have always wanted to show you the art of traditional honey-cookie decorating in Slovakia, but couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. Then I came across Alžbeta’s fanpage and I knew she was the right person to tell the story.

Alžbeta is the Slovak name for Elizabeth and her honey cookies are as divine as the name suggests. When I got in touch with her to make an appointment, I didn’t know what a beautiful corner of Slovakia this would take me to. Perhaps that is where Alžbeta finds inspiration for her work?

Alžbeta is a mother of four and a busy housewife, who turns into a cookie fairy in the quiet of night.

She and her family live in Kremnické Bane – a village close to the spot that was declared the geographical centre of Europe back in 1815. The ride through the vast, undulating meadows dotted with fir trees and charming chalets leaves me wondering how many more treasures like these I have not seen yet – despite my extensive travels around the country. I make a promise to return, as there is no time to explore the place now. I have come for honey cookies, and I want to make the most of the visit. A batch of freshly baked cookies is already waiting to get a festive coating.

Alžbeta gets her gear ready. The first step is making the white icing. All you need at this stage is:

  • 1 egg white
  • icing or castor sugar (about 130 g)
  • a bowl and a whisk or fork
  • plastic zip bags (10 x 15 cm)

The exact amount of sugar will depend on how thick you want your icing to be. The more sugar, the thicker icing you get.

Method: 

Now that you’re ready to start decorating, follow these tips from Alžbeta to achieve the best results:

  1. Take the bag with the icing in one hand and twist it slightly with the other one. Press the icing down towards the tip of the bag, and use sharp scissors to cut a hole in it. A small hole is good for criss-cross patterns, ’embroidery’ or ‘painting’, you’ll need a bigger one to cover or fill in larger spaces.
  2. If you don’t use all the icing, zip it up in the bag and store at room temperature for up to 24 hours. Remember to stir it well, or place the icing in a new bag before you use it again later.
  3. For colour patterns, use natural food colourings, which come in the form of powder or gel in Slovakia, and stir them into the white icing evenly. Be careful to let the colour pattern on the cookie(s) dry for at least 24 hours before applying another layer or a different colour.
  4. To create a nice, clean pattern, hold the bag closely above the cookie, move your hand slowly as if drawing, and let the thread of icing fall down while fixing or turning the cookie with the other hand.

I’ll be sharing the recipe for our traditional honey cookies on a different occasion, but the tips & techniques given above can be applied to any cookies, so if you want to channel your creative energy onto your favourite ones, feel free to experiment.

Traditional honey cookies from Slovakia

 Good luck!

Easter eggs

They symbolize spring, fertility, new life, and in the minds of the Slovaks (as well as other Eastern European cultures), they are closely linked to Easter holidays. Eggs can’t be missing on the festive table in Slovakia. They come in all possible forms – boiled, fried, scrambled or made into hrudka (egg cheese), dyed, waxed, hand-painted or wired. Yes, apart from being an important food staple, the egg is also a popular artistic medium associated with our Easter traditions.

Easter eggs woven in copper wire

Perhaps the most unusual decorative technique among those mentioned above is wire wrapping – a very old and unique craft that originated in northern Slovakia in the 18th century. Back then, wire was used to repair old pots, cracked bowls, broken jugs and other objects of everyday life. Over the centuries, the wire craft has evolved into an exquisite art that produces decorative bowls, intricately woven silver baskets, or the finest jewellery. I was lucky to meet an amiable, chatty lady who was presenting this traditional Slovak art at a food event I’ve been to recently. And guess what was the main object of her work?

Before the wire is woven onto an egg, its contents must be blown out through two diminutive holes made on both ends. Sure, it takes a lot of skill and years of practice to weave the wire onto the fragile eggshell afterwards, but on top of its decorative function, the wire pattern also serves as a protective layer.

Wire-wrapped eggs are available at most Easter markets around Slovakia.

While wire weaving is not for everyone, there are much simpler yet effective techniques to decorate your Easter eggs with. By wrapping the whole egg in a net and boiling it with peeled outer layers of an onion, or a piece of beetroot, the eggshell will acquire a natural reddish hue. If a herb or a leaf is placed on the shell under the net, the resulting pattern will be even more interesting.

A little more difficult but still doable is hand-painting and waxing – the two most popular techniques that are often taught at egg-decorating workshops before Easter.

Then you have crocheted, carved and lace-covered eggs, each of which is a masterpiece itself. Whatever technique is applied on the shell, the egg insides will never go to waste. We’ll use them in cooking (see Bird’s Milk) and baking or, in case of the dyed boiled eggs, eat them as part of our Easter feast after removing the shells.

Decorated Easter eggs (kraslice) from Slovakia

Ready for a cup of tea?

Chai, tchai, le the, te, caj, cha, che, herbata, tae, el te, tea – how many different words for this popular drink do you know? And how strong is your penchant for a really good cup of tea when travelling around the world? Surely the tea in England will be served in a different way from that in Russia, Morocco or Sri Lanka, not to mention countries like China, India or Japan, where tea drinking has taken on a spiritual dimension.

Dobrá čajovňa (Good Tearoom) in Žilina

Although Slovakia hasn’t got a strong tea culture, it does have some nice and cosy places for tea lovers to enjoy high-quality tea in. The Slovak word for tea is čaj (pronounced tchai), and if you want to get it with the right decor, look for a čajovňa (tearoom). They’re not as common as pubs or cafés, but you are quite sure to find one in every major Slovak town. Dobrá čajovňa (Good Tearoom) is certainly worth visiting for its wide choice of teas from all over the world, and a very homey atmosphere. It’s a Czech franchise based in Prague that is also operating in two Slovak cities – Žilina in the north of Slovakia and Košice in the east.

https://www.facebook.com/dobracajovnaZA/

I went to the one in Žilina to find something that would restart my immunity system after a bout of flu I’d experienced two weeks before. The tea lady suggested Lapacho and I was happy to take her advice. She lit up a candle on my table and while she was preparing the tea, we chatted about workshops and events they organize at this new venue.

The tea was served in beautiful dark blue crockery on a custom-made wooden tray. I laid back and while I was sipping my brew, I leafed through an impressive choice of teas on their menu. There was a selection of delicate white teas (such as yao bao from South China), rare yellow teas, green teas like the Japanese matcha or sencha, Indian spiced and British-style milk teas, red teas from the Chinese province of Yunnan, several varieties of black darjeeling tea from India, as well as rich, dark pu-erh teas from China. I literally got lost in all the more or less familiar names, when a young couple came in and installed themselves on the colourful cushions in the elevated area. They chose their favourite tea and a pitta bread filled with goat cheese and vegetables. I found out that Dobrá čajovňa also offers sweet and savoury snacks, some of them having exciting exotic flavours and tongue-twisting names.
Aside the tearooms like these, you’re very unlikely to get freshly-prepared loose-leaf tea in Slovakia. When you ask for tea in a regular restaurant, they will usually give you a choice of black, green, fruit or herbal tea (one type in each category) in teabags. Your teabag will be served with a glass of hot water and sugar, occasionally honey, and you’re supposed to do the brew yourself.

In mountain resorts like that of The High Tatras, you can treat yourself to a very special Slovak tea that comes with slices of lemon on the side or a shot of rum/vodka in it. Don’t confuse it with Tatratea though, which is a strong tea-based liquor made with various herbs, spices and fruit flavours. It’s a nice pick-me-up after a day’s skiing or walking in what is considered our most beautiful mountains.

How ‘A Taste of Slovakia’ was born

Although we are getting more English-speaking visitors to Slovakia than before the Fall of Communism, this little country in the heart of Europe is still largely unknown by a mainstream tourist. Yet those who come and stay long enough to explore and make friends will often return for more.

Luke Waterson – a travel writer and a great fan of all things Slovak – has recently published this piece about ‘A Taste of Slovakia’ on his website. It gives a short account of what lay behind the book birth.

http://www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk/2017/02/20/spotlight-on-jarmila-hlavkova-author-of-the-first-slovak-recipe-book-to-be-published-in-the-english-language/

Žinčica is a refreshing countryside drink, which is often served in hand-carved mugs. It’s a by-product of sheep’s milk cheese.

Chicken Braised in Beer

This is a special bonus for Cookslovak fans and followers, as well as those who have already bought the cookbook. Each recipe in A Taste of Slovakia’ had been tested at least twice, so we had a good choice of photos from different shoots when my graphic designer was laying out the book pages. Sometimes a batch of pictures came out so well that it wasn’t easy to choose just one or two. At other times, we had a completely different problem and I had to repeat the same dish over and over again to finally get a photo we were reasonably happy with.

When leafing through the book now, I can still see flaws and imperfections, but that’s what learning is about – a work in progress, constant refinement of the style and honing your skills. Although the recipe below is identical with the one that appears in the book, the photos are different, so those who own or have seen a copy can compare, judge and comment.

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Chicken Braised in Beer
Serves 4

  • 1 chicken, gutted and carved
  • 200 g smoked bacon, sliced
  • 500 g sauerkraut
  • ¾ cup dark beer (200 ml)
  • salt, pepper, caraway, paprika to taste

Method:

  1. Use half of the bacon slices to line the roasting dish. Put the sauerkraut on the bacon slices and spread around evenly.
  2. Wash the chicken pieces and pat them dry. Rub the seasoning onto the chicken and put it on the sauerkraut. Cover with the rest of the bacon slices.
  3. Pour some of the beer over the chicken and put in the oven. Cook at 200°C for about 40 minutes, adding more beer when needed. The chicken is cooked through when the meat is coming away from the bone. Increase the temperature to 250°C and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes to give the chicken a nice, golden brown crust.
  4. Serve with boiled potatoes or rice and a garnish of sauerkraut.

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The juicy sauerkraut adds exciting zing to the dish which, together with a subtle undertone of the beer and crispiness of the bacon makes for a delectable Sunday lunch.

As I wrote in the post on Decadent Sauerkraut Soup, sauerkraut is a very popular ingredient in my country now that it’s still in the grip of a long, cold winter. As for beer, I learnt about its many uses in the kitchen when I was researching recipes for my cookbook – and I was surprised by the new flavours this ingredient imparted to classic dishes.

Honey – our sweet medicine

I usually survive the Slovak flu season, which peaks at the turn of January and February, with a raspy throat and a headache that normally eases off after taking a paracetamol and drinking plenty of hot lemon tea. But this year my husband had brought home a particularly viscious strain of the virus, which caught my immune system completely unawares. I lay down in bed with fever for three days – something I can’t remember doing since my childhood! Even after my body temperature had gone down, I felt quite poorly.

My husband had a nasty cough, which he was taking medication for, but what really helped soothe his windpipe was a mug of milk with honey and butter that he always drank before going to bed. We were lucky to have a big jar of raw, unprocessed honey from Vargapál‘s farm in Eastern Slovakia, which I’d got when I was researching bee products in Slovakia for my cookbook.

On my travels around the country I’d had a chance to learn about a beekeeper’s life, the challenges they face these days, especially when tackling honeybee diseases. I understood how much work goes into procuring high quality honey, how important it is to know the honeybee life cycle, and how crucial the decisions are about moving a bee colony at the right time to ensure the bees always have enough food.

Slovakia has a strong beekeeping tradition. It’s a skill and an occupation passed down from generation to generation within beekeepers’ families. These are wise, industrious people who obviously learn a lot from bees. Here is a sample of what they can produce:

As I have found out, beekeepers are extremely open, friendly and hospitable people. They love talking about their passion and sharing the fruits of their labour with guests. Those I have met in Slovakia are nurturers more than profit hunters. I know they would never cheat on their products – it’s a matter of honour, after all. Since I discovered how delicious, aromatic and life-supporting Slovak honey is, I haven’t bought a cheap alternative in a supermarket. They will never look like this anyway:

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Trying our honey is definitely something you shouldn’t miss when in Slovakia. There are so many varieties to choose from, like a wild flower honey, a forest or acacia one, a lime tree or sticklewort honey. They will differ in colour, texture and aroma, but also in their nutritional value. The dark honeys typically have a more-proclaimed flavour and a higher content of minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.

Although they’re not always easy to find, there are quite a few honey-farm shops around Slovakia. The pictures above are all from the Vargapál‘s shop in Košice.

Decadent Sauerkraut Soup

The mercury plunged to -16ºC last night, which is not uncommon for January, especially in the northern parts of Slovakia and most of its valleys. Do you know what we do to survive such harsh winters? We have a list of old recipes and potent ingredients we return to when those nasty bacteria are getting at us, though it’s far from the only reason why we like to cook the Sauerkraut Soup or Kapustnica. As with most recipes, the soup has many variations, but what it can’t be short of is sauerkraut, garlic, dried forest mushrooms, and in some regions paprika, too.

Sauerkraut is finely chopped white cabbage that is layered with salt and left to ferment in crocks (earthenware pots). Properly cured sauerkraut has a wonderful microbial composition, is high in calcium, magnesium, iron, to name but a few minerals. It’s the richest and most natural source of C vitamin in our latitudes, which explains why all the stores in Slovakia are stocked with this staple all through the winter. Sauerkraut is also a very good source of fibre and antioxidants, it balances pH levels in the stomach and helps break down proteins.

I always put a wad of sauerkraut aside when cooking, and eat it raw. Delicious!

Decadent Sauerkraut Soup
Serves 8 – 10

  • 700 g sauerkraut
  • 2½ l water
  • 2 handfuls dried forest mushrooms
  • 1 small onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 black peppercorns, 3 allspice corns, 4 cloves
  • 4 large potatoes
  • 100 g dried cranberries or prunes
  • 200 ml cooking cream (12% fat content in Slovakia)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • salt & pepper to taste

Method:

Soak the dried mushrooms in cold water for about an hour. Strain on a sieve and place in a large cooking pot.

Soak the dried mushrooms in cold water

Pour in the water and bring to the boil.  Add the bay leaves and the whole spices enclosed in a tea strainer. Adjust the heat and let simmer.

Meanwhile, peel and wash the potatoes. Dice and add them to the simmering mushrooms. Peel the onion and the garlic. Rinse the cranberries/prunes on a sieve under running cold water.

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The Slovaks often add prunes to their sauerkraut soup, but dried cranberries are just as fine.

When the potatoes are tender, stir in the saeurkraut and the cranberries/prunes. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the cream with the flour until smooth. Add to the simmering stock and stir until it comes to the boil again. Throw in the paprika, stir well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bear in mind the salinity of the sauerkraut.

Serve hot in soup bowls.

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Decadent Sauerkraut Soup or Kapustnica

Don’t throw away the leftovers. The Sauerkraut Soup gets tastier the following day or afterwards, so keep it in the fridge and reheat it as many times as you need. It is a proven fact that this brings out even more of its flavours.

For festive occasions, we cook traditional kapustnica (Sauerkraut Soup) with home-made sausages or smoked ham, and often replace ‘single’ cream with crème fraiche (33% fat content in Slovakia).

Sweet Immunity Boost

Who wouldn’t need it on a frosty January day? Here in Slovakia the temperatures were as low as -30ºC a few days ago.  Although conditions like these are quite rare, they do occur and you have to be prepared, unless you want to spend days at home cooped up in your room. Well, you can’t afford it either, as a matter of fact. There are things out there that need to be done, and besides, you want to get your daily dose of fresh air. So, apart from wrapping yourself in warm clothes, try this simple yet powerful formula, which is sure to give you still more warmth and that much-needed kick.

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Sweet Immunity Boost
Serves 4

  • 4 apples
  • 10 g fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon honey

Method:

Peel the apples and the ginger. Grate them into a bowl. Add the honey and mix well. Serve as a dessert or a healthy snack.

Yes, it’s as simple as it sounds! Try and get raw, unpasteurized honey from a small local beekeeper. This way you will not only have your bowl packed full with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, but you also add subtle flavours of the regional flora to it, as well as a delicious aroma.

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It’s always good to know where your honey comes from. Go for a quality brand from a trusted local source if you can.

The ball season has started

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.