How traditional oštiepok cheese is made

The best place to see traditional Slovak cheeses being made is definitely Zázrivá Salash. There are quite a few salashes (or kolibas) around Slovakia, but none of those I have been to provided such a complex experience of our folk culture and cuisine as the salash between Zázrivá and Terchová – two villages well-known for their rich folklore.

Oštiepok (pronounced as oshtyiepok) is an egg-shaped, usually smoked cheese with a decorative pattern on its surface. Like other Slovak cheeses, oštiepok is made on a large scale in our dairy factories mostly from cow’s milk. Fortunately, there are quite a few private farms (called salashes) around Slovakia, where oštiepok is still hand-made in the traditional way. Some of these farms use a mix of cow’s and sheep’s milk, and only a few make oštiepok from a 100% sheep’s milk, which is much more nutritious and deliciously creamy. Zázrivá Salash is one of them, and I went there last month to document Zázrivá oštiepok production for you.

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Oštiepok cheese is hand-made by shepherds at Slovak salashes

I was met by bača Laco and his son Maťo at a charming little koliba close to the pastures, where oštiepok cheese is made every day from fresh milk of either their own sheep herd, or the sheep farms in the close vicinity.

Bača (pronounced as batcha) is the highest rank in the Slovak salash hierarchy. It’s a senior, most experienced shepherd, chosen by the village community. Batcha organizes the life at the salash, is responsible for the sheep herd, and makes the cheese. He is aided by two or more valasi (or valachs), young shepherds who help with all sorts of salash jobs, including cheese making, cooking and cleaning.

The charming little kolibas have compelling stories to tell

Inside the neat and spotlessly clean koliba batcha Laco presides over a stainless cauldron filled with curds and whey. I am told the sheep’s milk had been treated with rennet at the temperature of 32ºC to curdle. The curds were then stirred and broken into pieces of about 1cm. Now the actual oštiepok shaping starts:

  1. Batcha Laco gathers up the curds in his hands and squeezes out the whey. He then fills a calibrated mug with the mass, transfers it onto a sieve, which is then passed to his son Maťo, who dips the sieve in another cauldron filled with water heated to 80ºC. At this temperature, the cheese goes through the first sterilization, and also becomes pliable enough to be shaped. That is Maťo’s job, and he moulds the cheese into an egg, while pushing the excess whey out. 

  2. Maťo passes the cheese back to his father, who puts it in a two-part wooden mould with a carved ornament in it (he made the whole thing himself), and fastens the mould with a special binding. Two wooden pieces are pressed into both ends before the cheese is dipped in the hot water again for a few seconds. 

  3. When the mould is taken away, batcha Laco soaks each cheese ‘egg’ in brine, which not only ensures its long shelf life, but also gives the cheese a typical salty tang.
  4. Finally, each cheese ‘egg’ will be placed in a phloem bag, and hung in a smoking hut for 2 – 3 days to get its unmistakable smoky flavour and a nice, golden crust. 

It’s wonderful to watch the harmony between the father and son as they create these unique cheese pieces. They explain the particulars of each stage, they regale you with compelling stories of the salash life, and their family’s long tradition of shepherding. Yes, this is a valued skill passed from generation to generation. Batcha is a respected wise man, who has to display a lot of knowledge and experience, as well as courage in face of danger. He must show good judgement and a cold head when confronted with unexpected, and quite frequent, visitors to the salash, like bears and wolves.

Maťo is training to be a batcha, and he does it with all the pride, conscience and responsibility of his father. When he takes over, he will be the fifth in the family line to pursue the vocation.

Wild Mushroom & Tomato Risotto

We have an abundance of forests, woods and meadows in Slovakia that are not only a home to flowers, berries, bears, wolves and other wildlife, but they also fill with a great variety of mushrooms every year. It’s fair to say that Slovakia is a mushroom paradise. Mushroom picking has become a national sport, so there’s only few people (like me) who don’t practise.

Although wild mushrooms grow in our countryside all year round, the picking season almost invariably peaks around June/July, and then again in October. True, some years are better than others, but you will always find fleshy chanterelles, slippery jacks, or gourmet porcini around this time of year.

Our cuisine is full of recipes using wild mushrooms. If you want to try the one below, you can, of course, replace wild mushrooms with the common supermarket type, but the rich earthy flavours and a specific aroma will be missing from the dish.DSC_0095

Wild Mushroom & Tomato Risotto
Serves 2

  • 200 g rice
  • 200 g wild mushrooms
  • 1 medium size onion
  • 4 small tomatoes
  • 100 g Encián or Camembert style cheese
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons oil or butter
  • chives to top

Method:

  1. Clean the mushrooms with a soft brush or your finger. If this doesn’t remove all the forest debris, rinse the mushrooms quickly under running water. Don’t soak them, as the caps absorb the water readily, which dulls their flavour and characteristic aroma.
  2. Trim off the stem bottoms and slice the mushrooms. Place the rice on a fine-mesh sieve and wash under running water. Let drain. Peel and chop the onion. Wash and slice the tomatoes. Rinse the chives.
  3. Put a wide heavy-bottom pan over a low heat and throw in the sliced muhrooms. Add a pinch of salt and stir. Dry-roast the mushrooms for about 5 minutes, or until they release the remaining moisture. Add the oil or butter, increase the heat to medium, and sauté the mushrooms until slightly brown. Stir now and then to prevent burning.
  4. Throw in the chopped onion and the rice. Season with ground black pepper and roast for a few minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the sliced tomatoes and continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
  5. Pour in as much water as to cover the rice. Stir and cover with a lid. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the water.
  6. Meanwhile, slice or dice the cheese. Add it to the rice when it is cooked to the right tenderness. Stir to spread the cheese all around the rice.
  7. Serve hot with the chopped chives sprinkled over the top.

At Zázrivá Salash

This year’s shepherd’s season is drawing to a close with days getting shorter and nights palpably colder. Summer greens are still a prominent colour in our countryside, but they are slowly giving in to a rich array of autumnal hues. It’s a wonderful time to be out and about, especially when the weather is as agreeable as on this crisp, sunny day, which I decided to spend at my favourite salash in northern Slovakia.

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Goats grazing the luscious pastures at Zázrivá Salash

For those unfamiliar with the term, salaš (pronounced as salash) is the Slovak word for a wooden cottage close to sheep pastures, where shepherds live and work. Most of these pastures are in the mountains, and some of the farms have adjacent restaurants (often referred to as kolibas), which serve traditional Slovak specialities made from locally sourced ingredients.

Zázrivá Salash is seated on a hillside above the road between two distinctive Slovak villages of Terchová and Zázrivá. Apart from the salash and the restaurant, there’s only a couple of chalets below the forestline skirting the vast, green spaces dotted with trees.

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Photo credits: Jana Kollárová, http://www.janakollarova.sk

Delicious, homey food is far from the only attraction that pulls me back to this place. I love to walk around the farm, watch the sheep, goats and horses grazing the luscious pastures, see the shepherds at work and listen to their stories. A shepherd’s life is not as bucolically carefree as it seems at first sight. Shepherds face everyday challenges, too, yet theirs are completely different from what most of us experience in between office walls.

Today I’ve come to learn more about oštiepok (pronounced as oshtyiepok), an artisanal cheese hand-made by the shepherds. I’m not surprised to hear they’ve been up and working since 4:30. Apart from the flocks of sheep, goats, ducks and geese, the farm also houses rabbits, cows, hens, pigs and even ostriches. All the animals have to be fed and taken care of the first thing in the morning.

They provide high quality meat for the restaurant, as well as fresh eggs and milk, which is locally made into dairy products like butter, yoghurt and cheese.

The reputed Zázrivá oštiepok is not only a delicious experience for your taste buds, but also a feast for the eye. Each piece bears the farm’s logo and a specific design carved onto the surface. You can see the cheese being made on the spot if you arrive at the right time, or arrange your visit in advance.

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Zázrivá oštiepok cheese is hand-made by the shepherds at Zázrivá Salash

Despite their daily work commitments, I’ve always found the shepherds welcoming and more than happy to talk to visitors. It seems that this kind of socializing is a perfect counterbalance to the otherwise solitary life on the farm. They will show you how to make oštiepok cheese or žinčica drink, they’ll walk with you around the farm and let you feed or cuddle the animals. They will teach you things about their flocks that you won’t find in biology books. Theirs is the practical knowledge that comes from first-hand experience, years of observation, and from deep understanding of the workings of Mother Nature.

If your luck is in, you’ll be taken for a horse-and-carriage ride, and if you’re brave enough, the shepherds will let you try milking the sheep. At the end of the excursion, you’re most likely to head to the restaurant, a cosy place with a beautifully carved wooden decor that perfectly matches the traditional Slovak menu.

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After a meal, I always end up in the shop next to the restaurant, where they sell all their artisanal cheeses together with other products from the farm. In the showroom adjacent to the shop you can see how parenica (parenitza), korbáčiky (korbaatchiki), and other traditional Slovak cheeses are made.

I never leave the shop empty-handed. On my last visit I succumbed to buying a chunk of traditional bacon, a lump of house-made butter, and a loaf of wonderful potato bread baked on the premises. I resisted the temptation to buy their kremeš (a kind of cream cake) simply because I was too full after the meal of Šúľance s makom I’d had before.

The great thing about Zázrivá Salash is that it’s isolated enough not to attract big crowds. Regulars and hungry (or curious) drivers will stop for a meal or look-around, but the place is not served by public transport, and so it retains its tranquil atmosphere and rustic charm. It was a perfect setting for the cover photo of A Taste of Slovakia book, wasn’t it?

For more details on the services and accommodation they provide at the salash, the events they organize throughout the year, or products they make, see the link below:

http://salas.syrex.sk/#video

Unfortunately, there’s no English version of their website at the moment. If you’d like to have your queries answered, drop me a line below and I’ll contact the managers on your behalf:

Piquant Bryndza Cheese Spread

When I was a child, I never questioned the origins of a strange, non-Slovak sounding name my Mum used for the delicious spread she often made for our snacks or evening meals. All I knew about šmirkas at that age was that it was made with bryndza.

A selection of bryndza cheese labels

We would spread šmirkas on slices of fresh rye bread, crowned it with radishes, and there you had a nice, satisfying meal that would feed all the family. Yes, even our Dad – a diehard carnivore – was happy to change his daily routine once in a while.

It’s no wonder I chose to include šmirkas in A Taste of Slovakia book. Bryndza is a sheep’s milk cheese closely associated with Slovakia because of the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) label it received from the EU in 2008.

Šmirkas (pronounced as shmirkas) is an old name for bryndzová nátierka, a piquant bryndza cheese spread that has been part of the Slovak diet for centuries. Some people still use the traditional name these days, including myself and my family, but few of them know it was derived from the German Schmierkäse (meaning cream cheese). This, however, is not surprising, as Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867 – 1918. Šmirkas is just one of the German-sounding names that have survived in our language until today.

There are quite a few recipes for Bryndza Cheese Spread circulating around Slovakia. The one below is from a tiny recipe book I got from shepherds in LiptovDSC_0201

Piquant Bryndza Cheese Spread
Serves 6 – 8

  • 150 g bryndza cheese (or other quality soft cheese)
  • 60 g butter
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • chives to garnish, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon mustard
  • radishes to top
  • salt to taste*
* there’s no need to add more salt if you are using bryndza, as the cheese has already salt in it

Method:

  1. Put the bryndza cheese and the butter in a mixing bowl and let soften at room temperature. Meanwhile, peel and chop the onion. Wash and chop the chives.
  2. Cream the bryndza cheese with the butter, add the onion, the paprika and the mustard. Work all the ingredients into a smooth paste.
  3. Wash the radishes and slice them. Spoon dollops of the bryndza paste onto slices of fresh bread and spread around. Top with the radishes and sprinkle with the chives.

    Šmirkas is an old name for the traditional bryndza cheese spread from Slovakia

I understand bryndza cheese is difficult to buy outside Slovakia, but can sometimes be replaced by cheeses like Greek Feta, French Roquefort, Italian Ricotta or some soft varieties of Pecorino.

Cucumber Patties with Parenitza Cheese

When I was preserving cucumbers a few weeks ago, some of the vegetables were not suitable for pickling, mainly because of their size. So I had to put them away in the fridge, and use them either in salads, or cooking.

Here’s an example of what I did with the last one left in stock. Cucumber patties are at their best right after taking them out of the pan, but they can also be eaten cold as a healthy nibble between meals.

I chose to top my patties with parenica (parenitza) cheese – one of the traditional Slovak cheeses documented in A Taste of Slovakia book. I’m planning to write a separate post about parenitza, as the cheese has a very special place in our diet – and culture.DSC_0038Cucumber Patties with Parenitza Cheese
Serves 2

  • 1 large cucumber (about 350 g)
  • ½ cup oatflakes
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 eggs
  • a handful of green scallion tops, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon red paprika
  • oil for frying
  • 50 g parenitza cheese (or cheese of your choice) to top
  • 2 medium tomatoes to garnish, sliced

Method:

  1. Wash the cucumber and grate it roughly into a large bowl.DSC_0026
  2. Rinse the oatflakes under running water and add to the grated cucumber. Stir in the salt and black pepper. Let stand for 20 – 30 minutes, or until the oatflakes have absorbed all the cucumber juices. In the meantime, wash the scallion tops and chop them. Rinse and slice the tomatoes.
  3. Break the eggs into the cucumber-oatflake mixture, throw in the green scallion tops, and add the paprika. Mix until well combined and put aside.DSC_0030
  4. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Scoop a large tablespoon of the mixture into the hot oil, and pat it with the back of the spoon to form a small pancake (a patty). Depending on the size of your pan, you can do more patties in one go. Adjust the heat to medium-low and fry until the patties edges turn slightly brown.DSC_0033
  5. Be gentle when turning them on the other side. The patties are soft and tender, so you will need two wooden spatulas to do so. Place one spatula under a patty, the other one on its top, and turn carefully. Fry until the patties are cooked through and crispy. Take them out on a plate covered with a kitchen towel, which will absorb the excess oil. Cover and keep warm. Repeat with another batch until you have used all the mixture.
  6. Divide the patties between two serving plates and top with the cheese. Garnish with the sliced tomatoes and the remaining greens.

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    Cucumber Patties with Parenitza Cheese

Buckwheat Groats with Grilled Vegetables

Have you ever heard of buckwheat?

Did you know this long-forgotten food plant is more than 6000 years old? It was first cultivated in Southeast Asia, from where it slowly spread all over the world. As an inexpensive source of valuable proteins, buckwheat had played an important role in Eastern European cuisines before it was displaced by more productive cereals like wheat, corn, barley or even rice. Today, buckwheat is experiencing a renaissance, thus filling our kitchens with a whole range of classic, as well as brand-new dishes.

Despite its name, buckwheat has nothing in common with wheat. It’s not a grass, nor a grain or a cereal. In fact, it’s the seed of a flowering plant related to rhubarb. Buckwheat seeds have a triangular shape and are often referred to as groats.

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Buckwheat groats

Buckwheat groats are rich in rutin, an antioxidant that prevents blood from clotting; they are high in minerals like magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron or phosphorus. Buckwheat is also known to reduce blood sugars and cholesterol levels. It is gluten-free and a very good source of fiber.

Pohánka, the Slovak name for buckwheat, comes from pohania (pagans) – the word our ancestors used for the Tartar people who brought buckwheat to our lands in the 13th century. The First Cookbook in Slovak (Prvá kuchárska kniha v slovenskej reči) from 1870, which features a number of buckwheat recipes, says that ‘buckwheat can be thought of as Slovak rice, and it is a very beneficial food for both the healthy and the sick.’ 

I was inspired to try and recreate Buckwheat Groats with Grilled Vegetables after my last trip to Košice and its whimsical Republic of the East (Republika východu) restaurant.DSC_0060Buchwheat Groats with Grilled Vegetables
Serves 2

  • ½ cup buckwheat groats
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 medium cucumber
  • 1 small eggplant
  • 8 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 green Slovak pepper (or any bell pepper of your choice)
  • a handful of green scallion tops, chopped
  • ground caraway and turmeric to taste
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • oil for frying
  • 100 g bryndza cheese (or any cheese of your choice) to top

Method:

  1. Rinse the buckwheat groats on a sieve under running water. Transfer into a small pot or a saucepan and pour in the water. Add a pinch of salt, stir and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low, stir gently, and let simmer for 30 minutes or until the buckwheat has absorbed all the water and doubled in volume.
  2. Wash the vegetables and cut, slice or chop them, as applicable. Put some of the green scallion tops aside.DSC_0057
  3. Pour a little oil in a frying pan and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, throw in the vegetables and stir in the seasoning. Gril for about 10 minutes, turning and stirring the vegetables around the pan as needed.
  4. Divide the cooked buckwheat groats onto two plates and cover with a generous layer of the hot grilled vegetables. Top with the cheese and the remaining green scallions.DSC_0066Buckwheat Groats with Grilled Vegetables

Enjoy a hearty, nutritious meal full of exciting summer smells and flavours.

Butter Rolls with Poppy Seeds

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from a lady who is married to an American with Slovak roots. She asked about a ‘kiflick’ cake she wanted to make, but couldn’t find a recipe for. It sounded like it was an ancient recipe from her husband’s aunt, which she had taken to the grave with her.

So I did what most people do these days, and took to the Internet. There was no ‘kiflick cake’ to be found, but Google suggested a few culinary websites (for the most part Croatian or Macedonian) that gave several recipes for ‘kiflicki’ – small rolls in the shape of crescents that looked like Slovak maslové rožky (butter rolls). In the Croatian and Macedonian recipes they were made with margarine or cheese, and in some cases with a sweet filling.

The recipe below is commonly used for Slovak plain butter rolls, but I’m also planning to make bryndza cheese rolls, and a few sweet filling variations.

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Butter Rolls with Poppy Seeds
Makes 16

  • 500 g bread flour
  • 300 ml milk
  • 21 g fresh yeast*
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 120 g butter
  • 1 egg (yolk and white separated)
  • a pinch of salt and sugar for the dough
  • poppy seeds or sesame seeds to sprinkle 
*If you can’t get fresh yeast, use the dry or instant one (21 g fresh = 7 g instant)

Method:

  1. Take the butter out of the fridge and let it soften.
  2. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and add a pinch of salt. Make sure you stir it well into the flour, so the salt doesn’t come in direct contact with the yeast at the next stage.
  3. Heat the milk over a low heat until warm. Add a little sugar and stir. Transfer half of the milk into a glass. Crumble the yeast into it and stir until it dissolves. Add a pinch of flour to kick-start fermentation and stir again. Cover the glass and leave in a warm place.
  4. When the yeast has risen up to the brim, pour all the contents of the glass onto the flour. Add the remaining milk, the sugar, the egg yolk, and the softened butter cut into pieces. Knead by hand or in a food processor until you achieve a smooth, elastic dough. Cover with a dishtowel and leave to rest in a warm place for an hour.
  5. When the dough has doubled in volume, transfer it onto a floured rolling board.DSC_0067
  6. Divide the dough into halves and shape into two balls. Roll out each ball into a circle until the dough is about 5 mm thick. With a pastry wheel, cut each circle into quarters, then each quarter into halves, so you’ll end up with eight equal segments. Roll them in starting from the outside, as seen in the photo below. Shape each roll into a crescent. Dust the board, the dough and your fingers each time the dough feels too sticky to work with.DSC_0075
  7. Put the rolls on a baking tray (depending on the size, you’ll probably need two of them) lined with a piece of baking parchment. Glaze with the egg white and sprinkle with the poppy or sesame seeds.DSC_0079
  8. Put in the oven preheated to 180ºC and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the rolls turn golden brown.DSC_0083
  9. Serve warm or cold with home-made strawberry jam, nutella or vanilla cream.DSC_0084We often eat butter rolls for breakfast, but they also make a nice snack or light supper, and they are perfect to start your Sunday with.

What’s cooking in Košice

Most tourists and visitors to our country will naturally head to Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia. Not only does the city have its own (albeit small) airport, but it’s only an hour drive from a larger Vienna airport, which is a convenient gateway to other European cities and holiday destinations. There’s a very good shuttle bus service between Vienna and Bratislava, in addition to regular trains joining the two cities.

Košice (pronounced as Koshitze), on the other hand, is a little off the beaten path, but that’s exactly what many tourists are looking for when coming to Slovakia. With the population of almost 250 000, Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia, as well as the industrial, commercial and educational centre of its eastern part. That said, Košice has all the features and amenities of a European city, including an international airport and a modern train station, yet it preserves its unique atmosphere and exudes charm Bratislava doesn’t possess. Mind you, Košice served as the European Capital of Culture in 2013.

St Elisabeth’s Cathedral on the Main Street (Hlavná ulica), Košice

Apart from its rich cultural heritage, the city boasts a well-preserved historical centre with such impressive buildings as Gothic St Elisabeth’s Cathedral – the largest church in Slovakia dating back to the 14th century, St Urban’s Tower, the exquisite State Theatre, and a number of beautifully renovated aristocratic palaces skirting the promenade of the Main Street.

When I went to Košice a few weeks ago, I was recommended to try the regional cuisine in the Republic of the East (Republika východu) restaurant at 31 Main Street (Hlavná ulica), just opposite St Elisabeth’s Cathedral. It was a warm day at the end of June, so some diners were taking advantage of the outdoor seating and enjoying the sunshine.

I liked the coolness and the casual look of the interior, nicely furnished with bookshelves on one side. I chose to sit at a table by the window giving onto the street, which let in plenty of soft afternoon light – perfect for taking pictures.

When the menu arrived, I understood this wasn’t just another main street restaurant, but indeed a place with a very ‘regional’ feel. The menu was written in a very strong East-Slovak dialect that broke all the spelling and grammar rules of the standard Slovak language. It did look peculiar to someone coming from outside the region, but with a little bit of imagination I could guess what was behind the names – and the funny comments accompanying them. I’m not surprised though they haven’t tried to provide the menu in English, as is now the case in all major Slovak towns, not to mention cosmopolitan Košice. Much of the local folklore and genuine East-Slovak humour would be lost in translation. Fortunately for those unfamiliar with the vernacular, all the entries on the menu are illustrated with great photos, so you have a really good idea what to expect.

https://www.republikavychodu.sk/listek/

It seems that the restaurant caters for all tastes and diets, so alongside traditional Slovak dishes like halushki, letcho or pirohy (both sweet and savoury), you’ll find steaks, prosciutto, duck burgers or braised quail. There’s a good choice of salads, speciality cheeses, home-made desserts and ‘healthy foods’ like quinoa, buckwheat or millet. I was taken aback by an impressive selection of pancakes (both classical and gluten-free), and as I leafed through the beverage list, I realized the place also serves as a cafe, a pub and a wine bar.

But I was hungry and wanted to try something I wouldn’t get in a regular restaurant, so after some deliberation I chose Buckwheat Groats with Grilled VegetablesAnd I had no regrets when it came about 15 minutes later.I left nothing on my plate, but was left feeling happier and inspired after the meal. Yes, I’m going to try and recreate it at home. But before I leave Košice, I can’t forget to say hello to the famous singing fountain on the Main Street.

The singing fountain of Košice

Within a short walking distance of the Republika východu restaurant, there’s a nice and cosy Artforum bookshop in Mlynska Street (Mlynská ulica), where they sell A Taste of Slovakia cookbook. So if you wander off to Košice on your travels around Slovakia, do call round and have a look inside. I’m sure you’ll love the bookshop’s ambience, and I’d be more than pleased to have your thoughts on the book.

Raw Poppyseed Avocado Cake

I’m not a big fan of raw cakes. Not only are they more laborious and much more expensive than the regular ones, but I doubt their healthy side as well. I love fresh fruit (or vegetables), and I often indulge in all kinds of seeds and whole nuts, but why mash, squeeze and grind these delicious foods, smother them in chocolate, caramel or dates, only to produce something that bears little resemblance to the soft, airy cakes I grew up on?

My first attempt at a raw cake a few months ago ended up in a dense, dry dessert, which was too sweet and too heavy for my liking. I wouldn’t normally eat as much sugar and fat in a piece of cake, as most of these raw recipes suggest. I abandoned the idea of raw desserts until a few days ago, when I decided to replace some of the ingredients in the original recipe with traditional Slovak ones, as well as change their amounts. It was an extremely hot summer day (the mercury soared to 37ºC), so having a ‘cake’ without baking seemed like a good idea.

This Raw Poppyseed Avocado Cake is not vegan, as most other raw cakes are, but it’s gluten-free and low in sugar. To make it, you will need poppy seeds (one of the richest natural sources of calcium), as well as a springform pan of 22 cm/9-inch diameter.DSC_0038Raw Poppyseed Avocado Cake
Makes 12

For the base:

  • 100 g ground poppy seeds
  • 100 g shredded dessicated coconut
  • 5 tablespoons home-made jam or marmalade
  • 150 g creamy yoghurt
  • 5 tablespoons oil

For the filling:

  • flesh from 4 ripe avocados
  • 5 limes
  • 250 g sour cream (14% fat content in Slovakia)
  • 5 tablespoons runny honey
  • 1 sachet gelatine powder (20 g in Slovakia) 

Method:

  1. Line the bottom and the sides of the pan with baking parchment. It will help loosen the cake from the sides before serving, as well as cut it without scratching the bottom of the pan.
  2. Grind the poppy seeds if you haven’t bought ground ones.
  3. To make the base, place all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and combine well until you achieve a paste-like consistency. Transfer into the springform pan. Spread around evenly and level the surface with the back of a large spoon. Set aside.
  4. Finely grate the zest of 2 limes into a large mixing bowl. Squeeze the juice from all the limes.
  5. Cut the avocado in halves lengthways around the tip. Twist the halves to separate them – the pit will remain in one of the halves. Gently run a cutlery knife around the pit to remove it. Place the halves on a plate and scrape the flesh off the skins with a tablespoon. Transfer to the mixing bowl and repeat with the other avocados.
  6. To make the filling, mash the avocado pieces with a fork. Pour in the cream and the honey. Blend until the mixture is smooth.
  7. Prepare the gelatine according to the instructions on the packet. Add it to the avocado mixture and blend again. Pour over the cake base and level the surface with the back of a spoon.
  8. Put the cake in the fridge and leave to set overnight.
  9. Remove the sides of the pan before serving, gently take away the baking parchment, and cut the cake into pieces. Decorate with fresh fruit of your choice.

Although I was quite sceptical at the beginning, this Raw Poppyseed Avocado Cake turned out to be a success. I was really surprised by its moist, velvety texture and, above all, it had a refreshing zest, which was exactly what I needed on this schorching summer afternoon.

Pickled Gherkins

We are in the midst of our ‘uhorková sezóna’ (or cucumber season) right now, both literally and metaphorically. Not much is happening on the political scene at the peak of Slovak summer, no big stories are filling the news columns, and life in general has switched into a leisurely mode.

On the other hand, our gardens and farms have seen an upsurge of activity in the last month. Cucumbers, among other Slovak staples, have given excellent crops this year, so most Slovaks are filling their pantries with bottles of small, crunchy cucumbers preserved in spiced pickle. Of course, no Slovak household can imagine their winter without a good supply of pickled gherkins, as this small variety of cucumbers is called in English. We love them in cold buffets, tartar sauce, our famed potato salad, or as a garnish for all sorts of meat and potato dishes.

Although the most valued cucumbers for pickling are the small ones, we also preserve medium-size cucumbers cut in halves, quarters, or even sliced. Here is a recipe I got from my Mum, who is an expert on preserving all sorts of fruit and vegetables.

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Pickled Gherkins

  • 3 kg small cucumbers (gherkins)
  • black peppercorns
  • allspice corns
  • bay leaves
  • mustard seeds
  • fresh dill sprigs

For the pickle:

  • 2 l water
  • ½ l white vinegar
  • 60 g salt
  • 180 g sugar

Method:

  1. Wash the jars and let them dry off. Remove any dirt from the gherkins, check for blemishes and only select firm, good quality ones for the pickling. Cut off the stems and wash the gherkins thoroughly under running water. Rinse the dill sprigs.
  2. Pour the water in a large cooking pot and bring to the boil. Add the salt and the sugar. Stir and let dissolve. Pour in the vinegar and stir again. Set aside.
  3. Stand the jars in a row on the table. At the bottom of each one, put a small sprig of the dill, a bay leaf, 3 black peppercorns, 2 allspice corns, and a few mustard seeds. Cram in the gherkins, laying them lengthways from the bottom of a jar up to its grooves.
  4. Pour in the warm pickling solution. Make sure all the gherkins in the jar are covered in it. Tap each jar lightly with your hand to release air bubbles. Screw on the lids and sterilize the jars in a boiling water canner at 100°C for 5 minutes.*
*If you don’t have a canner, you can sterilize the gherkins in an oven. Place a few jars on a baking tray and put in the oven. Set the temperature to 200°C and when the pickle in the jars starts producing tiny bubbles, turn the temperature down to 100°C. Let simmer for 5 minutes.

5. Let cool down, take out of the canner or the oven, and stand on a wooden         board or a dishtowel. As the jars are cooling, the lids will give a slight                 popping sound, which indicates a good seal.

Pickled Gherkins

As you can see in the photo above, the colour of the gherkins will change after the sterilization. If stored in a cool, dark place, Pickled Gherkins will keep for a few years.

The recipe is also included in A Taste of Slovakia cookbook together with other traditional Slovak preserves.