Bear Garlic Pesto

I’m well-stocked with bear garlic right now. Two of my friends have brought handfuls of the herb straight from their gardens, the bright green leaves still glistening with raindrops when they came. Bear garlic, wild garlic, ramsons or whatever you like to call it is prolific after all the rain we’ve experienced in Slovakia this spring. The soil is moist, the temperatures have risen lately, and that’s exactly what this newly discovered ‘superherb’ needs for its growth. I use it almost every day now to add a colour and an extra kick to the family meals. Bear garlic is perfect in soups, scrambled eggs, to sprinkle over home-made pizza, or liven up salads. This year, while trying to put to good use the plentiful supply I have been given, I experimented with bear garlic pesto.

Pumpkin seeds have long been valued for the diversity of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals they contain.

Unlike in most pesto recipes you’ll find on the Internet, I used pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts, and replaced olive oil with a rapeseed one. Both in the attempt to utilize what I had on hand in my kitchen, but they also turned out to be ingredients native to Slovakia. Pumpkin seeds usually come shelled in packets of 250 g, and rapeseed oil is procured from the locally grown rapeseed plant, which is in full bloom now, flooding our countryside with golden yellow hues.

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Bear Garlic Pesto
Serves 8

  • about 100 g bear garlic leaves
  • 50 g pumpkin seeds, dried and shelled
  • 50 g Parmesan or other hard cheese
  • about 150 ml oil
  • salt and lemon juice to taste

Method:

Put the pumpkin seeds in a saucepan and dry-roast over a medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent burning. Take away from the heat and let cool.

Grate the cheese finely.

Remove the stems, wash the bear garlic leaves and chop them on a board. Place in a bowl with a little oil and use a blender to break the leaves further.

Grind the pumpkin seeds (I did it in my nut-grinder, as I don’t have a food processor) and transfer to the garlic mixture. Pour in some more oil and blend again. Add the grated cheese with the rest of the oil and blend further.

Finally, add the salt and the lemon juice to taste, and give your pesto one last whisk. Transfer to a clean bowl and serve on a toast, a slice of fresh bread or with your favourite pasta.

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If not used, cover with clingfilm and store in the fridge for up to 10 days.

I found out that the pesto tasted even better on the 3rd – 4th day when all the flavours had sunk in.

Shoolantze – Slovak rolled pasta

An English-speaking lady with Slovak roots has contacted me recently asking for two ‘very Slovak’ recipes her Grandma used to make. Although I didn’t recognize them by the names given, they sounded like some sort of pasta dishes, so I asked for their description. It turned out that the first one was, in fact, a very old name for Halushki, and the second dish is very likely to be what we call Šúľance (transcribed into English as Shoolantze) today.

Šúľance are little pieces of pasta that get their name from the rolling movement (šúľanie in Slovak) applied to the dough by hand in the process of making. Most Slovaks will serve šúľance with ground poppy seeds, which are very common and popular in Slovak cuisine, but my Mum would often top them with home-made breadcrumbs or even ground walnuts. Whatever topping you’ll choose, melted butter is the vital ingredient to give ‘shoolantze’ that delicious velvety finish.

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Šúľance or Shoolantze
Serves 4

  • 600 g potatoes
  • 200 g coarse/strong/bread flour*
  • pinch of salt
  • about 150 g ground poppy seeds or breadcrumbs
  • 100 g unsalted butter, melted
  • powdered sugar for dusting
*The amount of the flour may change slightly according to the type of the potatoes, as well as the flour used. Anyway, the instructions and pictures below should be a good guide to what you need to achieve in the dough.

Method:

Clean the potato skins with a damp sponge and place in a pot. Fill it with enough cold water to cover the potatoes. Bring to the boil, adjust the heat and let cook for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a skewer.

Drain the potatoes and let cool down until they are cold enough to handle. Peel them and mash with a potato masher or a fork. Add the flour and a pinch of salt. Work into a smooth, slightly sticky dough. Cover with a dish-towel and put in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, grind the poppy seeds, or dry-roast the breadcrumbs in a saucepan over a low heat. Remember to stir the breadcrumbs all the time to prevent them from burning. Set aside.

Take the dough out of the fridge and transfer onto a floured rolling board. Dust your hands with flour, sprinkle some over the dough and divide into 8 parts – sort of balls. To make shoolantze, gently roll each ball into a long rope of 1 cm thickness. Cut into pieces about 5 cm long, dust with flour and put aside on a floured surface.

When you have used all the dough, bring a large pot of slightly salted water to the boil. Turn down the heat and throw the shoolantze in it one by one. Depending on the size of your pot, you may have to throw them in two or three batches.

Stir gently and cook each batch over a medium-low heat until the shoolantze come up to the surface. Take them out with a sieve or a slotted spoon, and transfer onto plates. Stir in a tablespoon of the melted butter. Cover and keep warm.

When all the shoolantze have been cooked and buttered, sprinkle each serving with the ground poppy seeds or the roasted breadcrumbs. Dust with the powdered sugar and pour the rest of the warm melted butter over the top. Serve immediately.

I hope the lady who was an inspiration for this post will find what she was looking for. Thanks to her, I have rediscovered a delicious meal I haven’t made for ages. True, I had to call my Mum to tie up a few loose ends, but I believe the recipe we have put together for Shoolantze will delight many of those with a sweet tooth.

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. 😉

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.

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.

Looking back at 2016

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

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!

Roasted ‘Encian’ with Cranberries

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.