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.

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.

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.

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.

Easter Wreath

Some may argue that Slovak dishes are heavy and not very healthy to eat. Well, I’d say there’s something to feel guilty about in each cuisine if you go by today’s health guidelines or some freak new diets. True, we don’t eat as much fresh fruit and vegetables now as, say Italians, Spanish or Greeks. But it’s the end of winter at our latitudes and the countryside is slowly waking up into another spring right now. That’s why we still have to rely on the vitamins and nutrients conserved last summer – until we have the first, hopefully plentiful crop of fresh ones in a few weeks.

Easter came quite early this year, and my family celebrated the arrival of spring with a little feast. Apart from the Breaded Pork Steaks with Potato Salad we baked an Easter Wreath, a yeast-based fruit cake from last-year’s garden produce. However, in the recipe I’m sharing below plums can be replaced with raisins, or any other fresh or canned fruit. Here, as everywhere else on the site, I use fresh yeast to make yeasted dough. For the dried or instant alternative, it’s good to read instructions on the packet.

Easter Wreath

  • 300 g flour (plain wheat can be combined with wholemeal in a desired ratio)
  • 200 ml milk
  • 21 g fresh yeast (or 7 g dried one)
  • 50 g butter (unsalted)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 600 g bottled plums (or 1 kg fresh ones)
  • 1 sachet vanilla sugar (about 20 g)
  • ground cinnamon to taste
  • icing sugar to drizzle

Method:

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 yeast doesn’t come in direct contact with the yeast at the next stage.

Heat the milk in a heatproof mug over a low heat until warm. Add a little sugar to the warm milk and stir well. Transfer half of the milk into a glass. Between the tips of your fingers, crumble the yeast into the glass. Stir well until the yeast dissolves. Add a pinch of flour to kick-start fermentation. Cover the glass and leave it in a warm place.

Slowly, heat the butter over a low heat in a heatproof mug or a small saucepan. Stir all the time, as the butter burns easily.

When the yeast rises up to the brim, pour all the contents of the glass onto the flour. Add the remaining warm/lukewarm milk and half of the melted butter. Knead by hand until smooth. Pour in a little warm water, if needed, to make a dough of medium thickness. Cover and leave to stand in a warm place for an hour.

Meanwhile, wash and stone the plums. If you’re using bottled or canned ones, strain them on as sieve and save the juice for drizzling at a later stage.

Grease and lightly dust a round baking dish, ideally a bundt-style one with a cylindrical hole in the centre.

When the dough has risen, transfer it on a floured rolling board and roll out into a long oval shape, as seen in the photos below. Pat the dough with more flour each time it starts sticking to either your fingers or the board. Spread half of the remaining melted butter over the dough and distribute the plums evenly all around it:

Sprinkle with the vanilla sugar and the cinnamon. Roll in and carefully transfer into the baking dish.

Bake in the oven at 180ºC for about 25 minutes or until the crust turns golden brown. Let cool after taking the cake out of the oven, and gently ease from the sides of the dish with a spatula. Transfer onto a large plate or a serving tray, drizzle with icing sugar and a generous amount of the plum juice.

Some of you may find our Easter Wreath too dry despite all the fruit juices it contains. I guess my English friends would dunk it in custard or vanilla sauce, or possibly scoop plenty of ice-cream over the top. Hmmh, am I right here or not? 😉

Low-sugar Non-dairy Plum Pie

This recipe could also be subtitled ‘when the winter asks you what you were doing in the summer‘. My answer would be (as that of many other Slovak home cooks): making jam, bottling and preserving all the summer produce from our gardens.

Bottled plums

As I said in one of my previous posts, last year was very good for plums, and my pantry is still half-filled with bottles of the deep red, squashy fruit, as well as jars of sticky jam. They bring back a whiff of the summer with all its smells and flavours each time I open a new bottle.

It’s good to have an ample supply of these conserved vitamins and minerals on hand, especially when you’re feeling low and seeking comfort in a quick, simple dessert. Here is one that is low on calories, and will only take you about 40 minutes to make.

Low-sugar Non-dairy Plum Pie

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup oil
  • 2 eggs
  • canned plums or other fruit
  • 1 cup plum juice (I used the juice from my bottled plums)
  • 1 sachet baking powder (13 g content in Slovakia)
  • vanilla sugar to dust the finished pie
  • some juice to sprinkle over the top

Method:

  1. Grease a baking tray with oil or margarine and dust it with flour.
  2. Strain the plums on a large sieve and save the juice.
  3. Put all the ingredients (except the plums, but including the juice) in a mixing bowl and stir well until smooth.
  4. Pour the batter in the baking tray and spread evenly all around it.
  5. Stone the plums, if needed, and place them on the batter in rows.
  6. Put in the oven and bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the crust turns golden brown.
  7. Take out of the oven, let cool on a cooling mat, and cut into squares or shapes of your choice.
  8. Dust with the vanilla sugar, sprinkle some of the remaining juice over the top, and serve warm with a cup of tea or coffee.
Low-sugar Non-dairy Plum Pie
Low-sugar Non-dairy Plum Pie

This is a light but satisfying dessert that makes enough portions for a little party. The fruit juice gives it extra zest and moisture, which brings a delightful, finger-licking experience.

Light Apple Cake

Before we start gorging on more festive desserts, let’s have this simple yet satisfying apple cake that’s fit for a Sunday breakfast, an afternoon snack, or a light dessert anytime around.

It’s an old Slovak recipe that has been in my personal cookbook since I started learning to bake years ago. I got it from my Mum, tried and tested it dozens of times while experimenting with different ingredients.

The original recipe uses pork lard instead of butter or margarine, because (as my Mum says) the dough is more pliable, easier to work with and therefore less likely to tear. I have also replaced sour cream in my Mum’s recipe with yoghurt to make the cake lighter and healthier. For a fruitier, more succulent taste, increase the amount of apples – the quantity stated in the recipe below is the minimum required in proportion to other ingredients.

Light Apple Cake
Light Apple Cake

Light Apple Cake

For the dough:
500 g fine flour
150 g sugar
150 g butter/margarine/pork lard
1 egg
1 sachet baking powder (about 13 g)
200 g plain yoghurt

For the filling:
1½ kg apples, grated
cinnamon and vanilla sugar to taste

egg or butter for glazing

Method:

If you are using butter, take it out of the fridge at least 30 minutes prior to dough making and let it soften.

Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and add all other ingredients. Combine well into a smooth, supple dough. Cover with a dishcloth and let stand in a cool place for an hour.

Meanwhile, peel and wash the apples. Grate them in another bowl and cover to avoid browning. Some people grate apples with their skin on – just follow your personal tastes and preferences here.

Grease a baking tray with butter, margarine or pork lard, and dust with flour.

Take the dough out of the mixing bowl and place on a floured rolling board. Divide the dough into halves. DSC_0242Roll out one half into a rectangle the size of your baking tray. Remember to dust with more flour whenever the dough starts sticking to either the rolling pin or the board. Carefully roll the sheet of the dough onto the rolling pin and transfer into the baking tray. Gently press the dough with your floured fingers to fill in any blanks or fix tears.

Spread the grated apples onto the dough and sprinkle with the cinnamon and vanilla sugar. Roll out the other half of the dough in the same manner as the first one and transfer onto the apples. It does take some skill, granted, but you can always fix tears in the dough or empty spots by gently patching them with floured hands.

Lighly prick the upper layer of dough in several places with a fork, glaze with a beaten egg or melted butter and put in the oven. Bake at 180ºC for about 25 minutes or until the crust is coming off the sides of the baking tray.

Let cool down, sprinkle with powdered sugar and cut into shapes of your own choice. The cake is best eaten warm, but it can also be enjoyed cold with a cup of your favourite brew.

Fluffy Slovak Apple Cake
Fluffy Slovak Apple Cake

Apple cake is by all means the most popular dessert in Slovakia, as we are a country with a wide variety and good quality of home-grown apples. The best apples, however, come from people’s private gardens, where they are carefully looked after and nurtured to perfection.

I’m extremely lucky to have a friend whose parents are devoted gardeners in a remote village up in the mountains. They use no artificial fertilizers or chemicals, so some of their apples come with blemishes and imperfections, but the taste, smell and colour of their produce is second to none.

As this was a very good year for apples, the generous supplies from my friend kept coming until late autumn. No wonder I have made my family’s favourite fluffy apple cake on numerous occasions.

Savoury Pagatche Cakes

Another recipe from Vierka’s rural kitchen is for traditional savoury cakes called Škvarkové pagáče, which would loosely translate as ‘Pork Cracklings Cakes’.

The vital ingredient for Škvarkové pagáče is škvarky or ‘shkvarki’. They are similar to pork cracklings except that shkvarki are made by melting and roasting fatty bacon WITHOUT its rind/skin on. It does change the taste and texture of the final product, so depending on the cut and quality of the bacon, our shkvarki might look like this:

Shkvarki – or Slovak version of pork cracklings

We have different kinds of pagáče or pagatche (possibly the closest transcription of the word into English), but what they all have in common is folded yeast-leavened dough. Sounds too complicated? I hope the photo guide below will prove the opposite, and help those who want to give it a try.

Savoury Pagatche Cakes

500 g flour
120 g butter
1 egg
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon white vinegar
200 ml cooking cream (12% fat content in Slovakia) or milk
21 g fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
250 g ground shkvarki (pork cracklings)
2 tablespoons pork lard
1 egg to glaze
caraway or sesame seeds to sprinkle

Method:

Take the butter out of the fridge at least 30 minutes prior to dough making and let it soften.

In a heatproof mug, warm the cooking cream or milk over a low heat until lukewarm. Break the yeast into it, add the sugar, a pinch of flour and stir well. Cover and let stand in a warm place. Depending on the room temperature, the yeast will take 2 – 7 minutes to rise.

Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl, add the soft butter, egg, vinegar and salt, but be careful to spread it well into the flour, as salt would kill the yeast if in direct contact.

Transfer the fermented yeast onto the flour and knead by hand to combine all the ingredients well. You may need to add some milk to achieve a smooth, medium-thick consistency, as seen in the photo on the right.

Cover with a dish-towel and let stand in a cool place for about 30 minutes to let the dough rise.

Do the 1st dough folding as shown below:

Cover the dough and let rest for 15 minutes.

After the dough has rested, do the 2nd folding in the same manner as the first one:

Now that the dough is more meaty and flavoursome, it needs to be put to rest again. Cover and let stand for another 15 minutes.

After the second resting time, repeat the same procedure again and do the 3rd folding with the remaining third of the shkvarki mixture. Then roll out the folded dough until it is 1½ cm thick, and cut out the cakes. Arrange in rows on a baking tray lined with a sheet of baking parchment.

Glaze with the beaten egg and sprinkle with caraway and/or sesame seeds. Put in the oven and bake at 180°C for 15 minutes.

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The recipe yielded two baking trays of scrumptuous Pagatche cakes that are best eaten warm, but they can also be served as a cold snack with a cup of tea or milk.

Traditional Slovak Pagatche
Traditional Slovak Pagatche

In between baking, my friend Vierka was also cooking a Saturday lunch of light Rabbit Soup with a Garlic Roux and Beef Stew with Garden Peas. Have a look if you’re seeking still more inspiration.

Quick-and-easy Plum Pie

This is a reminder of the last fresh produce of plums I got from my friend a few weeks ago. Her parents have a huge orchard in a remote village up in the mountains, which had been brimming with plums of all sorts and sizes for over a month. Yes, it was a very good year for plums and I was busy bottling, drying and cooking them as the generous supplies kept coming from my friend.

When dealing with loads of fresh fruit of bio quality at a time, you have to be really quick and imaginative to preserve all the fruit’s flavours. And that’s exactly when these quick and simple recipes come in handy. Especially if they produce tasty, nourishing cakes that give as much pleasure to the senses as the most intricate creations. Or don’t they?

 Quick-and-easy Plum Pie

2 cups fine pastry flour
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup oil
1 cup milk
1 sachet baking powder (13 g content in Slovakia)
1 vanilla sugar (20 g content in Slovakia)
fresh plums or other fruit

Method:

Wash the plums and cut them in halves. Discard the stones. Grease a baking tray and dust it with flour.

In a large mixing bowl, mix all the ingredients (except for the fruit) together until well-combined and smooth. As you can see from the pictures below, I added a few teaspoons of fruit pulp left in the freezer from preserving blackberries. Not only did it enhance the moist, fruity flavour of the final product, but also added more fibre and an exciting twist to the cake’s texture.

Pour the batter in the baking tray and distribute the plums in rows all around it. Bake in the oven at 180ºC for about 25 minutes or until golden brown. Insert a skewer in the middle of the cake to check its readiness. If the skewer comes out clean, the cake is done and well cooked through. Take it out of the oven and let cool down on a cooling mat or rack.

Cut into squares and lightly dust with sugar. Serve warm or cold, ideally with your favourite brew.

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Feeling tempted or inspired? Give it a try and make your very own creation by using any fruit you like, either fresh or canned. Bon appetit!

Wine Cookies

Did you forget to finish your glass of wine yesterday and it has lost its sparkle overnight? Before washing it down the sink, consider using it in cooking, or even baking. You’ll be surprised how much goodness it can still create.

I remembered this old recipe a couple of days ago when I found an unfinished bottle of honey-wine in the fridge that my family seemed to have lost interest in. It’s good to dust off these long-forgotten recipes from time to time, especially if they’re so uncomplicated, and fun to do. This particular one has another plus side – it only uses 4 very basic ingredients including the leftover wine.

Wine Cookies

250 g unsalted butter or margarine
250 g fine pastry flour
5 tablespoons leftover wine
vanilla and/or confectionery sugar for coating

Method:

In a large mixing bowl cream the margarine, the flour and the wine together until smooth. Cover and let stand in a cold place for an hour.

Line a baking tray with a piece of baking parchment. In a small bowl or on a plate mix the confectionery and vanilla sugar.

Dust a rolling board and your hands with flour. Transfer the dough onto the board and divide into two parts. Form two balls and roll each one out until it is about ½ cm thick. Remember to dust the board and your hands with more flour whenever the dough starts sticking.

Cut out cookies of different shapes and lay them on the baking tray. Don’t discard the cut-offs, as they can be kneaded together and rolled out again to make more cookies. You can get creative and invent your own shapes or figures. I myself was happy to just use my cutters.

Bake in the oven at 190ºC for 7 – 10 minutes or until golden brown.

Take the baking tray out of the oven and transfer on a cooling mat. While still warm, take the cookies one by one and coat them in the sugar.

I forgot about the time when I was baking the second batch, and the cookies stayed in the oven for a little longer (15 minutes perhaps?) It proved to be no disaster though, as they came out crispier – and a bit darker in colour (as seen in the photo above, right).

Serve warm or cooled down, ideally with your favourite brew.

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I was amazed at how the cookies grew during the baking process, and what a complex, puff texture they got. No doubt, the wine acts as a powerful raising agent. Not to mention the taste and smell of the end product 😉

Wine Cookies

A wonderful Sunday breakfast or a yummy snack, don’t you think?