Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Šarkelj (Slovenian Gugelhupf) for the Fourth of July!

A Fourth of July celebration might seem like an unlikely occasion to introduce a new Slovenian dish. But our annual neighborhood gathering is a perfect opportunity to do just that. For one thing, a potluck is always low-risk. And what are the chances that someone else of Slovenian heritage will show up and weigh in on the merits of my latest ethnic cooking experiment?

I have done this twice before, with mixed results.The first time, I made a successful debut with the multilayered phyllo delight known as Prekmurska gibanica. The next year's offering, an unusual Slovenian cheesecake, sounded good on paper, but it emerged as a soft pudding encased in a tough buckwheat crust.

This year, I didn't decide until the morning of the Fourth of July that I wanted to come up with a Slovenian dessert to bring to the gathering. So my choices were limited. This dessert had to be ready by afternoon. And, since the stores were closed, I had to make do with ingredients already at hand.

I also wanted to use my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, the Christmas gift I was still figuring out how to use.

I found the perfect choice: Šarkelj ("Shark-el"), the Slovenian version of gugelhupf. I had been curious about it ever since I discovered this strange outlier in the "potica" section of the vintage cookbook that launched my ethnic cooking project: Woman's Glory, The Kitchen. It was the first in a series of cookbooks published by the Slovenian Woman's Union of America (know today as the Slovenian Union of America.)

Gugelhupf (sometimes called "kugelhopf" or "bundt cake") is the familiar brioche-like sweet yeast bread with the cylindrical round shape. It is popular throughout Central Europe, as well as in France. The ingredients are simple but the preparation is not, because the rich yeast dough is too soft for be hand kneaded. Some of the recipes in my vintage cookbooks call for beating the batter-like dough with a wooden spoon for twenty to thirty minutes! So this is one of those dishes I might never have tried before I had a heavy duty stand mixer.

The recipe below closely follows two similar recipes: "Holiday Bread--Šarkelj" from the cookbook of the Progressive Slovene Women of America, and "Sharkel or Formcake" from Woman's Glory. Most of my changes were dictated by necessity. Low fat milk, since that is all we had in the fridge. A little oil to stretch the butter. Anisette and dried apricots, which provided an interesting taste alternative to the raisins and rum in the original recipe.

Thanks to my new stand mixer,  the entire process was fairly easy--especially compared to making potica! And my no-stick bundt cake pan worked like a charm! (I'd had bad luck in the past, when I tried to use it for baking potica.)
The result was a delicious, mildly sweet yeast cake, ideally suited for a special breakfast or brunch, or perhaps afternoon coffee or tea. It looks impressive, too, especially with a sprinkle of confectioners' sugar and some fresh berries on the side.

The šarkelj seemed to be well received at the July Fourth potluck.

And guess who showed up at the end? Some new neighbors, a nice young couple and their baby. The mother turned out to be a Northern Minnesota native with Slovenian-Finnish roots!

Šarkelj ("sharkel") or Slovenian Formcake or Gugelhupf

1 package dry yeast (original recipes call for cake yeast)
4 tablespoons lukewarm milk
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
grated rind of 1 lemon
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cream or milk
1 tablespoon rum, brandy or other spirits
optional: 1 cup raisins or other dried fruit

(I used used anisette and chopped dried apricots)

First, make a sponge: In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in milk. Mix in flour and sugar.. Set aside to rise while preparing the rest of the dough.

In a large bowl (or the bowl of your stand mixer) cream butter and sugar. Mix in the beaten egg yolks and lemon rind. Then add the yeast mixture and mix well. Combine flour and salt and add to bowl, alternating flour mixture with cream or milk and rum. Mix well. Beat dough, following one of the two methods below. Add dried fruit at the end.

The traditional mixing method: Beat the dough with a wooden spoon for 20-30 minutes until dough is smooth and mixture leave spoon.

The modern method:  Use a stand mixer, and follow the directions for speed and timing that come with your model. It will take less time, probably 5-10 minutes.

Pour dough into a well-oiled Bundt cake pan. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double. Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. Let cool before removing from pan. If desired, sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Poppy Seed Apple Cakes

I first tasted this unusual sweet last May, at a party at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. It was the end-of-the-year celebration for our Slovenian language class. And also, as it would turn out, the last year of study with our much-loved teacher Mia Rode.

For the class potluck, I prepared a tasty "grade A potato salad" with a recipe for krompirjeva solata from our textbook. But the most intriguing contribution came from a young Slovenian man who was engaged to one of my classmates. She proudly passed around a pan of dark moist squares that looked just like American brownies. My classmate shared her fiancé's secret: The only chocolate was in the frosting. The cake itself was made of apples and poppy seeds. "You'll hardly notice," she assured us.

Since I happen to love poppy seeds, I was relieved that I did notice that familiar musky flavor as soon as I bit into one of the squares. The rich chocolate frosting wasn't even necessary. If anything, it was a distraction from this delicious and unusual cake.

A few days later, I went searching for a recipe. I hadn't even thought to ask my classmate what this unusual dish was called. For that matter, I wasn't even positive it was Slovenian in origin.

I found two examples online that seemed similar to what I had tasted at the Slovenian Hall. The first turned up on a YouTube cooking channel belonging to a Hungarian woman named Magdi. She cheerfully demonstrated a dish she called "easy poppy seed apple cake." By searching Kulinarika, the Slovenian language cooking website, I discovered a similar sweet, with a long name that translated roughly as "juicy little moons with poppy seeds (or walnuts)."

The two recipes called for similar ingredients: flour, sugar, apples, poppy seeds, eggs, and oil. The only real difference was that the Slovenian version used more eggs and apples, while the Hungarian recipe added sour cream, along with a little rum and lemon rind. The Slovenian recipe was also a more elaborate in the preparation and presentation: Separated eggs, a chocolate frosting, and little cut-out crescent shapes instead of squares.

Both recipes used a cooking gimmick that seems to have caught on lately: Using identical measures (or multiples) of most of the key ingredients. For the Hungarian woman, the magic number was one. One cup of each dry ingredient, 1 cup of sour cream, 1 egg, 1 apple, and so on.

The Slovenian recipe also used 1's. But there was a catch. The measuring unit of choice was a  jogurtov kozarec (j.k.). A yogurt glass.

It appears that simple cake recipes based on yogurt containers are something of a fad, in Europe and beyond. Does anyone worry about the size of these containers? Eight ounces used to be standard in the US, but imported yogurt cups are usually smaller. And the proportion idea breaks down when it comes to counting up the apples and eggs.

The first time around, I decided to sidestep that tricky yogurt cup measure in favor of Magdi's more straightforward video recipe, presented in English, with familiar American measures and a casual "one bowl" mixing technique. It was good. And easy. I did like the Slovenian idea of little individual cakes, so I baked part of the batch in mini muffin tins.

But I still wanted to try that Slovenian recipe. I was happy to do the translation and the measurement conversions, but I needed some guidance with the yogurt cup problem. So I posed the question to the Slovenian Genealogy Group on Facebook, who are pretty tolerant of cooking questions. How much is a yogurt cup or glass, to a European cook? Their answer: 180-200 ml, which translates into a generous 3/4 cup.

I have made that Slovenian "yogurt cup" recipe three times now. It is a forgiving formula that always turns out well. It also keeps well.

Most recently, I served these intriguing little cakes to the small alumni group from the Slovenian Hall language classes that is now gathering regularly at my house in Berkeley. Mia Rode, our teacher for many years, is now an instructor at Stanford, where she is offering their first-ever Slovenian language classes. We are fortunate to have a new guide, a lovely woman named Miriam, also born in Slovenia, who is trying to help steer us in the direction of relaxed and confident conversation.

The recipe below follows the Slovenian recipe, with a few flavoring options from the Hungarian version that I have sometimes used. I have never tried the walnut version. And I really do prefer to leave the cakes unfrosted. Why gild the lily?

Dober tek!

Poppy Seed and Apple Cakes 

Adapted from a Kulinarica "yogurt glass" recipe for Lunice, or little moon cakes.

3/4 cup poppy seeds, ground 3/4 cup flour 3/4 cup sugar 3/8 cup oil 3 eggs, separated 3 large tart apples, grated 1/2 teaspoon baking powder.

Optional flavor additions: grated lemon rind, a little rum

Frosting: chocolate, margarine, milk. (No further directions given in the original. Consider it optional!)

Although the original Slovenian recipe does not specify ground poppy seeds, many other recipes--including the Hungarian one--do. Most cooks believe this improves the flavor and texture. You may be able to purchase ground poppy seeds, but it is easy--and fresher--to do it yourself with a coffee mill. If you need instructions, go here.

Beat the egg whites and add sugar, beating until glossy. Add the egg yolks and oil and mix. Combine flour and baking powder and fold in, along with the poppy seeds. Gently fold in apples. Pour batter into 1 or 2 oiled rectangular pans or, if desired, a mini muffin pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes for muffins, 25-30 minutes for a larger cake.  

When the cake cools, cut into squares. Or, to make pretty little moons, use a drinking glass to cut into crescent shapes, as in the photo above.

The original recipe calls for a chocolate frosting but I think it tastes better without.

You can substitute ground walnuts for poppy seeds--but why bother?

Friday, February 1, 2019

The New Improved Slovenian Potato Bread: Krompirjev Kruh

I first made potato bread more than six years ago, toward the end of 2012, my inaugural year of Slovenian cooking. It was part of my quest to recreate the homemade white bread of my grandmother, who never used recipes.

My first attempt, early in that year, had been based on a recipe for white bread ("beli kruh") in one of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks. The ingredients were standard, although the process was somewhat lengthy: an initial sponge, followed by three more risings. The result was pleasant but ordinary. Nothing like what I remembered.

Toward the end of that year, I decided to try again. I remembered an offhand remark my mother had made: her mother sometimes used potato water in her bread. Maybe that was the secret! I decided to look for Slovenian potato bread recipes and found a promising one, in a recipe collection by a well-known Slovenian American radio personality in Cleveland named Alice Kuhar. She called it "old-fashioned potato bread" or krompirjev kruh. It was pretty good but--as my mother pointed out--it couldn't compare to her mother's. She was right. It was a little dry and almost too airy, with some very large air holes. But at least I was on the right track.

My mother (on the left) with her mother and brothers, ca. 1930 in Cleveland

Just after Christmas, I decided to try that old-fashioned potato bread one more time. Ironically, the trigger was the addition of a very high-end appliance to my kitchen: a sleek new KitchenAid. It was my very first stand mixer, a gift from our older son and his girlfriend. I had been secretly wanting one for a few years, although I hadn't told a soul.

But I have to admit it: I was intimidated by that imposing lime green machine. And a little ambivalent, as you can see in the photo below. I worried that it might be cheating to use a big fancy machine for what I thought should be a hands-on experience. But then I reminded myself: Stand mixers have been around for a long time. My mother always had one, even if it wasn't a fancy model. Stand mixers were introduced for home use in 1919, not long after they were adopted by commercial bakeries, so it is possible that even my grandmother had one at some point. The lightweight portable electric mixers actually came later.

For my maiden voyage with the KitchenAid, I decided to start out with something relatively easy, a quick bread. I ended up with a delectable loaf made with over-ripened holiday gift pears and fresh ginger. Now I was ready to tackle a yeast bread. It seemed like the perfect time to try that potato bread again.

This time, I decide to look at some resources in Slovene. I found many online recipes for krompirjev kruh (potato bread.) Some were virtually identical to the Alice Kuhar recipe I had found five years earlier. Several had interesting twists, like molasses instead of sugar, as one food blogger suggested. I noticed that most of these Slovenian recipes specified a round or oval free form loaf. A few included a sprinkle of sesame seeds on top.

So I used my earlier recipe, cut down by half, as the foundation, with a few changes: A generous addition of molasses. Greek yogurt thinned with a little milk, rather than sour milk. Instead of bread flour, I used my standard all-purpose flour, which is organic and unbleached. (I doubt that my grandmother used special bread flour.) And even though I had warm memories of her crusty rectangular loaves emerging from well-used bread pans, I decided to forego that in favor of a hand-formed round with sesame seeds on top.

Once I got past the intimidation factor, I discovered the magic of the stand mixer, especially when it includes a dough hook. With the KitchenAid, the whole process was faster, neater, and easier to manage, especially with a slightly sticky dough like this one. And even with a fancy mixer, bread making still requires a certain amount of satisfying hand-kneading and shaping.

On to the real question: How did this new potato bread turn out?

Slovenian Potato Bread (krompirjev kruh), version #2

Maybe it was the changes to the recipe. Or maybe it was that new stand mixer. But the third time was definitely the charm. The potato bread was delicious! This time, it had a more even crumb, with a texture that was both velvety and substantial. If I closed my eyes, I could even imagine I was eating my grandmother's white bread, instead of the light tan loaf I had crafted.

I was sorry that I could no longer offer my mother a taste and ask her to weigh in. She died almost a year ago. It seems fitting that I am posting this recipe today, on February 1st. Her birthday.

I think she would have liked this latest attempt, although I am sure she would remind me that my grandmother's famous white bread was never darkened with even the faintest tinge of molasses, no matter how tasty it might be.

Now it occurs to me what the final step in this bread journey will be: Making this recipe with honey. That would retain the satisfying moist texture and slight sweetness, while restoring the familiar white color of my grandma's famous homemade bread.

Krompirjev Kruh (Slovenian potato bread)

Krompirjev Kruh or Slovenian Potato Bread

3/4 cup water
1 small or 1/2 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup thinned yogurt (or buttermilk or sour milk)
2 tablespoons molasses
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 3-1/4 cups unbleached white flour
1 packages dry yeast.

Peel and cube the potato and cook in boiling water in covered pot until tender. Without draining, mash the potato pieces in the cooking water.  Measure the mixture, adding more water if necessary so that the total amount comes to about 7/8 cup.

Put the mashed potato-water mixture back in the pot, along with the thinned yogurt, molasses, butter, and salt. Combine ingredients until butter is melted.  Heat or cool to allow mixture to reach 120-130 degrees--or warm but not hot.

Combine yeast with 1 cup of the flour in large mixing bowl. When the potato mixture is the proper temperature, add it to the bowl. Beat with electric mixer at low speed for 30 seconds.  Scrape bowl to make sure mixture is well combined.  Beat at high speed for 3 minutes.  Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can with a large spoon. Then turn the mixture onto floured surface and begin kneading in the rest of the flour.

According to the recipe, you should knead in enough flour to "make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic," a process that should take 6 to 8 minutes.  Form the dough into a ball.  Place it in a large oiled bowl, turning over to oil the top. Cover and let sit in a warm place for  45-60 minutes, or until doubled.

Punch dough down. Turn out onto floured surface and knead briefly. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Form the dough into a round, brush with egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Let rise again in a warm place until almost doubled.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until done.  If loaf begin to get too brown, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes.


Note: Although these directions are based on old-fashioned hand-kneading, I did use my new stand mixer to make this version of potato bread. It worked beautifully! If you do use a stand mixer, follow the manufacturer's instructions for the proper attachment use, mixer speed, and timing. Low speed and shorter kneading times are usually the rule. Good luck!

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies: Long Overdue!

This post is long overdue, although not as belated as my discovery of this new holiday favorite!

Last December, I finally took a chance on Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies, when I found myself with a bare pantry and a few more post-Christmas potluck gatherings to attend. After years of dismissing this recipe as just another sheet pan cookie, I made a surprising discovery. This "cookie" turns out to be a rich pastry, with a shortbread base, a layer of jelly or jam, and a crunchy meringue nut topping. It is elegant, unusual, and easy to prepare for a crowd. It keeps well. In other words, a perfect holiday sweet.

So why had it taken me so long to give it a try?

I'll admit it: I was put off by the name. "Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies"? It sounded so dated--and generic. One more example of that all-too-common vagueness about the people and traditions of southeast Europe. I figured this was just another version of an all-American bar cookie, probably from a Betty Crocker cookbook, with the addition of an exotic name that was supposed to provide a whiff of the mysterious Balkans.

A little research paints a more complicated picture.

Virtually identical recipes, called Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies--or Jam Bars--or Dream Bars--can be found all over the Internet. The most recent flurry of interest may date from a 2008 recipe for Yugoslavian Squares that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, in an article by noted food writer Amanda Hesser. She was profiling a San Francisco home baker, whose recipe was an adaptation from a 1958 issue of Sunset Magazine. I found an even earlier reference to the same recipe: a 1952 Sunset Magazine publication called "Cooking with a Foreign Accent."

So it is clear that this recipe has been in circulation for more than sixty years. But is it actually rooted in the former Yugoslavia?

I did find near-identical recipes for Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies in two of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks: a 1981 edition of the classic Pots and Pans, as well as the more obscure Kuharice iz Willarda/ Cooking from Willard (WI), where it is included in the Slovenian recipes section that opens the book. When I turned to a contemporary Slovenian source (Kulinarika), I found just a single recipe for suhi kolači ("dry cakes") that was similar, though without the jelly layer.

A number of online sources provide anecdotal evidence of Yugoslav roots. Sometimes the recipe is attributed to an elderly aunt or a neighbor who came from Croatia, the most common location mentioned. Or Serbia or Bosnia. Or even (once or twice) Slovenia. And then there is this recipe for Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies, which cites a 1987 book by Sharon Herbst, called The Joy of Cookies, where the origins are said to be Croatian or Bosnian and the original name is given as docci bohai or bojai--which turns out to be untranslatable!

So the origins remain a mystery, although the evidence seems strong that it was based on some remembered tradition from the former Yugoslavia. For me, it's enough to know that this recipe shows up in my vintage ethnic cookbooks. Another point in its favor: My Slovenian-born language teacher really liked it!

Update: The consensus on Facebook among members of the Slovenian Genealogy Group: This recipe is not Slovenian in origin, although several people reported Croatian friends or relatives who make it. The funniest discovery: in the Balkans, these pastries are widely known as London Bars ("štanglice Londenske") or simply Londoners!

Yugoslavian Christmas Cookies

1 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
dash of salt
2-1/2 cups flour
1 cup red currant jelly (or other tart red jelly or jam)
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup finely ground walnuts
1 teaspoon lemon extract (or vanilla or almond)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

Cream butter and sugar, add egg yolk and salt. Lightly mix in flour to form a crumbly shortbread dough. Pat dough into the bottom of a jelly roll pan (11x16") or a 9 x13" pan. Mix jelly or jam with fork to soften, then spread evenly on dough. Beat egg whites, add sugar and flavoring and beat until stiff, then fold in nuts. Spread meringue layer over dough. Sprinkle with optional nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, depending on size of pan. Cut while warm with a serrated knife. (Don't worry when the meringue shatters--just press it into the jelly layer below!)

Notes: Most recipes call for lemon extract, but I have also used almond extract, which I think has a more subtle flavor. Feel free to vary the quantity of nuts in the meringue (some recipes call for just 1/4 cup) and on top. I prefer the larger jelly roll pan, but have used both sizes.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A Spicy New Honey Cake for a Sweeter New Year

Last fall, I didn't make honey cake for the Jewish holidays. It was a sad season that marked the beginning of a very hard year. First, the death of my mother Alice in February. Five months later, the death of my father-in-law Murray, who is remembered on this blog for his kreplach and gedempte chicken recipes. And in the last month, we have faced a few more family health challenges.

And so I return to this blog, after an absence of many months. And once again it is time to make honey cake for Rosh Hashanah--and to hope for a sweeter new year for all of us.

The last time I made honey cake, two years ago, an unusual recipe for honey cake had started making the rounds of Jewish publications. The year before, I had finally arrived at a recipe for what I called the Best-ever Jewish Honey Cake. It was an adaptation of a recipe from the great food writer Claudia Roden. Except for a slight cosmetic problem (sinkholes in the middle) I couldn't have asked for anything better. But now this new recipe, and the story behind it, had caught my eye.

The recipe was the creation of Lior Lev Sercarz, owner of a high-end spice store in New York City and author of two cookbooks. This Israeli-born chef and spice expert wanted to capture the flavors of his childhood, so he made a few changes to the traditional holiday sweet that is strongly rooted in the Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jewish tradition.

California honey, Israeli date syrup (silan), Slovenian honey (med) 
The most striking change? Instead of honey, Sercarz used a Middle Eastern ingredient that was new to me: silan, otherwise known as date honey or date syrup. He used olive oil to evoke memories of his father's olive groves near the Sea of Galilee. For the liquid, he added pomegranate juice instead of coffee or tea. Finally, he departed from the familiar mild "sweet spice" blend that is used in European baking, consisting mostly of cinnamon, along with touches of other spices. Instead, he used his own unique spice blends, with exotic names (like Rheims #39 and Yemen #10) and precise formulas that were only hinted at on his website. For those who had to rely on their own more modest spice collections, he suggested a simple alternative: a tablespoon of whole anise seed with smaller amounts of ginger and nutmeg.

I tried his recipe twice. Once with good Slovenian honey and once with a jar of date syrup I found in a local Middle Eastern grocery. The honey loaf was quite good, with a sharp anise flavor and a nice light texture, although my husband preferred the slightly richer and moister version from the previous year. The version with date syrup was less successful, perhaps because I used coffee instead of pomegranate juice and had to use a little rye flour when I ran out of white. The sprinkle of sesame seeds on top was a nice touch. And these loaves didn't sink at all, as you can see from the photo below.

After all that experimenting, I concluded that we still preferred Claudia Roden's honey cake recipe as a foundation, sinkholes and all. But I really liked the sharper and more complex flavor Lior Lev Sercarz created with pomegranate juice and anise. The best solution seemed to be a compromise. I put the two together and finally came up with the recipe below, which seems to be the best of both worlds, Eastern European with a touch of the Middle East.

L'Shana Tova!

Spicy Jewish Honey Cake  ( Claudia Roden meets Lior Lev Sercarz)

2 large eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (part or all olive oil)
1 cup honey (or silan/date syrup)
2 T. rum
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. nutmeg 
1-1/2 t. ginger
1 T. whole anise seed
1-2 t. baking powder (use less to avoid sinkholes!) 
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
optional: mix in 1/2 cup broken walnuts 1/3 cup cranberries/apricots or other fruit
optional: sprinkle with sesame seeds after baking

First, prepare pans. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil, then oil and dust with flour. Or use three small loaf pans, 3 x 7 inches, oiled and lined with parchment paper. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a small bowl, toss walnuts and dried fruit in a little flour to coat. Set aside. 

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, and pomegrante juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth. Finally, fold in the optional nuts and dried fruits.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake at 350 degrees until top is firm and springs back when touched, about 45 minutes for small loaf pans for 1 hour and 15 minutes for a large spring form pan. Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two before slicing and eating.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

"Grade A" Potato Salad: An Exercise in Translation and Cooking

This is a "by the book" recipe. But not the kind of book you'd expect.

I discovered it in Naprej pa v slovenščini, the new textbook we have been using in this year's language class at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco.

According to the textbook authors, this recipe originally appeared on a Slovenian culinary portal (perhaps and includes commentary from the website users. One Slovenian reader noted that even though the recipe seemed similar to a “French salad” (because of the mayonnaise and mustard?) it was still very good and deserved a clear “petica”—a 5, which means a grade of A in the Slovenian marking system.

from Naprej pa v slovenščini
After preparing the recipe twice, I agree. As one of the website users commented, it is “njami njami" (yummy) :-) The salad strikes me as a hybrid. Perhaps not the traditional Slovenian-style potato salad with unadorned oil-and-vinegar dressing, but definitely not the heavy, sweet mayonnaise version that many Americans serve.

The original Slovene recipe is below. It is followed by my English translation and measurement conversions, along with a few other thoughts about this "Grade A" potato salad recipe.

Dober Tek!

Krompirjeva solata


1 kg krompirja
20 dag kislih kumaric
2 jajci
1 žlica gorčice
3 žlice majoneze
3 stroki česna


Skuhajte cel krompir ter še vročega olupite in narežite v
skledo za solato. Posolite, dodajte olje in premešajte. Ohlajenemu krompiru dodajte drobno nasekljane kisle kumarice, poper, gorčico, majonezo, narezana jajca in stisnjen ali nasekljan  česen ter kis po okusu. Vse skupaj premešajte in postrezite kot prilogo k ribam ali mesu.

“Grade A” Potato Salad (my translation)


1 kg of potatoes (2.2 pounds)
20 dag (200 g or 1-1/4 cups) of sour cucumbers (i.e., pickles)
2 eggs
1 tablespoon of mustard
3 tablespoons of mayonnaise
3 cloves of garlic


Cook whole potatoes and when still hot peel and slice into a salad bowl. Salt, add oil and mix. To cooled potatoes, add finely chopped pickles, pepper, mustard, mayonnaise, sliced eggs and pressed or chopped garlic and vinegar to taste. Mix all together and serve as a side dish to fish or meat.

Potato salad with sausage and sauerkraut

More thoughts:

Like so many traditional recipes, this one assumes that the reader already knows how to cook. Not everything is spelled out. (Obviously, those eggs need to be hard-cooked before slicing!) Quantities of oil, vinegar, salt and pepper are unspecified and must be adjusted to taste, especially after the salad has been resting in the refrigerator for some time and the dressing has been absorbed.

For a little more detail about what I did: I used medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, olive oil, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard, and French cornichon pickles. The first time around, I left the potatoes unpeeled and made no attempt to measure the oil and vinegar. The second time, when I made a double recipe for the "end-of-year" party of my Slovenian class, I made a few changes. I peeled the potatoes after boiling (as the recipe directs) and decided to measure the initial quantities of oil and vinegar I used. A good "ballpark" figure might be to start with 1/4 cup oil and 1/8 cup vinegar, but you really do need to adjust according to your own preference. (Personally, I like a tart salad.)

I considered using some pumpkin seed oil but was afraid the salad would be oddly green. My husband had the bright idea of drizzling a little pumpkin seed oil on top. We tried that at home and it was a nice touch.
Potato salad with a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gathering with Intention: A Dinner to Remember My Mother

In February, two days after my mother died, I called the spiritual care counselor from the Hospice team, just to talk a little.

She is what used to be called a chaplain. My mother got to know her several years before entering hospice care. She is a warm and open-minded woman, a little younger than I. We shared a liberal Protestant background that had shifted for both of us--in her case, into something more broadly spiritual and harder to categorize. She appreciated my mother's feisty spirit. And she continued to visit even as the cloud of dementia settled over her.

It helped me to talk to the counselor. But I was caught off guard when she asked whether the family had "made any plans" for later in the week.

I had just told her how touched I was that our sons, who live in New York and Toronto, had decided to fly to California to spend the rest of the week with us. My mother hadn't wanted a traditional funeral. We hoped to have a family gathering and scattering of ashes at a botanic garden in Chicago, where my sister and her family still lived. But that wouldn't happen until the summer.

The counselor kept nudging. But what about this week?

I assured her that we would have at least one dinner with my brother, who also lives in the San Francisco Bay area. We always do that when our sons visit. My sister and her husband had recently spent almost a week with us, earlier in the month, around the time of our mother's ninety-fifth birthday. So we had all been together recently, even if the visits had been spread out.

February 1st, 95th Birthday Flowers
The counselor thought something more was needed. When someone dies, she believed, the family needs to "gather with intention." It might be for a ceremony, a religious ritual, or simply a special dinner. What actually happens is less important than making a commitment to be together, in order to mark the passing of the loved one.

I realized this wise woman was probably right. I picked a date for the family dinner: Friday, three days away. I told my husband, the boys and my brother. I told my sister, just in case she and her husband could fly back to join us.

And I requested that everyone contribute something, food or drink, that we associated with my mother.

The result was an eclectic dinner, built around family favorites from different seasons of our lives. Rooted in a simpler time and reflective of a certain mid-century middle American sensibility, with a few European flourishes.

This was not haute cuisine. Sour cream onion dip served with potato chips. A collapsed Bisquick meat roll that never made it to the table. Waldorf salad and spanakopita. Tapioca pudding and poppy seed kifli. A once-popular Portuguese wine.

But every bite, every sip, evoked memories of the past, along with a complicated mix of feelings. Love and loss. Relief and regret. Nostalgia and laughter. The honey on the thorn, as the once-famous Slovenian writer Louis Adamic would have called it.

As we sat down to dinner, one of our sons proposed a toast, his glass filled with the special Spanish sparkling wine my mother preferred for festive occasions.

"To Grandma," he said.

To my mother.

To Alice.

My mother (second from left) and her friends,
Kent State University, near Cleveland, 1941

A Nostalgic Dinner To Remember My Mother

Wines: Mateus Rosé and Freixenet

Potato Chips with Sour Cream Onion Dip
Failed Bisquick Meat Roll
Spanakopita (Greek Spinach Cheese Pie)
Waldorf Salad on Lettuce
Tapioca Pudding
Poppy Seed Kifli

For their contributions to the meal, my husband and sons immediately thought of wine.

For my husband, the choice was clear: Mateus Rosé. When he first met my family, this was one of the two "fancy wines" (the other was Lancer's) that my parents served for special dinners. They weren't alone. In the early 1970s, according to this recent article, this was the most popular wine in the world. Although a wine snob might be dismissive, these days some experts think the time might be ripe for a Mateus revival.

My mother loved that wine, probably because it tasted sweet and looked elegant in the distinctive round glass bottle. She always stumbled over the pronunciation of the Portuguese name, which came out sounding like Matt'-ee-us. When my husband and I got married in my parents' backyard, this was the wine the rabbi offered us during the ceremony, from that small green bottle in the photo below.

Our sons selected another family wine classic, from a slightly later era: Freixenet--or "bubbly," as my mother often called it, perhaps to circumvent the tricky pronunciation. My parents' discovery of this affordable alternative to champagne wasn't just a lucky accident. In the 1970s, the Spanish winemaker began to promote it with a series of ads featuring celebrities. By the 1980s, Freixenet had become the world's most popular sparkling wine, according to the company website.

To accompany the pre-dinner wine, I decided to offer another vintage favorite: Potato chips with that ever-popular dip created by mixing sour cream with a packet of onion soup mix, assuming such a thing still existed. I was amused to discover that our local natural foods grocery carried a product that looked just like the soup base I remembered but dropped any pretense about the intended use. It was clearly marked as an all-natural organic onion dip mix. I thought it was tasty, although no one else seemed especially eager to indulge in this guilty pleasure.  

I wasn't sure what my brother planned to contribute. I found out late that morning, when he e-mailed a photo of his attempt at a childhood favorite from our early Cleveland days: Bisquick Meat Roll. Unfortunately, the loaf collapsed when he removed it from the oven. (I don't know what he was doing with that folding rack, since our mother always baked and served this homey concoction from a flat baking pan.) I thought it could be salvaged as a casserole. From a distance, my sister thought it looked "yummy," like a meaty bread pudding. But my brother didn't think it would survive the journey on the train, so he left it at home.

Fortunately, I had already decided on another main course: Spinach cheese pie. But instead of zeljanica, the ex-Yugoslav version I'd been making lately, I wanted to return to Greek spanakopita. That festive party dish became a favorite in my family in the 1960s, after we moved from Cleveland to Chicago, where there was a thriving Greek community and a popular West Loop restaurant district known as Greektown.

I looked for an easy but authentic recipe and found this one, with an uncooked filling the blogger described as "quick and dirty." It was a simple mixture of thawed frozen spinach, eggs, feta cheese, fresh parsley, dill, and chopped onion, with olive oil instead of melted butter used to brush the phyllo leaves. It turned out well. Just as I recalled, Greek spanakopita is denser, less custardy, and more aromatic than zeljanica.

For the salad course, I picked my mother's favorite: Waldorf salad, so sweet and rich that it could double as dessert. My mother was a true connoisseur. She considered dates an essential ingredient and always threatened to talk to the chef when the restaurant at her retirement community "forgot" them. We grew up on her version: Cubed McIntosh apples and bits of dates, combined with crunchy walnuts and slices of celery, and then bound together with generous amounts of Kraft's Miracle Whip salad dressing.

The original recipe, created by a Swiss chef at New York's Waldorf-Astoria in 1896, was more minimalist than than any of us realized: Just apples, celery, and mayonnaise, served over lettuce. It quickly became an American classic. It even shows up in my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks. For this dinner, I made it my mother's way, but with a few twists: toasted walnuts, real mayonnaise with a touch of pomegranate syrup, served on a bed of romaine lettuce. I was surprised at how tasty it was.

For dessert, I resurrected another old-fashioned favorite my mother loved. Tapioca pudding. My mother always made the fluffy version, from the recipe on the red Kraft Minute Tapioca box. I used to watch her pour the warm eggy custard into the big yellow pyrex bowl of stiffly beaten egg whites and carefully fold everything together. As a special treat, we got to sample a spoon or two while it was still warm. It might be nursery food, but it was wonderful.

As a child, it never occurred to me to worry about those little white globules of uncooked meringue bobbing in the golden yellow pudding. By current standards, however, it struck me as a little risky. So I was relieved to discover that the current Kraft recipe for Fluffy Tapioca Cream does it the other way around, by stirring the beaten egg whites into the warm custard. Timid cooks might want to do this on the stove, so the mixture continues to cook. This newer method resulted in a pudding that was a little smoother and lighter, and every bit as delicious as I remembered.

I never considered making potica for our memorial dinner.

It just didn't feel right. I didn't have the time or energy. Or perhaps it was too soon to make something that was so intimately tied to my mother. And she only baked potica at Christmas.

But I did want to include something of her Slovenian heritage. So I decided to bake some yeast kifli, a recent discovery that I had dubbed "potica babies" because they reminded me of miniature versions of our treasured holiday bread. Since I was pressed for time, I decided to look for a food processor version. I found a recipe, much like the one I had made twice before, except for the addition of a little sugar in the dough.

Strangely, these short-cut kifli, prepared at a time when I felt so sad and preoccupied, were the most successful yet.

I think my mother would have liked these delicate little pastry-cookies, even with poppy seeds in the filling instead of walnuts. (In true potica, of course, that would have been an unacceptable lapse!)