Thursday, December 5, 2019

Medenjaki: Slovenian Honey Spice Cookies for the Holidays

                                       

On our recent trip to Slovenia, bees and honey seemed to be everywhere. My husband and I saw old-fashioned beehives displayed in museums. We sampled honey in the Central Market. And we had the great pleasure of meeting the beekeeper father of my chef friend Mateja. (You'll be hearing about her amazing restaurant in a future post!)

Old Beehive







We returned home with plenty of honey-related souvenirs. Among them was a half-eaten package of medenjaki, the simple honey cookies we had also enjoyed on a previous trip. This popular treat is usually described as "gingerbread" in English, but the mild flavor seemed much closer to a British tea biscuit than to the much sweeter American style, in which the flavors of molasses and ginger seem to dominate. I wondered about those fancier versions of medenjaki, often shaped into hearts and elaborately decorated, that we had seen in the market and in tourist shops but had never actually tasted.


I had tried to make medenjaki five years earlier during the holiday season, but I wasn't satisfied with the results. So I decided to try again this year, a few days before the annual Christmas party at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco.

For guidance, I drew on two cooking authorities, one American and one Slovenian.

My first step was to turn to the Slovenian Union of America (formerly the Slovenian Women's Union of America), the venerable organization that put together Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, the classic mid-century cookbook that inspired my own culinary journey. Last year, the SUA also gave me the great honor of being the first recipient of their new Literary Award. (Submissions are now open for 2020!)

The SUA recipe for medenjaki, which can be viewed on the organization's website, was contributed by president Mary Lou Voelk. Her instructions are clear and detailed and her enthusiasm is contagious.

But then I discovered the Ana Roš recipe posted on the "I Feel Slovenia" tourist website, which has a whole section devoted to the country's rich tradition of beekeeping. I could not pass up a chance to try what the Slovenian government declares are "the world’s best female chef’s favourite honey biscuits." Unfortunately, this celebrity chef's recipe, while intriguing, offers minimalist instructions.

As you might expect, the Slovenian recipe is somewhat less rich than the American version (more flour and less egg, butter and sugar.) It also calls for baking soda instead of baking powder for leavening. The biggest difference, however, seems to be in the flavorings. The SUA recipe uses familiar sweet spices (cinnamon, cloves nutmeg) along with orange zest. Ana Roš, on the other hand, skips the citrus but puts together an interesting and less usual spice combination that I was eager to try: cardamom and anise, along with the familiar cinnamon and cloves. Note that neither one includes ginger!

So I created a hybrid. Somewhere in between the American and Slovenian recipes in terms of richness, with Ana Roš's intriguing flavorings and Mary Lou Voelk's clear approach to preparation and baking.

The medenjaki turned out very well: Just sweet enough and with a distinctive flavor from the spices, which sets them apart from conventional American gingerbread cookies. I am happy to report that they were well-received at the Christmas party, with nothing left at the end of the evening but an empty container. Fortunately, I had some left at home, but I suspect I'll be making another batch before the year is over!

Happy baking!




Medenjaki (Slovenian Honey Spice cookies)

1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
1 cup white sugar
1 egg
3-1/2 cups flour (approx.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon anise

Optional glaze: 1 egg white beaten with 2 teaspoons water


In a saucepan, warm up the butter and honey over medium heat until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar until dissolved. Set aside to cool. When cool, beat in the egg.

While the liquid mixture is cooling, prepare the spice mixture. If using whole spices, grind with a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder. Combine spices in a small bowl.

Sift spice mixture, baking soda and flour into a large bowl, Pour liquid mixture into the flour mixture and stir well until dough forms a ball. Knead briefly, wrap and refrigerate for an hour or two.

To make cut-out shapes, roll to a thickness of 1/4 inch (or a little thicker if desired) and cut out. Brush with egg white glaze. If using a mold, you might want to add a little more flour. Easiest of all: shape dough  into walnut-sized balls, rolled in granulated sugar, and flatten with the bottom of a glass before baking.

Bake on lined baking sheets at 325-350 degrees for 10-17 minutes. Watch carefully. The timing will depend on the thickness of the dough and on whether you are aiming for a cake-like texture or something closer to a crisp gingersnap.

Makes a large quantity!












Friday, November 8, 2019

Home Again: Millet Porridge with Prunes






















Exactly two weeks ago we returned home to California. And I feel homesick for Slovenia.

Every night, I have traveling dreams. Sometimes I am back in Slovenia. Other nights, the settings are unfamiliar. Or it turns into time travel, where I am joined by my late parents or the little boy versions of my adult sons.

How to weather this difficult transition? As always, food is part of the answer.

When we dismantled our temporary Ljubljana kitchen, the perishables went to our friends Silvia and Rick who lived across the street. We made a point of finishing up the small bottle of fiery Kamnik-style slivovica (it's flavored with pine needles!) our friends Tina and Miha had given us. But my husband was convinced that we could bring some of our supplies back to California. I had my doubts, but he managed to pack everything up and carry it through US customs. (I didn't ask too many questions!)

You can see some of our haul in the photo below. Potica from the amazing restaurant run by my friend Mateja (more about her in a future post) and the remains of a loaf of walnut bread from a wonderful Ljubljana bakery called Osem. An unopened package of instant buckwheat žganci mix from the nearby grocery store, plus some cinnamon and a cannister of sea salt. We also had some leftover Idrija žlikrofi from a final lunch at a cool food truck called "Stara Šola"--Old School! And from an earlier trip to the Central Market, packages of prunes and millet groats

A little bit of Slovenia in our Berkeley kitchen








Prunes and millet? Yes, you read that right. Those were the two key ingredients in a new dish I tried to make in Ljubljana, with a recipe that was given to me by a lovely woman named Darja, the neighbor of our American friends.

A few days after our arrival, Darja had invited us to her airy apartment for "a coffee." In Slovenia, that translates into more than a warm beverage. It means a nice long visit, with a little food and plenty of conversation. Our hostess served us chestnuts and a friend's homemade cookies, and she sent us away with a jar of her homegrown marigold tea. I don't recall how or why the subject of millet porridge came up, but she e-mailed me a recipe for it the next day.

In Ljubljana with Darja (she's on the left)
Millet porridge with prunes is a traditional Slovenian dish. I had seen a number of recipes for it, including one on the government's tourist website. It is a hearty dish that can be served for breakfast or as a dessert. I had never tasted it and was not really tempted to try it. Although I had used millet in Slovenian cooking, the dishes had always been savory ones. And I never did have much use for prunes, aside from a few traditional Jewish recipes.

But Darja's recipe looked simple enough and it actually sounded appealing: Millet, prunes, cinnamon, and honey, simmered in milk. I figured the only challenge would be to make sure the milk didn't scorch. I decided to give it a try.

Somewhere along the way, things went wrong. Suddenly the milk began to separate, as though I was making fresh curd cheese.
Version one, made in Ljubljana
The porridge ended up dense and dark, with white granular lumps that weren't just grains of millet. Along with the texture problem, the sweetness was overpowering, even though I had added just a tablespoon of honey.

"Just pretend it's curds and whey," I urged my husband.

But he wasn't convinced. So I was the only one who continued to eat my special porridge for breakfast, in very small portions.

A day or two later, when I told Darja what happened, she had an immediate reaction:

"Was the milk bad?"

Since she used to work as a food safety inspector, the question was an obvious one. No, I didn't think so. I suggested another possibility: Perhaps that good Slovenian honey was acidic enough to curdle boiling milk.



"The honey?" She sounded puzzled. "But you don't add that until afterward."

Ah-ha. So that was my mistake. "Honey to taste" meant each person adds a drizzle of honey at the table, as desired. Oh, and one more thing: She also used the cut-up prunes "to taste"--which meant less than what the recipe called for.

I thought the dish held promise. Even though my first attempt was flawed, the flavor itself wasn't bad. And maybe the millet and prune combination had contributed to my having felt particularly good during our stay in Slovenia, with none of those digestive upsets that often plague international travelers. The two foods offer some important health benefits. Both are high in fiber, as well as other vitamins and minerals. Millet, technically a seed rather than a grain, is gluten-free and high in protein.

So a few mornings after our return to California, I tried again. I incorporated Darja's tips, using fewer prunes--and no honey during the cooking. I also added an initial step that some other recipes suggest and perhaps is supposed to go without saying: I washed and drained the millet before cooking. I cut the recipe in half, just in case I had another disaster. And I waited anxiously for the moment when the milk would start to curdle.


The dreaded moment never came. I don't know what made the difference, but this time the porridge was a success. No curdling and no excessive sweetness. Just hearty comfort food, with the nutty taste of millet balanced by the mild sweetness of prunes, honey, snd cinnamon--and by the even sweeter memories of people and places that no longer felt so far away.






Millet Porridge with Prunes  (Prosena kaša s suhimi slivami)

1 cup plus 3-4 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons dry millet
2 prunes (more if desired)
pinch salt
generous pinch of cinnamon
1 teaspoon honey (or to taste)

And salt to milk and slowly bring to a boil. While the milk is heating, rinse and drain the millet and cut the prunes into small pieces. When milk reaches boiling point add millet, prunes and cinnamon. Lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring periodically. Divide into two dishes and drizzle with a little honey. Serve with more milk or yogurt. Makes one generous serving--or two servings, for timid Americans :-)


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Greetings from our Little Ljubljana Kitchen!


Greetings from Slovenia! 

It was a cool morning today and a lovely warm afternoon. Now it is getting cooler again as we prepare for a final dinner at the nearby apartment of some American expat friends.

Sadly, our temporary kitchen will have to be dismantled tomorrow morning, when my husband and I fly back home to California.

Looking out the window at the Trnovo Church 



Along the Ljubjanica River 

We have spent twelve days in this beautiful city, with day trips to a few other places. It has been a wonderful time with some memorable food adventures. I will be writing about them in the coming weeks. We have made daily visits to the Central Market. We have enjoyed two truly remarkable restaurant meals--and everything else has been very good.

It must be possible to have a bad meal in Slovenia. But we have yet to find it!

Trnovo Church at Night

The Dragon Bridge 


We made good use of the kitchen in the cozy attached house we rented in Ljubljana's charming Trnovo district. For breakfast, we always ate in. We took full advantage of the wonderful Slovenian breads we found in bakeries and the nearby farmers' market:

Breakfast at home: Buckwheat Bread, Walnut Bread, Potica 




During the days, we were always on the ago, so we ate out. But in the evening. when we weren't eating with friends, we had supper at home--usually prepared by my husband.

My one kitchen venture was a diappointment.

I attempted to prepare a traditional dish, using the recipe a new Slovenian friend gave me. Millet and prunes, cooked in milk, with a little cinnamon and honey. What could go wrong with that?




That is a story for another time!














Friday, October 11, 2019

Little Honey Cakes for the Harried (Microwaved in a Mug!)



I have never been tempted to make one of those microwaved mug cakes that have become so popular.

But this year the Jewish holidays crept up on me, and I found myself searching for a last-minute version of the traditional honey cake I make every year and continue to tinker with. The Internet offered up one suggestion that surprised me: an applesauce-honey cake in a mug, for those who would be celebrating the Jewish New Year alone.

Well, I wasn't alone--and I am something of a purist when it comes to traditional Jewish honey cake. So at first I dismissed it. But I was feeling pretty harried. Our washer had just been fixed after a two week ordeal and now we were facing power outages in the SF Bay Area. On top of that, my husband and I were getting set to leave for our third trip to Slovenia in just a few days, so I didn't want to create leftovers. A fast mug cake for two started to look more appealing.

So I made the reluctant decision to jump on the bandwagon. There were plenty of honey mug cake recipes available. Most of them were just like this one, which includes some nice photos. Oddly, not even the applesauce-honey version that was explicitly aimed at the Jewish holidays included any of the spices that I consider a hallmark of a traditional honey cake.

So I made a few changes to what seemed to be the standard recipe. I added some traditional honey cake spices: cinnamon, cloves and ginger, along with some vanilla. I also ended up adding an extra tablespoon or two of flour. The batter seemed too runny without it, perhaps because I had used an extra-large egg. And I wanted to be sure the finished product would have the texture of  a cake rather than the soft/sticky/gooey pudding some of the bloggers described.

I also took the suggestion of one online baker and divided the batter into two custard cups instead of the larger mug:



I was very skeptical--and apologetic when my husband discovered what I was doing. But this was really good. Even he liked it!

In both taste and texture, this little cake came much closer to the traditional version than I could have imagined. It was very rich--and light. I served the honey cake in little slices, as you can see from the photos. Unlike the traditional loaf, it tasted good after a short period of cooling--and just fine after a night in the fridge.

A microwaved honey cake will not brown and it will never have the deep, slightly caramelized flavor of one that is conventionally baked. So I figured that the next time I tried this, I might deepen the flavor by using darker honey and perhaps a little molasses to replace part of the brown sugar. I might also cut the sugar, since the cake was quite sweet.

(Update: two days later, I decided to try that first recipe I had found. Along with the applesauce, it involved a few other key differences: no added fat, less sugar--and baked in a single mug. It came out like a dense and rubbery hockey puck! So I recommend sticking to the standard recipe, including the small changes I made here.)

To those who are celebrating: Happy New Year!  L'Shana Tova!


Honey Cake in a Mug

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons flour, more if needed.
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
pinch of ginger and cloves
pinch of salt

In a small dish, melt butter in microwave. Add honey and beat with a fork. Add egg, brown sugar, and vanilla and mix well. Scoop flour into a measuring cup and mix in baking powder and spices.
Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until smooth, adding another tablespoon of flour if mixture seems too liquid.

(Alternative approach to mixing favored by many: Just dump it all in a mug and mix! I haven't tried it this way.)

Pour batter into two lightly greased ramekins--or a single mug if you insist--and place parchment paper on top.  Microwave for 90 seconds and check cake Microwave for an additional 50 or so seconds until cake is firm.  Let cool on a rack and unmold.





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?