Sunday, March 30, 2014

Murray's Kreplach, The New Old-Fashioned Way

I posted the recipe for Murray's Famous Chicken-Beef Kreplach almost two years ago. Although I incorporated some of my father-in-law's seasoning suggestions when I made žlikrofi, the Slovenian version of the dish, I had never actually followed his complete recipe.

Murray's recipe is labor intensive.  It begins with poaching the chicken and stewing the beef.  No shortcuts in this recipe, so I would have to devote an entire day to making kreplach.

I needed something else: a hand-cranked meat grinder, to replace the one my mother had passed along to me.  She had used it to prepare the meat filling for her own version of kreplach, which was probably based on the Slovenian žlikrofi my grandmother made.  Sadly, I had lost track of that old treasure.  So I was on the lookout for a new one.  I did find one old meat grinder at a fancy antique store, but I balked at the thirty-five dollar price tag.

Finally, about a month ago, I wandered into a yard sale down the block.  And there it was: A hand-cranked meat grinder.  Old, a little rusty, but with all the parts.  A bargain at six dollars.

The time for Murray's Kreplach had arrived.

I made just a few changes in Murray's recipe. The biggest one?  No added salt.  To compensate, I increased the other seasonings.  I also used oil instead of chicken fat. Since the original recipe is quite large, I cut the quantities in half.

The detailed recipe follows, along with step-by-step photos.

But first, let's cut to the chase:  Was it worth it?

The answer:  Yes, without question.  I had no idea how good this would be. Even without the salt, the meat filling was rich and full of flavor.  It had the deep, earthy tang of chopped liver. I could swear someone had slipped in some schmaltz (chicken fat) when I wasn't looking.

The secret is in the step that Murray calls "making potted beef." Plenty of well-browned onion and a generous hand with the flour and fat leaves you with a rich, flavorful gravy that gets added to the meat filling at the end.  Do not skip this step!

Despite some healthy changes (no salt, oil instead of chicken fat) this is not diet food.  But kreplach are meant to be a ceremonial dish, filled with love and family and memories of the past.  Murray's mother Rose made them once a year, at Rosh Hashanah, and distributed them to her children and grandchildren as a New Year's gift.  Once or twice a year, I figure we can follow her example and do it up right.

Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach (salt-free)



4 oz. boneless chicken breasts
1 lb.  boneless beef chuck or beef stew meat
flour to coat the beef (about 2 T.)
1-1/4 c. chopped onions
oil to brown onions, about 2 T.
1-2 cloves garlic
1/4 t. paprika, with more added to taste
2 T. fresh parsley, with more added to taste
black pepper to taste
salt-free seasoning mix (or salt) to taste


1- 3/4 c. all purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1  T. oil
water, as needed 

Instructions for filling:

Poach chicken breasts in water seasoned with pepper and a little minced garlic.  I added some onion and a bay leaf. Drain and chill.  (Save the liquid for soup!)

Murray refers to this next step as "making potted beef." Cut beef in cubes, coat with flour, and brown on all sides in oil. Remove beef from pan. Using the same pan, brown the onion, adding more oil if needed. When onions are well browned, add beef back to pan. Add 1/2 inch of water, along with pepper, paprika, parsley, garlic and (if desired) salt-free seasoning mix.  Cover and simmer on low heat, adding more liquid if needed, for about an hour, or until beef is tender. Remove from pan and chill.  Be sure to save the onion-sauce mix that remains in the pan.

Cut the chilled chicken into chunks. Use a meat grinder (or, if you must, a food processor) to chop the chicken finely.  Set aside in a bowl.

Place the chilled beef cubes into meat grinder (or food processor) and chop or grind finely.

Combine chopped beef, chopped chicken and the onion-sauce mixture that is left over from potting the beef. If filling doesn't hold together, you can add additional oil or breadcrumbs, but I didn't need either of those. The filling should be strongly flavored, with a texture that is something like a raw meatball mixture, according to Murray. I found to be more like a firm spread that reminded me of chopped liver, in both the texture and the rich, deep flavor. Since the meat is already cooked, you are free to taste and adjust the seasonings.  Because my version was salt-free, I increased the other seasonings.

Instructions for dough, shaping, and final preparation:

The original recipe suggests using a a food processor to mix the dough and a pasta machine for rolling it out.  But I opted for the old-fashioned approach: mixing and rolling by hand. 

For a reminder on how to make egg noodle dough, go here.

Roll the dough into a thin square that is roughly 18 x 18 inches. Cut into three-inch squares. Put a heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of each square.  To shape, I used the simple, traditional approach I learned from my mother:  Fold the square into a triangle and crimp the edges with a fork. (Murray's original recipe, as well as many Slovenian recipes, involve a more complex tortellini shape.)

I ended up with 32 kreplach.  Bring a large pot of water to boil and drop in kreplach.  When they rise to the top, reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.  Drain.  Coat with a little oil and keep warm.

There are many ways to serve kreplach.  In chicken broth.   Plain, topped with a little parsley and browned onions.   Garnished with ajvar and Greek yogurt.  Even fried.

With Murray's kreplach, you can't go wrong!



Making Potted Beef

Grinding Chicken

Ground Beef and Chicken

Shaping the Kreplach
Finished Kreplach

Friday, March 14, 2014

Nut Crescent Cookies, A Childhood Memory Revisited

Nut crescent cookies, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar, were a Christmas mainstay during my childhood. My mother made them, but so did everyone else in Cleveland, so I assumed these rich, delicate treats must be an American standard.

I used to follow a tasting ritual. First, a bite of plain cookie, butter-rich but barely sweet and not at all appealing to my child's palate. Then, a bite of a sugar-dredged crescent, with the aching sweetness on the outside that turned the bland interior into something delectable.  The contrast, and that moment of transformation, always fascinated me.

Eventually, I discovered that this style of cookie or pastry is common to many cultures in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The foundation is a mild shortbread dough, enriched by ground nuts and shaped into crescents or small balls.  In the United States, the cookies are often referred to as Viennese Walnut Crescents, which suggests Central European origins.

I discovered that my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks all had multiple recipes for these cookies, under a variety of names:  Crescents. Kipfel. Kiffel. Kipferlin. Piskoti. Contemporary Slovenian recipes generally use the name rogljički, which tranlates as croissants.

Now I was convinced:  I had discovered one more Slovenian dish my mother had made for us, without revealing its ethnic origins.

I found a likely-looking recipe from my favorite vintage source, The Progressive Slovene Women of America. The type of nut was not specified, although the name, orehovi piskoti, suggests walnuts as the preferred choice.  My mother used either walnuts or pecans. But I decided to use the freshly ground almond meal I already had in the fridge.

For the recipe and the results, read on.

Nut Crescents (Rogljički)

1 c. butter
6 T. sugar
1 t. vanilla or almond extract
2 c. flour
1 c. ground nuts (I used almond meal)
dash of salt (optional; I skipped it)

Cream buttter and sugar.  Add extract.  Mix in flour and then nuts.  Use spoon (or hands) to make a dense and somewhat crumbly dough.  Form into a smooth ball or, for ease of handling, shape into two long rolls.  Cover and chill dough for an hour. Form into walnut sized balls, then roll into 2-1/2 inch strips.  Shape strips into crescents.  Place on parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.  Let cool on sheet before moving, because these cookies are very fragile. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Store carefully.

Makes 30-35.

When I removed the cookies from the baking sheet, they were delicate and fragile. I used a light hand with the sugar: a generous dusting rather than the heavy dredging my mother used to favor.  The snowy crescents looked beautiful.

I repeated the before-and-after tasting ritual from my childhood. No doubt about it:  Nut crescents are much tastier with a sugar coating, even to a more sophisticated adult palate. Although I am a fan of almonds, I suspect that walnuts or pecans might result in a slightly less dry and more flavorful cookie.  That will be my choice the next time I make this easy but sophisticated recipe.

When I gave my mother some of the cookies, I asked her where she had first learned to make them.  From my Slovenian America grandma, perhaps?

No, my mother said.  It was from a magazine she bought, a collection called One Hundred Cookie Recipes. She wasn't sure what had happened to it.

I had an immediate image of that well-used magazine. It must have dated from the early 1950s, since the pages were yellow and brittle when she had passed it along to me, probably thirty years ago. I had no idea what had become of it.

The origin of the cookies?  My mother thought they had become popular because of a recipe that was distributed by the makers of Crisco. I had a disconcerting memory:  the big blue can of pale hydrogenated vegetable fat that used to sit in our kitchen for months on end.  It was the "modern" shortening choice for cooks in the 1950s (and even later) because it didn't need refrigeration, thanks to all that chemical alternation.  These days, Crisco has fallen into disrepute.

So much for my visions of a treasured family recipe.  But I still like to believe these delicate cookies from my childhood carried the hidden flavor of our Slovenian roots.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Buckwheat Ravioli update

I love holiday cooking. But this Christmas, I faced some new challenges.  One visiting son has been vegetarian for the last decade. The other is now following the new "vegan before 6" regimen.  And for the past year, my husband (and I) have been trying to eat a low-salt diet.

For Christmas Eve dinner, I proposed a traditional Slovenian treat I had made more than a year earlier: buckwheat ravioli with cheese-millet filling, otherwise known as ajdovi krapi. Everyone approved.

My husband and I had enjoyed my first version of ajdovi krapi.  There was one small drawback: the all-buckwheat dough hadn't been as pliable and tender as the typical noodle dough.  I had to cut the dough into rough circles and tamp them together.  The end product, although tasty, was what I would call "rustic."   My mother was more blunt: Too dry, she said.

This time, I decided to make a more refined version.  So I used the the same dough that I used to make  buckwheat struklji, here, which combines buckwheat and white wheat flour.

For the filling, I followed my original recipe, here, with two small changes. Instead of salt, I used a salt-free seasoning mix.  And for an added flavor boost, I browned the millet before cooking.

I doubled the filling, to match the larger quantity of pasta dough in that struklji recipe.  (So I did end up with leftover filling.)

It worked beautifully!   Since the dough was more pliable, I was able to shape into folded and crimped triangles, instead of putting two circles of dough together. The end product looked like the zlikrofi or wontons I recalled from childhood.

This may become a regular addition to our holiday table!

To see the original version, with more photos, go here.

Buckwheat Ravioli, updated


1 ½ c. white flour
½ c. buckwheat flour
1 t. salt
2 T olive oil
1 egg
½ cup hot water, plus 2 T more if needed


1 cup millet (dry measure), cooked* and cooled
3 cups farmer cheese or ricotta
1-2 eggs, beaten
salt-free seasoning mix, to taste (or regular salt, if preferred)
fresh parsley to taste, minced

*Tastiest way: brown millet in dry skillet, add 2 cups water, cover and cook until water is absorbed.
(Easiest: add millet to large pot of boiling water, simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, drain.)

First, make the filling: Mix cooked millet, cheese, egg, salt substitute and parsley. Refrigerate.

For the dough:  Sift the flours and salt into a bowl.  Beat the egg and oil together and stir into the flour.  Add enough hot water to make a stiff dough.  Knead dough until smooth and elastic, adding a little more flour if necessary.  Form into a ball and let rest, covered, for 30 minutes.

Roll out the dough on a floured board, thinly, as for noodles. Cut into 3 x 3 inch squares. Place a spoon of filling on one side of rectangle, fold over, and seal edges with the tines of a fork. (Note: This makes a lot of filling, so you will probably have extra. Alternatively, you can cut into large circles and fold over, or you can sandwich 2 smaller circles together.

Drop the ravioli into a large pot of boiling salted water, a few at a time, and cook until done.  Drain and served with buttered breadcrumbs or (our favorite) ajvar and Greek yogurt.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Cevapcici Meatloaf, a Balkan-inspired Original

One night in mid-December, I had an urge for cevapcici, but I was pressed for time.  I didn't want the fuss of shaping and grilling a bunch of little sausages.  I had a brainstorm: Why not turn it into meatloaf?

So I mixed up a double recipe of my salt-free cevapcici. This time, I used a beef-turkey mix instead of lamb.  I also added an egg and a teaspoon of salt-free seasoning mix.

The result?  Instant slice-and-serve cevapcici!  It was an easy shortcut that had the characteristic taste and texture of cevapcici, especially with the traditional garnishes of ajvar (red pepper relish) and Greek yogurt.  It's hard to believe that no one else has thought of this before.

The cevapcici meatloaf made a perfect dinner with some tasty leftovers: two kinds of slaw (kale and cabbage) and my husband's vegi-millet soup.   For an even more traditional dinner, serve with pita or the Serbian flatbread known as lepinja.  (My salt-free version is here.)

The recipe follows.  Feel free to use your own favorite cevapcici mix.  I would recommend that you add an egg and liquid smoke, as I did, to provide some moisture and simulate that "just-grilled" flavor.

Dober tek!

Cevapcici Meatloaf (low sodium)

1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground turkey
6 large cloves garlic, minced
4-6  T. parsley, minced
1  t. cayenne
1 T. smoked paprika
1 T. hot paprika
 1 t.  black pepper
4 T. seltzer water mixed with 1 t. liquid smoke
1 t. no sodium seasoning mix (or 1 t. salt)
1 egg

Mix all all ingredients together.  Form into 1 large loaf or 2 small loaves.  Line rectangular baking pan with foil or parchment paper.  Bake at 350 for 45-60 minutes, depending on size of loaves.  Slice and serve with ajvar and Greek yogurt.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Domači Prijatelj: The New Improved Slovenian Biscotti Recipe (And a New Challenge)

I have been trying to perfect my recipe for domači prijatelj, the Slovenian version of biscotti or mandelbrot.  I like the concept as well as the name, which translates as "domestic friend."  According to some sources, it has a slightly risqué connotation.

I have made a couple of tweaks to my earlier recipes.  This latest version is the best yet, with an airy texture and just the right amount of crunch.

First change: I added the nuts, chocolate, and dried fruit AFTER the flour, rather than before.  It seems to result in a lighter product. Most cooks, Slovenian and otherwise, do suggest this, but I had been intrigued by the couple of recipes that did it the other way around. In this case, I think the majority view is right.  Save the mix-ins until the very end.

Second change: I finally learned the proper Slovenian pronunciation, thanks to a new challenge I have taken on this year. I am (finally) trying to learn the language of my ancestors.

Last week, I enrolled in a Slovenian language class, with a wonderful teacher at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. This step is long overdue. I am the only beginner in the class, so I have some catching up to do, as well as some bad habits to break.

The day before I made biscotti #3, I had been reviewing some practice dialogues from the upcoming week's Slovenian lesson in our textbook. One of the dialogues involved "moj prijatelj Stefan." My friend Stefan. Finally, I thought, a familiar word!

But when I listened to the audio version on the CD, I got a little surprise.  That final "j" in "prijatelj" is silent.  I had been pronouncing it in the usual Slovenian way, like the English "y." This was just one of many fine points of Slovenian pronunciation I had managed to overlook, in my casual attempts to learn a little bit of the language on my own.  

So here is the new improved recipe, to go along with my slowly improving language skills. Eventually, I hope to be able to use Slovenian recipes without the dubious assistance of Google Translate :-) 

Domači Prijatelj (Domestic Friend), The Final Version

3 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
1-2/3 c. flour
1 t. low sodium baking soda and 1 t. cream of tartar (or use 1 t. regular baking powder)
1/2 c. chopped bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1/2 c. sliced almonds
1/4 c. dried cranberries
1/4 c. dried apricots, diced
a little brandy for soaking the fruit (optional)
1 t. vanilla extract and/or 1 t. almond extract
lemon rind, grated
cinnamon (optional)
(dash of salt is optional)

Note: Any combination of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate can be used, but the total amount should be about 1-1/2 c.

Measure the flour and combine with leavening agents. Set aside. If you are using dried fruit, place it in a small bowl and add a little brandy to moisten. In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, and any flavorings or extracts you are using until the mixture is thick and lemon-colored.  Blend in the flour until you have a stiff but sticky dough. Stir in nuts, chocolate and dried fruit.

Spread the dough in an oiled, parchment-lined 7 x 9 inch rectangular pan.  Or form the dough into two long loaves (about 3 inches wide) on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes until brown and firm.  Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.  Cut into 1/2 inch slices. If you have baked the dough in a rectangular pan, you will want to cut the slices in half.

Now there is a choice.  How dry do you want the slices to be?  Most Slovenian recipes suggest a simple air-drying.  But I continue to be a fan of the twice-baked approach.  So, if you like your "domestic friends" on the firmer side, put the slices back in the oven for 10-15 minutes.  (For additional crunch, let them sit in a cooling oven overnight!)  When done, let cool on a rack.  Store in a covered container.

Dober tek!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ajdovčki, or Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies

After my success with domači prijatelj, I wanted to add another Slovenian cookie to my holiday dessert plate. So I returned to the Slovenian cooking site Kulinarika and discovered an intriguing recipe for ajdovčki  ("little buckwheats"), a rich butter-nut ball that included buckwheat flour and cocoa.

I don't know whether this is a traditional cookie, but in recent years it seems to have become quite the thing among Slovenian food bloggers. I found a particularly nice bilingual version on this blog. The blogger had provided a fitting English name, jam thumbprint cookies.  She even used a cranberry jam filling.  That caught my eye, because I still had some tart homemade cranberry compote left over from Thanksgiving.

I did hesitate when I read the part about about making holes in the cookies with the handle of a wooden spoon. The last time I tried that, when I attempted a very odd buckwheat dumpling called žganci, the result was a disaster.

I made a few changes to the recipe: almonds instead of walnuts, a little more spice, and cognac instead of rum.  To save time, I bought fresh almond meal at the produce store around the corner.

Ajdovčki, or Buckwheat Thumbprint Cookies

2/3 c. white flour
1/2 c. buckwheat flour
3/4 c. almond meal
1/4 c. cocoa
7 T. butter (1 quarter-pound stick, less 1 T.)
1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
2 pinches cinnamon
2 pinches cloves
2 T. cognac (or rum)

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Rub in butter with your fingertips. Mixture will be crumbly. Beat egg yolk and cognac together and sprinkle over mixture. Work with hands until mixture holds together.  If necessary, add a little more cognac or water until you have a stiff, dense dough.

Form dough into small balls, about the size of a walnut.  Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Make a depression in each ball with the handle of a wooden spoon, a chopstick, or your finger.

Bake at 330 degrees for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Enlarge hole with your finger and add a bit of jam.  Reduce temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 5 more minutes. Let cool.

Many recipes suggest a chocolate frosting, but that seemed liked overkill to me. I added a light dusting of powdered sugar before serving.

For the verdict, read on.

I had high hopes when I tasted the raw dough.  (Yes, I know this is a reckless move! I do not recommend eating raw egg.)  That compact brown dough looked and tasted just like the uncooked rum balls we often make for Christmas.  For those who don't know: Rum balls are a heavenly mix of ground walnuts, vanilla wafer crumbs, sugar, cocoa, and plenty of  rum.  This dough tasted very much the same.

The cookies looked pretty when I took them out of the oven. The first sign of trouble came when one of them crumbled in my fingers when I picked it up.  Naturally, I tasted it. It was dry and not very sweet.  With baking, that buckwheat flavor seemed to have become more pronounced.

I gave the cookies a good sprinkle of powdered sugar and let them cool.  The extra sweetening helped a little, but it still seemed that something was missing.  The cookies tasted almost aggressively bland.

In fairness, I made a number of departures from the original recipe.  My substitution of almond meal for walnuts probably accounted for the increased dryness.  Another possibility: my conversion from the original metric measures might have been a little off.  I baked the cookies at an initial  temperature that was a little too high, and I forgot to turn down the oven for the last five minutes in the oven.  I also chose to skip the frosting that many recipes suggest. (From the discussion on the Kulinarika cooking site, it appears that some of the Slovenian cooks also had problems when they made significant changes in the original recipe.)

I am tempted to say that these are cookies that only a Slovenian could love.  But my husband liked them.  And the flavor and texture did improve with age. They are definitely for buckwheat fans.

If I were to try these again, I would follow the original recipe exactly, including those "by weight" metric measures. I would also use an actual sweet jam, and more of it.  And probably a drizzle of white icing, or at least a serious roll in a dish of powdered sugar.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Trio of Christmas Sweets: Domestic Friends, Buckwheat Thumbprints, and Potica with the Flavor of Kosovo


This year, I decided to expand the Slovenian holiday offerings.  First, I tried out two new cookie recipes.  Then I took a bolder step: I came up with a new filling variation for our traditional potica.

A week or so before Christmas, I made some tasty domači prijatelj (domestic friends), the Slovenian take on biscotti.  Last week, I tried out an unusual chocolate/buckwheat cookie called ajdovčki (buckwheat thumbprints). They looked pretty, as you can see from the photo, but the taste was definitely odd. (The recipe follows in the next post, so you can decide for yourself!)

Three days ago, I made the Christmas potica.  For two of the loaves, I stuck with my family's traditional walnut-honey filling.  Then I got creative.

I had a moment of inspiration:  Instead of honey, why not try the honey-tahini spread from Kosovo our journalist son had brought us last Christmas?  I quickly dismissed it as a little too off-beat.  But then he made the identical suggestion. Suddenly, it seemed like a great idea: Slovenian potica with the flavor of Kosovo.

That Kosovo potica was the first loaf we cut into.  It was delicious, with a subtle but haunting flavor from the tahini.  I had made a special effort to roll the dough extra-thin this year, so the potica looked better than ever, as you can see from the photos below.

These photos were taken by our older son, a photojournalist in New York.  So this Kosovo potica really was a family affair.

From our kitchen to yours: Merry Christmas! Vesel božič! Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!