Saturday, May 9, 2020

Buckwheat Cookies for Hard Times

Those Easter eggs with natural dyes were not my first nod to my Slovenian heritage during this time of cooking in confinement. Before that, I had made an impromptu batch of cookies that I consider Slovenian in spirit, because their defining feature is the generous use of buckwheat.

I had gotten the urge to bake after we had been sheltering in place for two weeks. We were running low on white flour--a staple that I discovered had become scarcer than toilet paper. I finally placed an order on Amazon for the best option I could find: a ten pound bag of Italian 00 flour, which wouldn't arrive for several weeks.

My husband was convinced we must have extra flour somewhere. He hinted that it might be illuminating if I went through all those bags of flour and grain in the freezer, the fridge, and the pantry, to see what we really had.

So that became my morning project. I pulled everything out and lined those bags up alphabetically. They formed a line that snaked around most of our available counter space!

It was an embarrassment of riches--and I do mean embarrassing!

There were seventeen varieties of flour and related grains, in multiple bags, lined up from A to W. Almond Flour to Wheat Flour. And in between, some novelty items I used once or twice and forget about (brown rice, coconut, gluten-free, soy) and some familiar staples (buckwheat, corn, oats, rye.)

The wheat flour was a category in itself. We had semolina, whole wheat flour, and organic pastry flour. But the back-up supply of all-purpose flour was not quite what my husband had predicted. It turned out to be the remains of one small bag.

What we did have was plenty of buckwheat.Three different bags of buckwheat flour, bought in bulk from the corner market, along with a rather odd product (at least to our taste) called creamy buckwheat cereal, described as cracked raw buckwheat by the manufacturer.

So I decided to make buckwheat cookies, since that would preserve our dwindling supply of white flour and take advantage of the generous supply of buckwheat.

I didn't consult a recipe. I had finally figured out the proper way of adapting the Slovenian recipe for ajdovčki (buckwheat-nut thumbprint cookies) and I had made those rich little morsels a number of time. I now had the general idea of how to make a part-buckwheat cookie.

So I just tossed together what seemed like a standard plain cookie recipe, working from memory and experience, and using what was close at hand. (I wasn't in the mood for any more kitchen searches!) When I couldn't find our cinnamon, I substituted an Indian spice mix. We didn't have any fresh walnuts, but I had discovered a small bag in the freezer that contained the cinnamon/sugar/ground walnut mixture that was left over from my holiday potica baking. Brown sugar, because that's all we had. And I decided to throw in a little of that cracked buckwheat cereal. Rum, because it always helps. And on top, some white chocolate chips, since I wouldn't be using cocoa.

Those cookies turned out to be pretty good. Compared to the buckwheat thrumbprints, they were plainer, but with a stronger buckwheat flavor, since I used a half-and-half mix of flours. A little sweeter, but less rich, with fewer nuts and less oil than the butter used in the earlier recipe. No chocolatey flavor.

I would make this impromptu recipe again--but without the addition of the buckwheat cereal nuggets. Those little crunchy bits were much in evidence--and as time went on, they must have absorbed moisture from the rest of the cookie, because they had turned into rocks after a week in a storage tin. My husband reminded me that this was not an opportune moment for a cracked tooth.

These were hard but tasty cookies for hard times.

Buckwheat Cookies for Hard Times

1 cup white flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
ground ginger
garam masala mix (or just use cinnamon)
1/4 cup buckwheat cereal (cracked ground buckwheat--optional!)
1/3 cup ground walnut/sugar/cinnamon mix (leftover from potica--optional!)
1/2 cup oil
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1-2 Tablespoons rum (or more to moisten)

optional: white or dark chocolate chips to decorate

Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the remaining (wet) ingredients together. Add the dry ingredients and stir until combined. If mixture is too dry, add a little more rum.
Form into walnut-sized balls, which will flatten slightly if you press a chocolate chip on top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Cooking in Confinement; Eggs to Welcome Spring

Where did the time go?

Easter and Passover have come and gone and I still haven't posted some of the dishes I prepared over the Christmas holidays. (Was my last post really on December 25?)

Here in California, we have been sheltering in place for just over five weeks. The day before the order went out, my husband and I finished up the last of the Christmas potica at a bittersweet "last supper"shared with our friend Natasha from my Slovenian class. It will probably be many months before we can welcome another guest to our table.

We are becoming accustomed to cooking in confinement. Making do with whatever is at hand. It is far from austere. I know how fortunate we are compared to so many other people. I feel grateful every day. But it is not the same.

Like those festive hard-cooked eggs I first made for Easter (and Passover) in 2016 and finally wrote about the following year. Before that, I had never colored eggs with onion skins or any other natural dye. And I had never heard about creating intricate patterns by attaching small leaves to the eggs before boiling.

(For detailed instruction, see the original post, here.)

This simple folk art is practiced in Slovenia, as well as other communities in Europe. I discovered that this style of decoration was also a tradition in some of  the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish communities where my husband's ancestors once lived.

I was already in the habit of making a traditional Passover dish of the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews: Huevos Haminados, or long-cooked eggs, in which eggs are boiled or baked for hours with onions and onion skins, to create color as well as an intriguing change in flavor and texture.

So I had come to look forward to drawing on all these traditions to create beautiful eggs that had a place in the two springtime holidays that are part of our family histories.

Easter: Pirhi & Potica
Passover: Huevos Haminados & Matzo

But this year, things were different. I had to work with what was on hand, since we were trying to rely on online ordering rather than shopping for groceries in person.

At first, we had only brown eggs available and just a small handful of onion skins to color them, so there wasn't much point in trying to create those lovely patterns. I boiled just four eggs, and I added some coffee grounds to try to deepen the color.

Then another grocery order arrived and we had white eggs. But the refrigerator held just a small sliver of onion. Now I could try to create patterns, but I had to come up with another dye. I still had some of the home-dried orange marigold tea a friend in Slovenia had given me during our recent visit in the fall. As I watched the eggs boiling away, the color looked too pale, so I added some turmeric.

As you can see in the photo at the top of the page, my eggs turned out more muted this year. Tan and pale yellow, rather than the deep burnished russet color of past years--or the new golden hue I was hoping to create. Our celebrations were muted as well. A virtual Passover seder with old friends in Chicago, and a Zoom meeting on Easter Sunday with my siblings.

But at their core, the eggs still had that same distinctive look and taste: a creamy texture, a brownish hue, a tangy nut-like flavor. However imperfect, they could still speak to me of family and tradition, of love and memory, and of survival and hope.

Belated holiday greetings, and happy springtime, from our house to yours.

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.