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!


Monday, December 16, 2013

Domači Prijatelj ("Domestic Friend"), the Slovenian Answer to Biscotti and Mandelbrot

"The eggs are divorced." "Cut the tonsils." "Murder the eggs." "Sexual cakes are rising." "Domestic friends are done."

Does this sound like mayhem in the kitchen? A surrealistic cartoon?  These are choice excerpts from the Google translation of recipes for domači prijatelj, the Slovenian version of biscotti or mandelbrot.  It is my latest addition to the Slovenian holiday kitchen.

Long before the American biscotti craze, I was introduced to mandelbrot, the Jewish version of the popular sweet. By any name, these are among my favorite cookies: crunchy, not-too-sweet, and open to many creative variations.

So I was excited to discover that Slovenians have their own take on the firm, sliced cookie.  Domači prijatelj is usually translated as "domestic friend" or sometimes as "house friend." To a Slovenian, this has a slightly risqué connotation.  My Slovenian professor friend suggests that "paramour" might be a good English equivalent.

Domači prijatelj do not show up in my 1950s Slovenian American cookbooks. But they seem to be quite popular in Slovenia today, judging by the many recipes available online. A search on the Slovenian cooking website Kulinarika turned up seventeen different recipes. (To see the full list, go here.)

At first, I thought domači prijatelj might be a recent import from Italy, but the sturdy sweet has has been around since at least the late 1800s. Several online sources make reference to a handwritten copy of a recipe from an 1877 Slovenian cookbook. Some Slovenian food bloggers follow another simple old formula, translated as:

For each egg:

70 g sugar 
50 g hazelnuts
90 g flour
lemon zest

These proportions are much like traditional Italian biscotti, heavy on the eggs but with no added fat.  Mandelbrot recipes, which usually include butter or oil, result in a  richer and more tender cookie. 

One major difference with domači prijatelj: they don't tend to receive a second baking in the oven. Most recipes direct the cook to slice the baked loaf and then let the individual pieces air-dry naturally, perhaps in a cool place. Biscotti, of course,  are always given a second baking (the name translates as "twice-cooked"). This is usually the case with mandelbrot, as well.  I did find a couple of  domači prijatelj recipes that specified a second baking, so I felt on solid ground when I opted to add that second step.

One thing biscotti, mandelbrot, and "domestic friends" have in common:  These once-simple sliced cookies have morphed into something far more complex, as contemporary cooks give free rein to their imaginations.  The Kulinarika site includes a few very simple nut-and-raisin combinations, using hazelnuts, walnuts, or almonds. But most recipes go beyond that. The dried fruits include apricots, coconut, prunes, and papaya.  Chocolate is a  popular addition. Flavorings included lemon and orange rind, rum, vanilla, and cinnamon.  The most unexpected twist: yogurt-covered raisins.

The recipe I chose as a guide from Kulinarika is particularly egg-rich and uses no other leavening agents, which is an advantage for those of us who are watching our sodium intake. Here is the Google translation of the recipe I took as a model.  The original metric measures are preserved in the translation.

6 eggs
300 g sugar
400 g flour
100 g papaya
100 g apricots
100 g walnuts or hazelnuts
100 g raisins

I cut this recipe in half and have made two different versions so far.  I wanted to experiment with different add-ins and baking methods.

In Version #1, I used chopped chocolate, almonds, dried cranberries, and dried apricots. To compensate for the absence of baking powder or soda I followed the example of another recipe and  beat the egg whites separately.  I followed the original recipe suggestion to bake the dough in a flat pan instead of individual rolls, before cutting into slices.   With part of the batch, I skipped the second baking, just as that recipe (and most of the others) directed.  The rest of the batch was twice-baked.

In Version #2, I omitted the dried fruit and increased the chocolate and nuts. This time, I did use a low-sodium leavening agent, plus some additional flavorings.  I shaped the dough in long rolls before slicing and twice-baked the entire batch.

For the recipes and the results, read on!

Domači Prijatelj (Domestic Friend), Version #1

3 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
1-2/3 c. flour (more if needed)
1/2 c. chopped chocolate (mixed bittersweet and milk)
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
lemon rind, grated

Domači Prijatelj (Domestic Friend), Version #2

3 eggs
3/4 c. sugar
1-2/3 c. flour (more if needed)
1 t. low sodium baking soda and 1 t. cream of tartar (or use 1 t. regular baking powder)
3/4 c. sliced almonds
3/4 c. chopped chocolate (mixed bittersweet and milk)
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
1 t. cinnamon

The simplest directions for both versions:  Measure the flour and combine with any leavening agents you may be using.  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.  Stir in nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and any other add-ins you wish.  Stir in the flour until you have a stiff but sticky dough.

There are a couple of variations you can try in mixing the dough.  You can separate the eggs, so that the yolks are beaten with the sugar and then the beaten whites are folded in.  You can add the flour before or after the nuts, fruits, and chocolate.

If you wish, you can chill the dough to make it easier to handle. (Note that low-sodium baking soda or low sodium baking powder lose their leavening power if not used immediately.)

The dough can be baked in a rectangular pan and then sliced and cut.  I prefer to form it into 2 long loaves, by spooning the dough onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet and then easing into shape with floured hands.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes until brown and firm.  Remove from oven and let cool for 10 mintutes.  Cut into 1/2 inch slices.  If you have baked the dough in a pan, you will want to halve the slices.  Now you have one more optional step to consider.

Most of these Slovenian recipes simply let the slices dry out naturally.  Air-dry in a cool place, some say.  But if you like a harder version, you can take the minority view and give the slices another turn in the oven.  Stand the slices up on the cookie sheet and bake them for about 20 more minutes, until brown and firm.  Let cool on a rack.

Enjoy!  Dober Tek!

The result:

Both batches turned out well.  The result is a plain, hard cookie that is closer to biscotti than the richer mandelbrot.

In the photo, the two slices on the right are from Version #1, where I separated the eggs. The two on the left are from Version #2, where I used low-sodium baking soda and cream of tarter. The textures are the same: slightly risen but dense.  It is possible that "regular" baking powder or soda would have resulted in a lighter product, but these were just fine. 

As for the merits of twice-baking: I tried it both ways, and prefer to give the slices a second stint in the oven.   It's a matter of individual taste, but in my house we like our "domestic friends" crunchy and hard :-)

Update: A month later, I gave it one more try and came up with the best version yet. For the lightest texture, do use baking soda or powder, and save the add-ins for last.  To see the full recipe, go here.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Cranberry-Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot for Thanksgiving/Hanukkah

Last week, my husband and I flew to Florida to join his family for Thanksgiving—and for the first day of Hanukkah. We had somehow managed to escape all the buzz about Thanksgivukkah.  We hadn’t yet heard about the "menurkey," a special turkey-shaped menorah created for the occasion.  But my brother-in-law had supplied one for the candle-lighting. And back in New York, our photojournalist son had even been assigned to cover a story in one of the daily papers about the ten-year-old boy who invented the contraption.

Oy vey.  It was too much for a traditionalist like me.

I did decide to get a little creative with one food I planned to make for the double celebration: mandelbrot, one of my favorites among the traditional Jewish sweets I had discovered when I met my husband. I had in mind a fancy version with bittersweet chocolate chips and all-American Thanksgiving cranberries, in honor of the double holiday. I could easily make the mandelbrot in advance, since the hard, crunchy cookies keep so well and are the ideal size and texture for travel.  I knew my father-in-law would appreciate them—as long as they were hard enough.  (He regularly gives store-bought mandelbrot a third baking in the oven, just to be safe!)

I had one additional challenge: Making a low-sodium mandelbrot. So that meant a few modifications to the standard recipe.  No salt, obviously.  And no baking powder, at least of the conventional variety.  I would have to substitute low-sodium baking powder—or low-sodium baking soda plus cream of tartar.  And that meant the dough needed to be used right away instead of chilling it in the refrigerator, as some cooks suggest.

Over the years, I have experimented with many different approaches to mandelbrot. This time, I decided to adapt a chocolate chip-walnut recipe from the folks at King Arthur Flour. Along with the low-sodium modifications, I added dried cranberries and almond extract.  I also substituted almonds for walnuts and used brown turbinado sugar for the topping instead of coarse white sugar.

A final note for those who follow Jewish dietary laws: Because this recipe uses oil and bittersweet chocolate chips that are dairy-free, it can be enjoyed with that Thanksgiving turkey!

The result was so delicious I wanted to share it.  But I worried that it might not be completely kosher to include it in a blog that is devoted to Slovenian and Balkan cooking.

It seemed strange to me that the ever-practical Slovenians didn’t have a sliced, dry cookie like mandelbrot. So many Europeans have a version: Italian biscotti and cantucci, Jewish mandelbrot and kamishbrot, German zweiback and rusk. But I took another look online and discovered many recipes, all in Slovenian, for a sliced biscuit called domači prijatelj.  The name is translated as “domestic friend.”  (This may or may not have a slightly risqué connotation!)  These Slovenian recipes seem simpler and plainer than mandelbrot, but the pictures show something that could easily pass for mandelbrot or the probable source of them all, biscotti.

Whether you call them mandelbrot, biscotti, or domestic friends, these crunchy slices are delicious for any occasion.

Happy Holidays!

Cranberry-Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot (low-sodium, dairy-free)
   (a close cousin to Slovenian domači prijatelj!)

3 large eggs
1 c. oil
1 c. sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract

3-1/2 c. white unbleached flour (I used King Arthur organic white flour)
2 t. low sodium baking soda mixed with 2 t. cream of tartar
(or use 1 t.  baking powder)
11-12 oz. (2 cups, scant) bittersweet or extra-dark chocolate chips (I used Guittard Extra-Dark)
1−1/2 c. sliced almonds
1/2 c. dried cranberries
raw turbinado sugar for topping

In a large bowl, beat eggs, oil, sugar and extracts for about five minutes, until thick and lemon-colored. Combine baking soda and cream of tartar, then mix well with flour in a second bowl.  Add flour mixture to liquid ingredients gradually, first beating and then stirring at the end. (You may not need all the flour.) Fold in the chocolate chips, almonds, and cranberries.  Dough will be sticky.

(If you are using regular baking powder, you may want to refrigerate the dough for several hours or overnight.  But with low sodium leavening ingredients, you need to bake immediately.)

Divide dough into four pieces, lightly flouring your hands if necessary.  Roll each piece into a cylinder and then shape into a flat log that is about 2 by 8 inches.  Place the four logs on two parchment-lined baking sheets.  Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake at 350 degrees for 28 to 30 minutes, until logs are starting to brown. Remove from oven and reduce heat to 300 degrees.

Let cool slightly then cut each log into half-inch slices. Place slices upright on baking sheets and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, turning so cookies bake evenly.  Remove when firm and lightly browned at the edges.  Mandelbrot will become crisper as they cool.  And if they aren’t hard enough, you can always re-bake!

Let cool on the baking sheets.  When cool, store in covered containers.  Makes 40-50, depending on size.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cheese Dumplings, Slovenian Style

I fell in love with Russian cheese pancakes at a farmers' market and later made a decent version of my own at home.

I was disappointed that Slovenians didn't seem to have their own version of this tasty dish.  The closest approximation was a boiled cheese dumpling, usually served with a topping of buttered breadcrumbs and a little sugar.  So I decided to give Slovenian cheese dumplings a try, to see how they compared.

I found three recipes in my vintage cookbooks.  They showed up under different names (cheese balls, cheese dumplings, sirovi knedeljni, skutovi cmoki) but used the same basic ingredients, in varying proportions. One recipe called for separating the eggs.  Two involved shaping the dough into individual pieces before boiling; one just used a spoon.

One element was common to all three recipes: dry curd cottage cheese. I figured my usual substitute, Russian-style farmer cheese, would do just fine.

I picked the easiest recipe, one from the Progressive Slovene Women.  It was a simple batter dropped from a spoon.  I cut their recipe in half and made one other adaptation: a little nutmeg instead of salt, for a LoSloSo dish.  (It turns out to be virtually the same as my recipe for Russian curd cheese pancakes.)

For the result, read on.

Cheese dumplings (Skutovi Cmoki)

1/2 lb. Russian-style farmer cheese (or dry curd cottage cheese, if you can find it)
4 heaping T. flour (or more if needed)
2 eggs, beaten
1 T. melted butter
2 pinches nutmeg (or 1/4 t. salt, like the original recipe)

Stir or crumble the cheese.  Add eggs, melted butter, and nutmeg or salt.  Mix well.  Add flour, a tablespoon at a time, to make a thick batter/soft dough.

Bring large pot of water to boil.  Drop in batter by spoonfuls.  Cook for 20 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon.   The traditional topping is buttered bread crumbs, along with some sugar for a sweeter dish.  Dumplings can also be left plain, as I did, to accompany a savory main dish.

The result?  Well, it was mixed.  The batter was almost too loose to hold together in the boiling water.  The finished dumplings seemed puffy and a little waterlogged.  The flavor was definitely bland without the salt.  The next day, the chilled dumplings had deflated and had a better texture, similar to cheese pancakes.

There is no getting around it: I prefer the pancake version, although I do see the advantages of making a fat-free version by boiling.  On the other hand, a non-stick skillet can be used to make the pancakes.

The problem, I suspect, was my substitution of Russian-style farmer cheese for the dry curd cottage cheese.  There are two solutions: drain the cheese first and/or add a little more flour.  That's what I'll do if I try this again.

Meanwhile, I'm sticking to pancakes!


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chicken Stew, Slovenian-Style and Salt-Free

"Obara?"  Mia's eyes twinkled. "That means you can put anything in it!"

I was in my favorite spot at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall: the small upstairs library, hanging out with Mia, who is originally from Slovenia.  She is a warm, charming woman who retired a few years ago from her position as a university librarian.  Mia always seems amused by my ethnic cooking adventures.  She even recalled my disaster with žganci and had brought back some buckwheat flour from her most recent trip to Slovenia, just in case that was the source of my problem.

So now I had it on good authority:  The Slovenian stew known as obrara or ajmoht really is an "everything-but-the-kitchen-sink" dish.  That was a good description of my most recent version.  It had to be salt-free, so I tried to boost the flavor with as many additions as possible, without departing too much from tradition.

Obara or ajmoht can vary, depending on the meat used and the assortment of vegetables added.  The distinctive element, at least to the American palate, is a certain Slovenian tang, thanks to a brown roux and sometimes a tart addition like lemon zest, wine, or vinegar.

It all started with my mother's recollection of a childhood dish she called "aye-macht," a sort of roux-thickened veal soup.  For my first attempt at recreating the dish, Chicken Ajmoht I, I used a simple recipe from the Progressive Slovene Women of America.  I also tried to make žganci as an accompaniment, but the little dumplings ended up as buckwheat polenta.

For my next attempt, Chicken Ajmoht II, I consulted a couple of additional sources, The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe and Slovenian Cookery.  That's when I started adding wine.

This time around, I had my newest cookbook to consider, Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia.  I also had a sous-chef, since my husband volunteered to do the actual cooking.

For the result, read on.

Chicken Stew, Slovenian-Style and Salt-Free (chicken ajmoht or obara)

2 whole boneless chicken breasts (skin on), cut up
olive oil to brown chicken
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. butter
2 T. olive oil
2 T. flour
1 c. white wine
2  ribs celery, chopped
1 leek, bulb and a bit of green, soaked well and sliced
2 carrots, peeled and  sliced
1/2 c. cauliflower florets
2 potatoes, peeled and cut up
water to  cover
peel of 1 lemon, grated
1 T. fresh marjoram, minced
1 T. fresh thyme, minced
1 cup peas, fresh or frozen
4 T. fresh parsley, minced
pepper to taste
optional: no-salt seasoning (or salt) to taste

Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large deep skillet. Brown chicken and set aside.  Add onion and garlic and brown.  Now make a roux: Add 1 T. butter, 2 T. olive oil, and 2 T. flour and cook until brown.  Add wine and celery, leek and carrots.  Add water to cover.  Add lemon and seasonings. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.  Add potatoes and simmer until tender.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Sprinkle with additional parsley and serve.

The verdict?  The mixture of flavors was delicious. My husband had a generous hand with the wine, which gave the dish a particular zest.  He did leave the chicken in larger chunks than I might have, and there seemed to be less liquid than in my previous versions.  But you can easily adjust for a saucier dish.  All in all, another LoSoSlo winner!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Bograč, Spicy and Salt-Free Goulash Soup

Bograč, Slovenia's spicy goulash soup, seemed like a good candidate for a low-sodium makeover.  I had made it twice before, with slightly different seasoning variations each time.

To compensate for the lack of salt, I figured I'd better season to the max, this time around. I used the complete array of vegetables and flavorings from the two previous versions, but increased the quantities.  I did this the easy way: by cutting down on the meat and keeping everything else constant.

For the recipe and the verdict, read on.


Bograč, Spicy and Salt-Free Goulash Soup

1/2 lb. beef stew meat, cubed
1/2 lb. pork stew meat, cubed
1 large onion, sliced
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms, soaked and prepared as directed
1 green pepper, sliced
1 red pepper, sliced
1 t. caraway seed
1 T. paprika (half hot, half smoked)
2 t. fresh marjoram
black pepper to taste
small hot pepper, a few slices, minced (optional)
1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced
½ c. crushed tomatoes
1 lb. potatoes, cut in chunks
water to cover
1/4 c. red wine
olive oil

Before beginning, prepare dried mushrooms as instructed on package, or use these directions: Soak in warm water until softened. Drain, cover with fresh water, and simmer until tender.    

Brown onion in olive oil, using a large pot or Dutch oven. Add garlic and continue to brown. Remove to another bowl. Add meats to oil left in pot and brown. Add the peppers and spices and continue to brown. Return onion and garlic to the pot. Add re-hydrated dried mushrooms (with or without cooking liquid), crushed tomatoes and enough water to cover. Simmer until meat is tender and almost done. Add potatoes and wine and simmer another hour. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve garnished with additional parsley.

The verdict:  Delicious!  The first night, we served the bograč with cooked greens alongside.  The second night, my husband also made some cooked kasha.  The earthy flavor went particularly well with the spicy goulash.

This version did come out more like a thick stew than a soup.  That can be adjusted easily by adding more water, or even some extra wine!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Curd Cheese Pancakes, Russian-style

My obsession with curd cheese and farmer cheese was still going strong.

The latest twist: We had just picked up some authentic tvarog at a Russian grocery in San Francisco.  It turned out to be very much like the version made by Belfiore, a small cheese-making company based in Berkeley, my home town.

I knew the perfect way to use that cheese. Pancakes.

A few months earlier, my Cajun band had a gig at a local farmers' market. During the break, I discovered a Russian Jewish vendor with a variety of traditional homemade delicacies for sale. My favorites were the cheese pancakes, or syrniki in Russian. They were unlike any cottage cheese pancakes I had tried before: sweet, thick and substantial. More like cheese patties.

There are many recipes available for pancakes made with cottage cheese or sometimes ricotta. These pancakes have long been a popular high-protein dish for dieters, since they are typically heavy on the cheese and egg, with just a little flour.

But the Russian take on the dish was new to me.  I searched out a number of recipes for cheese pancakes and discovered that many Eastern and Central European groups make them. But not the Slovenians. The closest I could find were boiled cheese dumplings. (Slovenian "cheese pancakes" turned out to be blintzes.)

So I decided to stick to recipes for Russian cheese pancakes.  I ended up with a variation of a recipe I found on an NPR site, which they had adapted from a Russian chef.  I worked out a single serving adaptation.

The NPR recipe is here.

For my version, along with the verdict, read on.

Curd Cheese Pancakes, Russian-Style

To make one generous serving:

1/2 cup farmer cheese (Russian-style is best), curd cheese, or ricotta
1 egg
1 T. sugar
1-2 T. flour
a few drops of vanilla
squeeze of lemon juice
(optional: pinch of baking soda, regular or low sodium)

Mix all the ingredients together.   Heat oil or butter in a skillet.   Drop batter by rounded tablespoons into skillet.  When brown on one side, turn.  Serve with honey or syrup, yogurt, and fresh fruit.

The verdict?  Very tasty.   The recipe made a generous serving, which I managed to finish with no leftovers. I didn't miss the salt at all.

It was not quite what I remembered from the Russian vendor at the farmers' market. I suspect the Russian man used a larger proportion of cheese relative to the egg and flour.

The next time, I'll make a larger recipe and experiment with the proportions.   I may also try my hand at making homemade farmer cheese that duplicates that Russian tang!

Update: A year-and-a-half later, I finally perfected this dish--and I discovered a recipe for syrniki in one of my vintage Slovenian cookbooks! To read about it, go here.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Buckwheat Cheesecake for the Fourth of July Pie Contest

It was time for the annual neighborhood Fourth of July potluck.  For the second time, there would be a pie-baking contest.

Last year's entry, prekmurska gibanica, had been a success.  I came in third out of eight, a modest but respectable showing, especially since the fabled Slovenian dessert wasn't exactly a pie by American standards.  The elaborate layered "strudel pie" had aroused plenty of interest and it did taste wonderful.

For an encore, I had in mind another unusual dish that was not quite a pie.  Buckwheat cheesecake. I'd had my eye on the recipe for the past year and had been waiting for the right occasion.  It looked simple and it fit right in with my recent curd cheese/farmer cheese obsession.   And it was already salt-free.

The original recipe, called ajdova zlevanka, appears in The Food and Cooking of Slovenia (2008) by master chef Janez Bogataj.  (It is reprinted here, in a Milwaukee newspaper.)

I made just a few additions to the original recipe: sugar and ginger in the pastry crust and a grating of lemon rind in the filling.  The foundation of the dish was a Russian-style farmer cheese I can buy locally. Its wonderful tang probably comes from a "culturing" step that is omitted in  my simple homemade curd cheese.  In the spirit of the holiday, I devised a  red-white-and-blue fruit topping: blueberries and strawberries mixed with a simple glaze.

For the results (of the recipe and the competition) read on!

Buckwheat Cheesecake   (adapted from Janez Bogataj's Ajdova Zlevanka)

1 c. (scant) buckwheat flour
1 c. (scant) white flour
2 T. sugar
pinch of ginger
1/2 c. butter
1 egg yolk, beaten
cold water to bind, about 1-2 T.

1-1/4 lb. or 500 g. farmer cheese or curd cheese
2/3 c. superfine sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 t. grated lemon rind
2/3 c. sour cream, divided
2 T. plain flour

For topping:  Fresh fruit, plain or mixed with a simple glaze (see below)

Grease an 8 inch tart pan with a removable bottom or a springform pan.

For the crust:  Sift flours, sugar and ginger into bowl. Cut in butter.  Stir in egg yolk and enough water to bind the mixture. Blend lightly and form into a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Roll out dough and line the pan.   Line pastry with parchment or foil and fill with rice or beans to blind-bake.  (I used whole buckwheat!)  Bake for 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Let cool.

For the filling: Mix cheese and sugar.  Add eggs, lemon rind, and two-thirds of the sour cream and beat together.  Sift flour over surface and fold in.

Pour filling into crust-lined pan.  Spread remaining sour cream over the top in a thin layer.

Bake for 40 minutes at 375 degrees until lightly set.  Let cool and top with fresh fruit or glaze before cutting.

I baked the cheesecake in the late morning and set it out to cool.  I hadn't been successful in spreading that thick sour cream, so the top was covered with little white dabs.  And the buckwheat crust looked more rustic than elegant.  Not a beautiful dish.

No matter.  I would cover it with a simple fruit topping I improvised.

Simple Fruit Topping

fresh strawberries and blueberries
strawberry preserves and orange marmalade, equal parts
splash of lemon juice
spash of kirsch or other liqueur

Wash and dry fresh strawberries and blueberries and set aside.  In a small saucepan, mix the preserves. Warm slowly over low heat until mixture melts.  Add lemon juice and kirsch to taste.  Gently mix fresh fruit with glaze and arrange on top of cheesecake.

Now my pie entry looked more than presentable.  On to the contest.

When I arrived at our neighbor's house,  I realized the competition would be stiff.  The field was a little larger this year.  And everyone else seemed to have gone creative with the toppings and decorations.  My red-white-and-blue brainstorm wasn't exactly unique.

But the proof would be in the eating.

When I cut into that buckwheat cheesecake, my heart sank.  The filling was soft, especially in the middle.  Those thin slices looked more like pudding!  And the crust was hard to cut.

I bit in and was disappointed.  The buckwheat crust was tough and dry.  The filling was pleasant but bland.

I came in second-to-the-last in the pie ranking.  No prize for me this year. Of course, I had refrained from voting for myself this time. Not out of modesty but simply as an honest assessment. This dish was not a winner.

But guess what?  The next day, after thorough chilling, the filling had firmed up perfectly. And it tasted delicious, with the tart Russian-style farmer cheese and the touch of lemon.

The crust wasn't great.  My mistake, I think, was that I didn't pay enough attention to the "scant" part of the directions. Because the dough had been too dry at first, I had added more water and probably overworked the pastry.

Next time, I will probably use just 3/4 cup of each flour for a more tender crust.  On top, I might use more sour cream and thin it with a little milk for ease of spreading.

The original recipe indicates that the cheesecake can be served warm.  But I still recommend thorough chilling, to bring out the flavor of the filling.

There is also a savory alternative, with salt and pepper rather than sugar in the filling. Interesting, but probably tough to do without the salt.   I'll probably concentrate on perfecting this unusual and promising dessert version.

Update from November 2014: The savory version, with a much-improved crust, was a success!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Farmer Cheese, Honey-Tahini and Blueberry Breakfast Toast

Our house is undergoing renovations.  For the past month, the kitchen has been dismantled. Refrigerator is in the dining room.  Stove is disconnected.  To cook, we have to rely on the microwave, toaster oven, and outdoor grill.  To shower, we have to go around to the attached studio out back. It feels like camping.

This morning, I was tired of cereal.  I wanted something fast, tasty, salt free and (if possible) Slovenian in spirit.

I am not sure if this tasty breakfast toast qualifies as Slovenian-inspired.  At least it is Eastern Euro-inspired, with honey-tahini spread from Kosovo and Russian-style farmer cheese (made by the Belfiore Company, right here in Berkeley.)    It also qualifies as low-sodium, with salt-free bread and farmer cheese and (I assume) tahini-honey spread without any salt.

Farmer cheese, Honey-Tahini, and Blueberry Breakfast Toast

1 slice whole grain bread (low sodium preferred!)
curd cheese or farmer cheese
honey-tahini spread
fresh blueberries

Toast bread.  Spread with a thin layer of honey-tahini spread.  Add a layer of cheese. Top with a sprinkle of fresh blueberries.  Finish with a drizzle of honey-tahini spread.

The verdict:  Easy, healthy and so delicious it tastes like dessert!


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Low-Sodium Kasha Mediterranean Salad with Curd Cheese

Kasha Mediterranean, the Slovenian-inspired salad created by a Facebook friend named Josef, had become one of our favorite dishes. It is a tasty twist on a familiar salad that is normally based on bulgar wheat.  Made with buckwheat instead, it is unusual and perfect for entertaining.

A low-sodium version would be a challenge, because one of the key ingredients is feta cheese.  I resolved to try it with cubes of my homemade salt-free curd cheese, pressed and cubed, then doctored up with paprika, onion, and pumpkin seed oil.  (That recipe, a traditional Slovenian appetizer in its own right, is in the preceding post.)

Without the tang of feta, the salad tasted a little bland.  So I had to make a few adjustments: more spice and a tangier dressing.

For the recipe and the verdict, read on.

Low-Sodium Kasha Mediterranean Salad with Curd Cheese  


1 c. dry whole buckwheat groats or kasha, cooked in
1 ½ c.  salted water

1 16 oz can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained
6-8 oz salt-free curd cheese (or paneer),  cubed *
4 small/medium tomatoes, diced
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 green pepper, diced
½ c. red onion, diced (or 4 green onions)
4 T. fresh parsley, minced
black pepper, ground, to taste
smoked paprika, ½ t. or to taste

*The salad ingredients follow the original recipe, except for the substitution of salt-free curd cheese for feta. The cheese will be less bland if it is cubed and marinated with onion, paprika, and pumpkin seed oil.

Dressing (a tangier version):

2 T. olive oil
2 t. pumpkin seed oil
6 T. vinegar
juice of 2 limes
2 T. pomegranate molasses
5 cloves garlic, minced
4 T. fresh mint
1 t. smoked paprika
1 t. hot paprika
black pepper, to taste
1/4 c. pumpkin seeds

If you need more detailed directions for assembling the salad, consult the original recipe.

The verdict?  Well, the flavor was a little different, without the sharp, salty tang of feta.  But the modified salad stands up well,  especially with the intensely flavored dressing.  It's a winner and even more healthy.  Gluten-free, salt-free, and delicious!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Curd Cheese with Onion, Paprika, and Pumpkin Seed Oil

This simple but unusual appetizer combines three Slovenian favorites: curd cheese, paprika, and pumpkin seed oil.

I adapted it from a recipe in Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia. He calls it Curd Cheese with Onion or Koroška skuta s čebulo.  It is a specialty of Koroška (or Carinthia), a region on the Austrian-Slovenian border that is well-known as a producer of pumpkin seed oil.

Since I wanted to make a salt-free version, I increased the paprika and pepper and added a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds on top.

Traditionally, this tasty-sounding combination is served as a spread on rye bread.  But I had another plan. I wanted to use salt-free curd cheese as a substitute for feta in salads. I worried that my unadorned homemade curd cheese might be a little bland.  I hoped this flavor combination might give it just the right boost.

I made a batch of homemade curd cheese and pressed it overnight to make a firm round. The next day, I cut it into cubes and followed the recipe below.

For the result, read on.


Curd Cheese with Onion, Paprika, and Pumpkin Seed Oil (adapted from Janez Bogataj)

1 cup/ 8 oz curd cheese or farmer cheese, homemade or store-bought, salt-free
1 t. paprika
1/2 onion, finely chopped
freshly ground black pepper to taste
(salt, if desired, to taste)
1 T. pumpkin seed oil
pumpkin seeds, toasted (optional)

For a smooth spread, crumble the curd cheese in a bowl.  To use in a salad or other dish, cut cheese into cubes.

Sprinkle the cheese with onion, paprika, black pepper (and salt, if using.)  For a spread, mash and blend with a spoon.  Or, to retain the shape of the cubes (as I did), just toss the ingredients lightly. Drizzle with pumpkin seed oil.

The verdict?

This does makes a lovely spread on rye bread or whole grain crackers, especially with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds on top.  But it also worked beautifully in my salt-free version of Kasha Mediterranean Salad.  For the recipe, see the next post.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Homemade Curd Cheese (Skuta), Step-by-Step

This is the simplest approach I have found to making curd cheese, otherwise known as farmer cheese, bakers cheese or (if you are Slovenian) as skuta.

For some background on this homestyle delicacy, see my previous post. I arrived at this simple recipe after reviewing many sources on the Internet.  Later on, I discovered another recipe, virtually identical, in Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia (2008.)

These recipes appear under a variety of labels.  Curd cheese and farmer cheese seem to have given way to Indian paneer or Italian ricotta in popularity. But they are all variations on a theme: simple, unripened cheeses, in which an acid is used to separate curds from whey.

The recipe below can easily turn into paneer, if enough moisture is pressed out. Technically, it is not really ricotta, although it makes a decent substitute.  Ricotta means "re-cooked" and is based on the whey that is left after making a rennet-based cheese.

This is an approach more than a recipe.  You can experiment and adjust.  The only absolute no-no is ultra-pasteurized milk, because it won't work.

A helpful and amusing comparison of the various approaches to making this style of cheese can be found on Serious Eats, in a Food Lab article, here.  (Yes, the writer refers to his cheese as Five Minute Ricotta and then admits in the small print that it's not really the same thing!)

Ready?  As the Serious Eats article says, it's simple: Heat milk, add acid, drain, enjoy!

Homemade Curd Cheese

8 cups (or use 2 litres) fresh milk (see note)
2-4 T. fresh lemon juice or white vinegar (I have used both)

colander or strainer

Note:  Any variety of fresh cow's milk should work, as long as it is not ultra-pasteurized. Check the label to be sure.  I use organic milk.

Before you begin: Rinse two layers of cheesecloth in cold water and line a colander or strainer. (In the old days, when salt was sold in a cloth bag, my grandmother used that instead.) Place strainer in large bowl.

Pour milk into a large nonreactive pot or kettle.  Heat slowly, stirring occasionally, until milk is just below the boiling point.  Be careful that bottom doesn't burn.

Turn off heat.  Drizzle 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar into the milk and stir gently until the curds form. (The curds are the white lumps. The whey is the greenish-yellow liquid.) If curds do not appear, turn the heat back on and slowly drizzle in more lemon juice or vinegar until the curds and whey separate.

After curds form, let the mixture sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.

Ladle the mixture into the lined colander and allow the whey to drain into the bowl, pouring off as needed.  (Save the whey for another use, like bread-making.)

Here we come to a choice point.  How to drain the curds.

The easiest and simplest approach is to let the curds drain for 5 minutes in the colander, remove, and use immediately or refrigerate.  This results in a soft texture that probably resembles cottage cheese or ricotta.  (I have never done it this way because I am not setting out to make five minute ricotta!)

I recommend the more traditional route: Draw the corners of the cheesecloth together, squeeze to remove even more whey, and tie the cheesecloth with twine (or simply tie up the ends of the cheesecloth) to make a firm package of cheese.  You can drain it by simply letting the cheese rest in the colander.  Or you can suspend it from a kitchen faucet or from a spoon placed over a pail. Some sources (like that Slovenian cookbook) suggesting rinsing the curds in cold water before draining.

How long to drain?

The Slovenian cookbook suggests several hours of draining, before unwrapping and refrigerating.  This will give you a semi-solid mass that can be crumbled and used for cooking.  It has a mild, fresh, slightly sweet taste that is perfect for desserts.  It is also ideal for making simple appetizer spreads, like Pumpkin Oil Cheese Spread or a new one I just discovered: Curd Cheese with Onion, or Koroška skuta s čebulo. (Recipe follows.)

Here is the optional final step: Shaping and pressing, which creates the equivalent of paneer.

After an initial draining, twist and squeeze the cheesecloth-wrapped curds into a round, flat cake.  Set it on a rimmed plate.  Top with another plate, and place a heavy weight (like a large can) on top.  Leave in the refrigerator overnight.

When you unwrap the next day, you will find a nice, firm round of white cheese.  When cut into slices, it resembles fresh mozarella and can be used in the same way.  For a delicious appetizer, slice the round of cheese and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh basil leaves.

Are you wondering about the absence of salt?

The salt is omitted in many, if not most, of the traditional recipes for curd cheese and paneer. Others, like that Five Minute Ricotta recipe, do add a little.  But even if you are not trying to cut down on sodium, you are better off leaving out the salt, until you figure out what to do with the finished product.  If the cheese will end up in a sweet dessert, the salt is unnecessary.

That's the beauty of this recipe.  You are fully in control of what goes into it.  It's just milk. Raw or organic, homogenized or not.  Full fat, low fat, or fat free.   Just make sure it's not ultra-pasterized.

And do stick to cow's milk. I got the bright idea of trying to make a salt-free goat cheese, but I couldn't get the milk to curdle properly. So I rescued it by making a sort of grainy yogurt, which I then drained in a coffee filter to make yogurt goat cheese.  It was good, but way too time-consuming.

Below are photos of the cheese-making process, start to finish.

Stay tuned for more recipes using this tasty home-style cheese.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fresh Curd Cheese: An Easy, Delicious Salt-Free Staple

Curd cheese. Farmer cheese.  Baker's cheese.  Pot cheese. Hoop cheese.

Ring a bell?

If any of these are familiar ingredients in your kitchen, there is a good chance that your roots are Eastern European or Jewish.  If not, you probably grew up on the East Coast or in parts of the Midwest where people from these communities lived.

When I was growing up in Cleveland and Chicago, a product called "dry curd cottage cheese" was carried by most grocery stores, right alongside the familiar creamy variety. My mother, like most people, used this dry, mild cottage cheese for baking.  Most often, she used it to make the sweet filling for cheese blintzes.  (She never did let on that this was a Slovenian dish as well as a Jewish one!)

As a child, I was fascinated by the taste of dry curd cottage cheese.  I always managed to sneak a little sample, before my mother put it through the food mill and added sugar, vanilla, and eggs.  It was dry, tart and almost aggressively bland.  An empty canvas, waiting to be transformed.

Somewhere along the way, dry curd cottage cheese seems to have disappeared. Sometimes I could find  something similar: firm rectangular blocks of Friendship farmer cheese, shaped like cream cheese but with the taste more like dry curd cottage cheese. But eventually, even farmer cheese became harder to find, especially after we moved to California.

Most often, if I needed to make a cheese filling for either a sweet or savoury dish, I ended up substituting regular cottage cheese or (as the years went on) Italian ricotta.  But it wasn't quite the same.

During my just-completed year of Slovenian cooking, I discovered even more dishes that called for curd cheese fillings.  An elaborate dessert called prekmusrka gibanica or strudel pie.  Savoury dumplings like štruklji and žlifkrofi.  Ajdovi krapi or buckwheat turnovers.  And even a nice cheese spread with pumpkin seed oil.  At first, I just used ricotta, and it was fine.

But I was thrilled to find a wonderful local source of farmer cheese in a shop right around the corner. It is called Farmers Cheese, Russian style, made by Belfiore Cheese Company in Berkeley.  It comes in rectangular tubs.  This cheese has a delicious tang and is a little moister than the dry curd cottage cheese or the block-style farmer cheese I used to be able to find.  It became my baking cheese of choice for ethnic dishes.

Since I now had a fine local source, it would never have occurred to me to consider making my own curd cheese if I hadn't taken on the challenge of salt-free cooking.

It was all because of Sodium Girl (of course!) who had written a funny but informative blog post about paneer, the Indian cheese that shows up as firm white cubes in any number of delicious vegetarian dishes.  She had become a big fan of paneer because, unlike almost all other cheeses, it is usually prepared without added salt.  She also noted that it is easy to make at home and included a link to a simple recipe. (Take a look at her full post, Paneer is Here.)

So that got me combing the Internet for paneer recipes.  And I quickly learned that paneer is one of a family of simple, uncured homestyle cheeses. Remember Little Miss Muffet who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey?  Well, these cheeses are the curds minus the whey.

Farmer cheese and pot cheese.  Russian tvorog and Indian paneer.  Mexican quesco fresco and Slovenian skuta.  Every culture seems to have a version.  They are variations on a theme. They all begin the same way.  Milk is heated, and then an acid (usually lemon juice or vinegar) is stirred in, to separate the curds and whey.  In other words, the milk curdles.  The curds are drained and either left as dry crumbles or pressed into a firmer cake or block.

Sometimes a cultured milk product, like yogurt or buttermilk, is added along with the vinegar or lemon juice.  There are various degrees of sitting, heating, and pressing involved.  Some recipes do call for a little salt at the beginning, but most seem to wait until the cheese is in its final form before adding.

Salt-free cheese.  It seemed too good to be true. I had assumed that any farmer cheese or curd cheese I bought would have at least some added salt.   Besides, I was intrigued. So I set out to make my own.

As it turns out, I was wrong to assume that commercially-made farmer cheese and curd cheese always contain added salt. Belfiore, my local brand, does not.  But I'm glad I didn't discover this until recently, or I might not have set off on my cheese-making adventures.

Here is an interesting article about the history, disappearance and re-emergence of farmer cheese, with a nice mention of my two favorite brands:  New York-based Friendship and Berkeley's own Belfiore.

Ready to try making curd cheese yourself?  Take a look at the next post for a step-by-step recipe.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Healthy Slovenian Buckwheat Baby for Father's Day

Everyone loves the eggy, skillet-baked pancake that most Americans call a Dutch Baby.

What happens if you add a little buckwheat flour?

I wish I could claim this as my own Slovenian-inspired innovation.

But the credit goes to Deb, over at the popular Smitten Kitten blog.  She paired the pancake with a rich, salt-kissed caramel topping.  No surprise that her recipe for Buckwheat Baby with Salted Caramel Syrup has spread like wildfire.

The dish looked delectable. The addition of buckwheat flour spoke to my Slovenian heart. In fact, it seemed reminiscent of my own creation, Buckwheat Breakfast Crumbles.  But with salt in the pancake and salt in the topping, this Baby was not exactly a good fit for our new low-sodium lifestyle.

So I decided to make a healthy version for Father's Day. No salt.  Less fat.  I had planned to use vegetable oil instead of butter, but my husband suggested we try his latest discovery: coconut oil. And instead of that decadent salty caramel sauce, I improvised a nice light fruit topping: strawberries and blueberries mixed with apricot preserves, almonds, and touch of amaretto.  Not too shabby.

For the batter, I followed the basic flour-milk-egg proportions suggested in Smitten Kitten. I eliminated the salt and added brown sugar and vanilla as a flavor boost.  I also increased the quantities by half, since I thought that Baby might puff up a little more sucessfully.

I decided to call my adaptation a Slovenian Buckwheat Baby Pancake.

Slovenian Buckwheat Baby Pancake  (a healthy adaptation from Smitten Kitten)

4-1/2 tablespoons buckwheat flour
4-1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 t. vanilla
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons coconut oil

Fruit Topping
strawberries, cut up
low-sugar apricot preserves, to taste
whole almonds
splash of amaretto

Confectioner's sugar for topping.

For fruit topping: Mix ingredients together in whatever proportions you wish.  Let sit so flavors can blend. 

For the pancake, mix all ingredients together in a shaker (as I did) or by beating in a bowl until smooth.   Heat coconut oil in a cast iron skillet on top of the stove until hot.  Pour in the batter and place in a 400 degree oven.  Bake for 15 to 17 minutes until puffed and golden.

Remove pancake from the oven.  Sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Cut into wedges and serve with fruit topping and (if desired) Greek yogurt on the side.

For the verdict, read on.

This was delicious!  The buckwheat provided a nice hearty tang. The coconut oil allowed the pancake to brown just right and it added a mild, intriguing flavor. (No wonder the New York Times calls it the new darling of the health food world!) The fruit topping was light and flavorful without being overwhelming.  And best of all: no added salt. 

Another LoSoSlo success!