Moussaka ("Eggplant with Hamburg")
Authentic Albanian Cake
Cviček (Slovenian red wine from Dolenjska)
My first Albanian dinner was a success, so I was eager to expand my horizons. Unfortunately, English language resources for the aspiring Albanian cook are in short supply.
But my resourceful son managed to find a true gem: the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), put together by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I was excited when my shiny red copy arrived in the mail. This new edition was a much more polished affair then my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks--and it did a better job of maintaining a clear focus on traditional ethnic food. Not a jello salad in sight!
But one thing was familiar: Multiple versions of the same dish, often with minimal differences in the ingredients or method of preparation. This seems to be part of the inclusive spirit behind these collaborative cookbook projects. Everyone has a voice.
I found seven recipes for moussaka, a layered casserole that is popular throughout the Balkans. Four recipes used the familiar ground beef and eggplant combination, two called for potatoes instead of eggplant, and one used both. All had variations of a custard topping.
One moussaka recipe stood out because of three unique ingredients: cheese, wine and cinnamon. Was this the Greek influence? Whatever its origins, this take on the dish appealed to me.
After I had assembled the moussaka, I went back to the Albanian Cookbook to search for an easy dessert. In the pastry section, I found the expected variations on baklava and halva, as well as some unfamiliar sweets. Most of these treats were rich and elaborate concoctions.
One dessert caught my eye. It had a straightforward name, Authentic Albanian Cake, and an equally simple method of preparation: Mix up some water, flour, oil, sugar, nuts, cinnamon, and baking powder in a bowl. Bake, sprinkle with sugar, and serve.
No eggs. No butter or milk. No frills. Was this really Albanian? It sounded suspiciously like some American cakes that used to be popular in the past, with names like Wacky Cake or Depression Cake. But it was easy enough--almost too easy, so I took a little more care with the mixing. I'm not sure it made much difference.
That moussaka was a winner. Perhaps it was the unique combination of flavors. Or the authentic Greek kasseri cheese. Or the fact that I took the time to salt and drain the eggplant and to pre-bake it well. But it was the best moussaka I have ever tasted. It was even better the next day.
As for the cake?
Well, it was a surprise, especially once I cut into it. It looked like one of those trays of dense, filled pastries that are common throughout the Balkans and the Middle East:
During baking, the batter had magically separated into a light cakey layer on the bottom and top, with a dense, paste-like filling in the middle. Perhaps this was intended to be a quick, economical mock-baklava for a crowd.
The flavor was very mild. My husband liked it. If I were to make this again, I would increase the sugar and nuts. I might also substitute brown sugar for white and almonds for the walnuts.
Recipes for both these intriguing Albanian dishes follow below. Enjoy!
Update: A month later, I made one more attempt at the Authentic Albanian Cake--with very different results! Go here for details.
Moussaka (Eggplant with Hamburg)
--from the Albanian Cookbook (2000, 1977) by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
1 pound ground beef
2 medium eggplants
1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 T. tomato paste
1 cup kasseri cheese, grated or crumbled
2 eggs, extra large
2 cups milk
salt, pepper, cinnamon
1/2 cup water
To prepare eggplant: Slice eggplant, salt the slices, and let drain for an hour or two to remove the bitter taste. Rinse and pat dry. The eggplant slice can be sautéed in oil (as the original recipe suggests) or my way: brush slices with oil and bake on a cookie sheet until brown. (Turn once during baking.) Set aside to cool.
To prepare the meat filling: Sauté onions in oil in a large frying pan. Add meat, salt, pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon to onions and continue to brown. Dilute tomato paste in wine and water, then stir into the meat-onion mixture. Simmer uncovered until most of liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.
To assemble: Oil a 9 x 13 inch baking dish and sprinkle with bread or cracker crumbs. Add half the eggplant slices, sprinkle with 1/4 cup cheese, then add the meat. Cover with remaining eggplant slices. Beat eggs, milk, and remaining cheese together and slowly pour over the eggplant, tilting pan so liquid is absorbed Dot with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour.
Authentic Albanian Cake
--from the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
3 cups water
4 cups flour
2 cups oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup nuts (I used chopped walnuts)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons baking powder
Confectioners sugar for topping
(Note: I cut the quantities above in half and used an 11 x 8 inch pan to make a smaller cake.)
The cookbook offered brief instructions: Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl and pour into an ungreased 11 x 15 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. After cooking, sprinkle the cake with sugar and cut into squares.
This sounded like a very large cake, so I divided all quantities in half and used an 8 x 10 inch pan. I also added a couple of extra steps to the mixing. I combined the flour, cinnamon and baking powder in one bowl and then beat the water, oil, and sugar together in a second bowl. Next, I stirred the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Finally, I folded in the nuts and baked as directed.