Sunday, October 17, 2021

No More Mushy Buckwheat! (The secret is oven-toasting)

Before moving on to the Slovenian rye bread I promised in my last post, I wanted to present this somewhat overdue public service announcement that kasha lovers will appreciate.

I have discovered the key to perfectly textured buckwheat: Oven-toasting.

Avoiding mushiness is especially important when you are using it in a salad. Like kasha mediterranean, the Slovenian-style adaptation of a popular warm-weather salad that I learned to make from a friend.

Unfortunately, my first pandemic attempt at making this familiar favorite was disappointing, because the kasha was extremely mushy.  I had found an online bulk source and wondered if I should have toasted it in a skillet first, as I had sometimes done in the past.  Or perhaps I needed to use a different  proportion of water. Or a different cooking method.

So I did a little online research before my next attempt and I came up with a method that always seems to work. I also discovered that oven-toasted buckwheat has more uses than I realized. Those crunchy little kernels are almost like popcorn! They can be added to granola or used as an ice cream topping.   

Oven-Toasted Buckwheat

Rinse whole buckwheat kernels well in water and drain. Mix with a little oil (about a tablespoon per cup)  and spread out in a thin layer on a parchment-lined pan with sides. Bake at 350 degrees for a half hour. Let cool. 

To cook:  Use a 2:1 ratio of water to buckwheat. Bring salted water to a boil in a large pot and slowly add toasted buckwheat. Cover and reduce heat to simmer. Let simmer for about 15 minutes and check for doneness. When done, drain off any excess water and let the buckwheat cool uncovered. If using cold (ie, in a salad) remove to a large shallow bowl and spread out to completely cool before adding other ingredients. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Quick Little Rye Honey Cakes

This is the longest I have ever gone without posting in this blog. Five months since the last one.

So what's the problem? General pandemic malaise? A dearth of cooking adventures? Not at all.

I have been doing plenty of cooking, both old favorites and new discoveries. I bake almost all our bread. There is always homemade gelato or frozen yogurt in the freezer. I have even drafted a half dozen posts in these last months that are waiting to be published.

I have hesitated because very few of my new recipes qualify as strictly Slovenian. I could argue that they are in the Slovenian spirit. But maybe I'll forget about the excuses and just start sharing some recipes again, beginning with this one.

This is an update on a last-minute Rosh Hashanah sweet I developed two years ago, in the fall of 2019. I called it Honey Cake for the Harried. At the time, I was feeling pressured because we had just gotten through a power outage and were preparing for a trip to Slovenia. (Remember those pre-pandemic days?) I love traditional Jewish honey cake but I needed to find a shortcut.

So I decided to take a chance on that microwave mug cake craze that until then I had dismissed as a silly fad. I added some traditional touches to a very plain honey-flavored mug cake recipe and was pleasantly surprised at the result. A little pale and mild, but a decent substitute for the real thing. 

This year I came back to that recipe and and tinkered a little more: The biggest change: Instead of white flour I used rye, which is very much within the Jewish tradition. (And also pretty Slovenian, I would argue!) I also upped the spices and added some walnuts on top.

The result:  Even better than last year.The flavor and color were richer and deeper, thanks to the rye flour. And the walnuts added a nice traditional touch. 

Next up:  Another rye recipe. And this one is fully Slovenian! 

Quick Little Rye Honey Cakes (made in the microwave)

2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons honey
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
5 tablespoons rye flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and ginger
2 pinches cloves or allspice
pinch of salt
a few broken walnuts for top

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.

Pour batter into two lightly greased ramekins and sprinkle a few walnut pieces on top. Cover with parchment paper. Microwave for 90 seconds and check cakes. If not yet firm, microwave for 10 seconds more and check again. Repeat if necessary. Let cool on a rack and unmold. 

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Few New Twists on Onion Skin Eggs for Easter and Passover

Onion skins at last! 

I couldn't believe my luck. Last year, I had to improvise, since we were having our groceries delivered, and there was no way to get a whole bag of onion skins. 

But these year, now that I was vaccinated, I was starting to venture into local grocery stores. And in one small market, just as I walked in I discovered a man unloading a crate of onions, pulling off the skins, and placing the onions in a bin.

He was happy to oblige me with a small bag of the discards.

What a treasure in pandemic times! 

I did my usual thing. I simmered the eggs for about three hours with a bunch of onion skins in water, salt and pepper, a chopped up clove of garlic (a new touch this time), and a little olive oil on top. 

The project was on a smaller scale this year--and it was simplified. Just a half dozen eggs, and without the added decorative touches provided by those little leaves attached to the eggs with nylon. Call in pandemic burnout, but I just didn't have the time or energy.

That clove of garlic wasn't the only change. At my husband's suggestion, after simmering the eggs for about three hours and letting them cool off, I let them sit in the water overnight in the the fridge.The result was the deepest color yet. 

The other change? I found a new use for hard-cooked eggs that are getting a little bit old. But that will have to wait for my next post!  



Sunday, March 28, 2021

New Twists on Old Favorites: Jota with Sweet Potatoes and Balkan Cornbread with a Lift!

Where has the time gone? 

My last post was a Christmas greeting back in December: The familiar gnome with a plate of potica and medenjaki. I had made those tasty spice cookies a little differently this year and had planned to follow up with the recipe. And now it is almost April. Funny how the same thing happened last year, right after our first pandemic Christmas, when I seemed to run out of blogging steam for three months. 

No excuses, except to say that living and cooking through a pandemic is a new experience for all of us. 

Now I have some catching up to do!

So here is a tasty dinner I made in early January. Two dependable favorites with a few new twists that worked out well. 

Jota, Slovenia's traditional bean-and-sauerkraut stew, has become one of our favorite comfort foods, especially after I arrived at my new and improved version. We had almost everything on hand--including some garlic sausage (made with chicken, our preference) and homemade sauerkraut, courtesy of my husband. We were missing just one ingredient: Potatoes. Unless you count sweet potatoes. Which I did.

My husband had his doubts, but those sweet potatoes turned out to be more than just a good substitute. They added a touch of sweetness and color that provided a whole new dimension to the dish. 


I figured my Never- Fail Balkan Cornbread would make a nice accompaniment. It is normally made without leavening, but I wanted to try an intriguing Christmas gift one of our kids had sent: a can of Magic Baking Powder (yes, that is the name!), made in Canada and aluminum-free. I figured a teaspoon couldn't hurt. And why not add a half teaspoon of sweet paprika? We were a little low on yogurt, so I had to stretch it with some milk, which resulted in a looser batter than usual. 

I'll admit it:  I was a little worried about that cornbread. But it turned out to be the lightest and moistest version yet! 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Pisani Kruh, with a touch of American Anadama Bread

A few weeks ago, I had an urge to make pisani kruh again. It had been a few years since I last baked the spiraled loaf that is supposed look like a potica, even though it tastes exactly like what it is: a savory multigrain yeast bread. 

Slovenian cooking authority Janez Bogataj wrote the point was to "create an air of festive abundance" even during hard times, when the more costly ingredients that go into potica might be in short supply. (I have always suspected the recipe was a little bit of a culinary joke as well!)

I had plenty of white flour and cornmeal on hand. But I had just used up the last of the buckwheat flour. So I needed to find another way to create the dark layer that is supposed to resemble the traditional walnut filling in potica.

In the spirit of making do with whatever is at hand, I turned to the batch of cold-fermented artisan bread dough I had waiting in the fridge. I had already used part of it to make a nice loaf of the New England specialty called Anadama bread. The loaf was tasty and had a satisfying brown color, thanks to the generous use of molasses. 

Anadama Bread

I realized it might be a little redundant to use the Anadama dough in pisani kruh, because it also includes some cornmeal. But my bigger concern was that the artisan bread approach (which involves bulk  cold fermentation) utilizes a wet, unkneaded dough that might be difficult to roll into a layer. 

But it worked out just fine. I used some extra flour to roll out the sticky Anadama dough and then patted it onto the rectangle of white dough, before adding the final yellow corn layer and rolling it all up. 

Pisani kruh, ready to roll up

There are several charming stories about the origins of Academa bread, an old-fashioned regional specialty from New England. Some sources suggest the roots are Native American. Others say it was the creation of a sea captain, who became impatient when his wife Anna served him nothing but cornmeal mush and molasses for breakfast. One day he grew so frustrated that he decided to mix in some yeast and white flour, muttering "Anna, damn her!" as he kneaded away at his new bread creation.  

The recipe below is a very brief introduction to the "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" approach of Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François. I will be writing more about this in a future post.  

Anadama Bread

3/4 cup cornmeal
1-1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1-1/2 cup white (AP) flour
2 Tablespoons vital wheat gluten (or substitute extra white flour)
1 package instant dry yeast (2-1/2 teaspoons)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-3/4 cups warm water (or less, if not using the "Artisan" approach; see below)
4 tablespoons molasses

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Mix the warm water and molasses and stir into the flour mixture until well combined, using a spoon, your hands, or a stand mixer. 

If using the artisan bread approach: This is a intended to be a wet dough that is never kneaded or punched down. It is allowed to rise, loosely covered, for 2 hours and then refrigerated (loosely covered) for up to a week. A portion of dough is removed as needed, gently shaped into a round, and baked at 450 degrees for about 30 minutes.  To get a crisp crust, the authors recommend placing the loaf on a hot baking stone and creating steam with a pan of hot water at the bottom of the oven. 

If you want to use more conventional methods: Reduce the water so that the dough will be stiffer and can be lightly kneaded. Then follow the usual approach (let rise, shape,  rise, and bake.)   

This quantity of dough will make two 1 pound loaves. Half this quantity will be sufficient to use as the dark layer in my pisani kruh recipe. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Making-Do Mineštra (Minestrone, Pandemic-style)

It was late summer, about a month after I had made that tasty jota, when I rediscovered another Slovenian soup/stew. 

My husband was feeling at a loss about what to make for dinner. He reported we had some spicy chicken garlic sausage on hand, along with a head of cabbage. And some zucchini that needed to be used soon. It would be easy enough to just make the sausage with cabbage and serve some zucchini on the side, but that didn't seem to inspire him.

"I bet I can figure something out," I offered. I had a feeling there was some Slovenian dish I had made once or twice with those ingredients and started browsing the recipe list on this blog.

And there it was, Slovenian minestrone. 

How did I forget how satisfying this simple dish is?

It was one of the dishes I discovered in 2012, my year of Slovenian cooking. I made it again the following year, when I did more research and discovered how many variations there are: With beans and without, with pasta or rice, and a variety of meat choices (including none at all). That second version was even better than the first. But I realized there was nothing fixed about the recipe, especially when it came to the veggie possibilities.

Even working from our more limited pantry, I discovered that we had most of the ingredients I had used that last time. In fact, they had become our pandemic staples: Sausage, usually chicken or turkey versions. Dried beans and canned tomatoes. Pasta. Onions, garlic, cabbage, carrots, and parsley. Luckily, we happened to have a few potatoes this week. But no leeks, peas or celery root, those interesting additions from last time. We did have regular celery--and some zucchini to add. No parsley for a final garnish. But we did have plenty of white wine, for drinking as well as for cooking

I was all set to make the minestrone myself. But then I figured this might be a good time to deputize my husband, since he seemed more in need of a project. So I printed up the recipe from the last time--and was surprised to realize that salt and pepper had been the only seasonings. I suggested he might want to add some marjoram. He agreed, and he also decided to cook the beans with some bay leaves.

As I suspected, this improvised version was delicious. I was reminded once again that beans you cook yourself taste better, although the canned variety is a perfectly acceptable option. Like most soups and stews, the minestrone tasted better on the second and third days.  It was a hearty and sustaining choice as  we headed into our sixth month of sheltering in place.

Mineštra, pandemic style

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2  large onion, chopped
1 large leek, sliced But it works fine to omit!
1-2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 head cabbage (green this time), sliced
1 large carrot, sliced
1 medium potato, unpeeled, cubed
1 celery root, peeled and cubed--or 2-3 stalks of celery, sliced
1 large zucchini, cubed (A nice addition this time!) 
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced (if you have it!) 
1 cup chopped tomatoes with juice
10 oz (4 or 5) smoked chicken garlic sausages, sliced 
2 quarts water
1 c. peas, frozen or fresh But it works fine to omit! 
1/2 cup small dried pasta
1 can borlotti beans 1-1/2 cup cooked red beans, prepared with bay leaves
1-2 teaspoons salt 
freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon marjoram 
white wine to taste

shaved parmesan for garnish
parsley for garnish (if you have it!)

If you are using dried beans, prepare them in advance and set aside. Prepare the other vegetables. If you use a leek, be careful to cut and soak the bulb to remove any grit before slicing.

Heat olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the onion and garlic and brown. Add leek, cabbage and sausage and brown. Add the remaining vegetables (except for the beans), seasonings, and water. Cover and simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning. Toward the end, add pasta and prepared beans and continue simmering for a half hour. If desired, add some white wine. Serve with grated parmesan cheese and parsley for garnish.