Sunday, January 6, 2013

Slovenian Dinner Week 43: A Meat-and-Potatoes Dinner for Election Day

Potato Bread
Slovenski Meat Loaf
Brussels Sprouts

It was the first Tuesday in November.  Election Day. Except for a quick walk to our neighborhood polling place, and then a stop at the market,  I planned to spend the rest of the day at home. The Presidential election was expected to be close.

It seemed like the perfect time to make a second attempt at my grandmother's homemade white bread.

My first try, earlier in the year, wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t like Grandma’s. The trouble was that no one in the family knew how she made it.  Afterward, my mother dropped one of her famous off-hand remarks:

“Well, sometimes my mother used potato water in her bread—”

Potato water.  And maybe the potatoes as well? That could be the key.

That might explain why my grandmother’s version was a cut above the usual white bread. Her bread, baked in standard issue bread pans, didn’t look any different. The loaves were always high. Brown and crusty on the outside.  Inside, they had a moist but light quality.  And maybe a slightly coarse crumb that gave the bread a kind of earthiness.

I couldn’t find a white potato bread in any of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks. But I did find a recipe on the website of an ethnic radio station in the Cleveland area, in a section called Alice Kuhar’s Recipes.

Alice Kuhar, who must be close to my mother's age, is a well known figure in Cleveland’s Slovenian American community.  A radio personality.  One of the first female radio engineers in the United States.  A recent inductee into Cleveland's Polka Hall of Fame.

Her recipe collection is an eclectic mix, similar to those 1950s cookbooks I have been collecting. Traditional Slovenian dishes are mixed in with other ethnic specialties, along with plain old American fare.  So I didn’t know how to classify her Old-Fashioned Potato Bread. The recipe looked like a basic sort of white yeast bread, except for one thing: The liquid was provided by boiled potatoes, mashed into their cooking water, along with buttermilk or sour milk.

The recipe sounded good, but there was nothing to identify it as Slovenian. But then I found a similar recipe in one of my newer sources:  The Yugoslav Cookbook, published in Ljubljana in the mid-1980s. That was close enough for me.  At the very least, this was the sort of bread that was made in the former Yugoslavia.  And more to the point, it was known to the ethnic community in Cleveland.  And maybe to my grandmother.

Old Fashioned Potato Bread  (Adapted from Alice Kuhar)

1-1/2 c. water
1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
1 c. buttermilk or sour milk
3 T. sugar
2 T. butter
2 t. salt
6 to 6-1/2 c. flour (Note: I used bread flour and ended up using less)
2 packages dry yeast

Peel and cube the potato and cook in boiling water in covered pot until tender, about 12 minutes. (Note: I left the skin on and removed it after boiling.)  Without draining, mash the potato pieces in the cooking water.  Measure the mixture, adding more water if necessary so that the total amount is 1-3/4 cups.

Put the mashed potato-water mixture back in the pot, along with all the remaining ingredients except for the flour.  Combine ingredients until butter is melted.  Heat or cool to allow mixture to reach 120-130 degrees. (Note: I just took a guess. I heated the mixture and let it cool until it felt pretty warm but not hot.  To be safe: check!)

Combine yeast with 2 cups of the flour in large mixing bowl.  When the potato mixture is the proper temperature, add it to the bowl.  Beat with electric mixer at low speed for 30 seconds.  Scrape bowl to make sure mixture is well combined.  Beat at high speed for 3 minutes.  Stir in as much of the remaining flour as you can with a large spoon. (For me, that was about 1 more cup.)  Then turn the mixture onto floured surface and begin kneading in the rest of the flour.

According to the recipe, you should knead in enough flour to "make a moderately stiff dough that is smooth and elastic," a process that should take 6 to 8 minutes.  Form the dough into a ball.  Place it in a large oiled bowl, turning over to oil the top. Cover and let sit in a warm place for  45-60 minutes, or until doubled.

Punch dough down. Turn out onto floured surface and knead briefly, then divide in two. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Form into loaves and dip the tops in a bit of flour. Place each one in an oiled 8 x 4 x 2 inch loaf pan. (Note: I used one extra-large pan and one smaller pan.) Cover and let rise again in a warm place until almost doubled.

Bake in 375 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until done.  If loaves begin to get too brown, cover with foil for the last 15 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool on rack.

I had been worried about this bread recipe.  Maybe the election day jitters didn’t help.

I always proof the yeast before adding, so it was an act of faith to mix the dry yeast into the flour.  I worried that I hadn’t actually checked the temperature before I added the hot potato mixture.  What if it was so hot it killed off the yeast?

And then there was that little problem of kneading the dough.

The original recipe suggested that the final kneading would take 6-8 minutes.  I expected to use close to 6-1/2 cups of flour. But the dough became stiff well before that. I continued to knead until the dough became sticky, so I added more.  I still had about 2 cups flour left, so I continued to knead and incorporate more flour.

The upshot of all this: I kneaded for about 20 minutes and still had a good cup of flour left over.  In all, I used about 5 cups of flour.  Make of it what you will, but I was worried.

When I finished kneading, I had a firm, springy ball of dough.  So maybe I was on the right track. The dough rose nice and high—and fast.  So the yeast was obviously healthy. During the second rising, the dough almost—but not quite—overflowed the pans.

In the oven, the loaves rose well.  The bread was almost bursting out of the pans. When I tapped on top, they were hard and crisp with a nice hollow sound.  They came out of the pan easily.  The bottoms seemed a little pale, so I popped them back in, placing them directly on the oven rack, for another 5 minutes to crisp up.

The aroma was heavenly.

I couldn’t wait to cut into one of those crusty loaves at dinner.

To go along with the bread, I wanted to make a simple entree, mostly protein.

I’d had my eye on a curious dish called Slovenski Meat Loaf.  It seemed more interesting than the recipes I’d seen in my vintage cookbooks, if a little odd. I had seen it in a few places online. The same name, and virtually the identical recipe, right down to the dried parsley, instant rice, and ketchup or passata.

I first ran across it on a British cooking site called Celt Net, with metric measures,  and then on the website of an Internet company in Minnesota’s Iron Range—where my own ancestors first settled. So maybe it was legitimate.  Not exactly Old Country, with those convenience foods.  But at least Slovenian American.

The original recipe seemed quite large: two pounds of beef plus three different starches, presumably to act as meat extenders.  Several veggies. And quite a variety of spices and flavorings.  It had an “everything-but-the-kitchen sink” quality to it.

I cut the recipe in half and made just a few changes.  Fresh parsley.  Regular rice instead of instant. Matzo meal instead of bread crumbs.  I did use catsup, since I wasn’t quite sure what passata was, although I assumed it must be a European equivalent of some kind.

(I later discovered that passata is the Italian name for a useful staple I had recently discovered, after it started to turn up in some of the local "natural" markets.  It is a strained, fresh-tasting tomato puree, sold in jars or boxes, and good to keep on hand.)

Slovenski Meat Loaf

1 lb. ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 green pepper, diced
olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
1 potato, grated
3 T. raw rice, parboiled
3 T. bread crumbs or matzo meal
1 egg
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
I/2 T. smoked paprika
2 T. fresh parsley, minced
1/2 T. prepared mustard (I used Dijon)
3/4 t. worcestershire sauce
1/4 c. catsup or passata
1/4 t. each dried basil, oregano or marjoram, and thyme

Cook onion and green pepper in olive oil in a small skillet until onions are turning brown. Add garlic and cook a few more minutes.  Let cool. Add to meat, along with the other ingredients.

Line a large baking pan with foil.  Oil the foil.  Form the meat into a flat rectangular loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for an hour or so, until done.  Let cool before slicing.


The verdict:  This was a good, traditional, all-American, ever-so-slightly ethnic dinner.

At our local market that morning, I had spotted a big, beautiful branch of brussels sprouts and couldn't resist bringing it home.  I left the preparation to my husband.  He chopped off the right number of sprouts and sauteed them in a little olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper.  Delicious!

That oddball meat loaf tasted pretty good.  It would have been better to pre-cook the rice (or use instant), since the outer bits were crunchy and stuck to the foil.   A well-oiled ceramic pan might be a better choice for baking.

As my husband put it, the other dishes were really just support for the potato bread. That was the main event.

I had done an advance tasting of the bread.  Since I had some extra dough, I had made myself a little test roll.  It was still hot when I tore it open and and inspected it.  It had a nice, delicate texture. Then I tasted it. Ahh. This just might be it. Light, slightly sweet. But with more substance than the usual plain old white bread.

At dinner, the loaves of bread had cooled enough to slice easily.  The bread still tasted good, although I could see that the texture was a little uneven. I was probably guilty of over-kneading. 

I froze the second loaf of bread for my mother.  I wasn't quite sure what she would think about it.

I finally asked her, a few days later.

She hesitated.  “It was good.  But it wasn’t my mother’s.”

So the bread remains a work in progress. 

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