Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Cooking in Translation: A 1903 Recipe for Piškotni Zvitki (aka Jelly Roll Slices!)

Last winter, I found a treasure in a box of old books that had just been culled from the library at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall. I spotted a thick volume with an old-fashioned marbelized cover:

Carefully, I opened the fragile, yellowing pages. A pressed flower and a few old mass cards fell out. It was like walking through a door to the past.


I had just discovered an original copy of a classic Slovenian cookbook called Dobra Kuharica  ("Good Cook"), published in 1903 in Ljubljana. The author, Minka Govekar-Vasič, was a formidable women whose accomplishments extended far beyond the kitchen. She was a doctor's daughter who became a prominent writer, translator, and women's rights activist. With Dobra Kuharica, she established standards for measurements and terminology that became the foundation for modern Slovenian cooking.

I gave myself an assignment: I would translate a recipe from Dobra Kuharica, prepare the dish, and share the results with my Slovenian class. I began to search for a a short, simple recipe for a bread or sweet.

I settled on a sweet called piškotni zvitki--in English, biscuit or cookie rolls. It looked like a simple enough dish: egg whites, egg yolks, sugar and flour. I imagined it might be similar to another old-fashioned Slovenian treat I had discovered in the last few years, a biscotti-like sweet called domači prijatelj. I did a rough translation and plunged in.

The dish turned out to be a sort of sponge cake that was supposed to be baked in a layer and then spread with something that eluded translation. Tomato paste? Nut paste? After some last minute e-mail consultations with Mia, my Slovenian language teacher, and a few exchanges with some Slovenian Facebook friends,  a consensus emerged: the mystery term was an older word, possibly German-derived or a dialect, that meant jam or fruit paste. I decided to use my favorite: apricot jam.

Unfortunately, I had one other translation problem. I thought the sponge cake layers were to be covered with a filling and then pressed together. By the time my Facebook friend Tina set me straight ("You do realize you need to roll the cake, right?") it was too late. The batter was already in the oven, in two round cake pans. So the first version of the dish, the one I presented to my Slovenian class that night, looked like the picture below.  But it tasted just fine, even if it wasn't quite the fancy presentation that Minka Vasič intended.

The second time, I decided to make the cake the proper way, for an event at the Slovenian Hall. I baked the cake in a flat rectangular pan and managed to roll it up with only a few small cracks. It looked quite elegant and it tasted lovely. But there was no getting around it: This was a familiar dessert. Americans call it a jelly roll. British cooks refer to it as a Swiss roll--or, if presented in layers, a Victoria sponge or sandwich.

But I do like this Slovenian dish, even if it isn't quite the exotic ethnic specialty I had expected. For one thing, it provides a glimpse into a segment of society in turn-of-the-century Slovenia that I knew little about: the educated urban elite, whose experience was so different from the village life of my own immigrant ancestors.

There is also a subtle but important difference in the Slovenian take on this dessert. In every other jelly roll recipe I have seen, the cake is rolled up loosely in a towel and cooled. Then it is unrolled, filled, and re-rolled. No wonder the cake often cracks! In the Slovenian recipe, the fruit filling is spread on the baked cake layer, returned briefly to the oven, and then rolled up while it is still warm. The warm, moist layer is easy to shape and it seems to seal itself. It is a far more efficient way of preparing this lovely dessert.

But why take my word for it? Try the recipe below and see for yourself!

Piškotni zvitki 
                                     --from Dobra Kuharica (1903) by Minka Vasičeva

Mešaj 14 dek sladkorja s petimi rumenjakič potem prideni sneg petih beljakov in 12 dek moke, razmaži testo za pol prsta debelo po namazani ploči ter ga speci. Ko je pecivo dovolj pečeno, ga obrni, namaži ga z gorko mezgo (zolznom) in ga deni nazaj v pečico, da se segreje. Potem ga zvij trdo skupaj kakor gibanico ter ga zreži na prst široke zvitke.

Cookie (or Biscuit) Rolls

Mix 140 g of sugar with five egg yolks then five well-whipped egg whites and 120 g of flour. Spread dough half a finger thick on a greased baking pan and bake. When the cake is baked enough, turn it over, spread with warm jam, and put it back in the oven to warm up. Then roll up firmly like a gibanica and cut into finger-wide rolls.      
                                              --translation by Blair Kilpatrick

Measurement notes:

1 dek (also written dag) means dekagram and equals 10 g by weight.
140 g sugar is between  2/3 and 3/4 cup
120 g flour is 1 cup

Additional notes on preparation:

The original directions are brief. If you are unsure about how to make a basic sponge cake, any good general cookbook will explain in more detail. I like to add a little of the sugar to the egg whites, to increase the volume. Because no extra leavening is used, be careful when you fold the whites into the yolk-sugar mixture. Sprinkle the flour on top and and then carefully fold  it in. Be gentle when you spread the batter in the pan. Bake the cake in a parchment-lined 10 x 15 inch jelly roll pan for about 10 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or until lightly browned.

When the cake is done, remove from the oven, turn it over, and spread with the jam or fruit filling of your choice. (I like apricot jam.) Return to the oven and bake for about 5 more minutes, then remove it.

The cake is rolled up while it is still warm. Roll it firmly, using the paper to help nudge it into shape. You will find that it can be molded into a compact shape, because it is moist and still warm. Wrap lightly in waxed paper and refrigerate for several hours or more before serving.

To serve, sprinkle with powdered sugar and cut into slices.


Some new cooking vocabulary I learned:

Nouns *
zvitki, plural of zvitek = scroll or roll
piškot = cookie or biscuit
testo = dough, pastry
mezgo = spread, paste, or puree (fruit, jam, tomato paste, etc)
zolznom = an older term for mezgo, possibly German-derived or dialect, understood as jam or jelly
pol prsta = half a finger
ploče= metal baking sheet or dish (from pločevina = sheet metal)

* Note: For simplicity's sake, the nouns are listed in the form in which they appear in the recipe. Yes, I am sidestepping the tricky problem of gender and cases in the Slovene language. For more on that, see Tina's comment :-)

mešati = to stir
namazati = to spread, to smear, to grease
razmazati = to smear, to smudge
dajati =  to give, to put
segrevati se = to warm up *
narezati = to slice
zarezati = to cut into
zvijati =  to roll or coil
obrniti se =  to turn around, turn over, flip over *

* Note: Yes, strictly speaking, in Slovenia cakes seem to flip themselves over :-) See Tina's comment below, about these reflexive verbs.