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.
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.
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.
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.
I first tried to make jota in early 2012. That was the year I took my deep dive into Slovenian cooking. I had never heard of this iconic bean and sauerkraut stew and I was eager to experiment. The version I made was pleasant but mild. And very white: sauerkraut, small white beans, white potatoes, and a dollop of yogurt. The monochromatic color scheme was broken only by the sprinkle of parsley on top. I never got around to trying it again.
Jota, with white beans, 2012
Now, eight years later, I have made jota for the second time. And I am a believer! It was wonderful. Comforting and zesty. It was a success mostly due to the limitations created by cooking in confinement.
The first big difference: Apache beans, which I had recently discovered work well as a substitute for borlotti or Roman beans in pašta fižol. In fact, if it weren't for that big bag of dried beans sitting in the pantry, I probably wouldn't have given jota another chance. I don't know what made the difference, the switch from white to red beans, or the fact that the beans were cooked from scratch this time. Probably both!
Another challenge: Jota is traditionally cooked with bits of bacon (my choice last time) or smoked meat. Although we did have some smoked sausage on hand, it was a Louisiana-style andouille. I was concerned that the assertive Cajun spices would overwhelm the more subtle Slovenian-ness of this traditional dish, so I decided to make the sausage separately and serve it on the side.
Oh-oh! Without really planning to, I had backed into making vegan jota! Now I was really facing a challenge. But a little online research revealed that my first recipe (from a non-Slovenian source) had been a particularly mild version, compared to the other approaches I was discovering. So I upped the garlic and added three new ingredients: tomato paste, paprika, and a touch of liquid smoke, the suggestion of a Slovenian vegetarian blogger.
These changes, growing out of a time of adversity, made all the difference. Even without the sausage, this version of jota was a winner. I can't wait to make it again!
Update: A month later (just after writing this post!) I was inspired to do it again, with one small change: Instead of sweet paprika, I used the hot smoked paprika I had recently bought. That created some added zest and it also eliminated the need for liquid smoke.
Jota, or Slovenian Bean and Sauerkraut Stew
1 cup dried borlotti, Roman, or Apache beans
2-3 medium potatoes (about 10 ounces cooked)
16 ounces sauerkraut
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, cubed
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste (or catsup, in a pinch)
2-3 teaspoons paprika (sweet or smoked *)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups potato water or other liquid
(Optional: 1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke, unless you use smoked paprika!)
Parsley to garnish
* To compensate for the absence of meat, consider using smoked paprika (preferred) or liquid smoke (which also works)
If desired: Smoked meat or sausage can be served on the side
If desired: Yogurt or sour cream (or a dairy-free alternative) to garnish
Prepare beans in the usual way: Soak overnight, simmer until tender, and drain. You should have about 2-1/2 cups of cooked beans. (Yes, you can substitute 2 cans of beans, although I don't recommend it!)
Cube the potatoes and cook in boiling salted water until tender. Save the water. Drain sauerkraut if you want a milder dish. (I didn't!)
Heat olive oil in a large pot and cook onions until softened. Add garlic, sprinkle with flour, and cook for several more minutes, stirring constantly until mixture turns golden. (Yes, you are making a roux, just like the Cajuns!) Add a little water to this mixture and stir to make a sauce. Add the tomato paste, the remaining seasonings, the sauerkraut, and additional liquid as needed. Simmer the mixture for 10-15 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and beans and simmer for 20 more minutes. At the end, taste the seasonings and adjust.
To serve, garnish with parsley, plus yogurt or sour cream if desired. Sausage or other meat can be served alongside.
I was starting to stock our pandemic pantry with hefty bags of dried beans. Garbanzos and black beans were easy to find online. My husband hinted that I might want to find some of the beans I had used in my Slovenian recipes. White beans, perhaps?
But my thoughts immediately went to another variety, the speckled red-and-white beans known as Roman or borlotti beans.
These unusual beans were the foundation for a special soup my late mother recalled fondly from her Cleveland childhood but had trouble describing. My mother's mystery bean soup turned out to be a delicious variation of pašta fižol, in which the beans are pureed before adding the pasta--in this case, homemade square egg noodles Slovenians call bleki.
Borlotti beans are considered heirloom beans and can be hard to locate even in normal times. I did find some online--for a price. But my search pulled up another bean variety that was described as a good alternative--in the same bean family, and with a similar red-and-white pattern.They even cost less than the borlotti beans and would arrive faster.
So I decided to take a chance. When the beans arrived, I was struck by the vivid and distinct pattern.
I also learned they had a fascinating international pedigree: Sold by a Canadian company, imported by a company in New Jersey and grown in Kyrgyzstan--from a strain of pinto beans first developed in the United States in the 1980s!
A few days later, I decided to make traditional pašta fižol, using the un-pureed recipe I had made originally. It just happened to be Trubar Day, a fitting time to celebrate my Slovenian heritage.
Naturally, I had to make a few more pandemic-required adjustments. Instead of bacon or pancetta, I used the only smoked meat we had available: Italian chicken sausage. Catsup instead of tomato paste. And store-bought Italian dried pasta, since I didn't have the time or energy for handmade bleki.
Despite the substitutions and the pasta shortcut, the dish was a success. Those Apache beans (seen in the before-and-after photos below) seemed to be a more than adequate substitute for borlotti beans. Their pretty colors were still faintly visible after cooking and the flavor was rich and slightly sweet.
I couldn't wait to use them again!
After: Apache beans, cooked
Before: Apache beans, dried
Pašta Fižol (with pandemic substitutions)
1 lb. dried Roman beans (borlotti or cranberry beans) Apache beans, cooked
5 oz. turkey bacon or pancetta Italian chicken sausages, 5-10 oz.
2-3 T. olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 T. flour
2 t. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. tomato paste catsup
1 c. hot water
2 t. marjoram
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. pepper
salt to taste
2 t. vinegar
homemade bleki/square noodles 4 ounces dried Italian pasta elbows
parsley to garnish
About a month into confinement, I had the urge to take on a new Slovenian baking project. It had to be traditional--and it had to use ingredients that were close at hand.
What better choice than buckwheat bread? Ajdov kruh, in Slovene.
My only experience with using buckwheat in a yeast bread was when I baked pisani kruh, a tasty spiral of buckwheat, white and corn dough that is supposed to suggest potica.
But I had never tried to duplicate the dense round buckwheat loaves we had enjoyed on our last two trips to Slovenia. My husband and I enjoyed it as a breakfast bread, spread with jam or honey. The assertive flavor of buckwheat also paired well with cheese or sausage. And the bread remained moist for a long time.
We still had plenty of buckwheat flour, and I had finally re-stocked the white flour and yeast. We even had a few potatoes and some walnuts--optional ingredients, although many Slovenian recipes included them.
I wondered whether my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks included buckwheat bread. I found a promising recipe in Woman's Glory, although I had to make a few adjustments: A half recipe, since there were just two of us at home and no entertaining on the horizon. Instant dry yeast instead of the old-fashioned cake yeast. And I wanted to add some toasted walnuts, even though this American recipe didn't call for them.
Woman's Glory turned out to be more of a guide than a precise formula. How big is a large potato? How liquidy are "loose" mashed potatoes supposed to be? I kept having to add extra liquid--and then more flour.
But it all worked out in the end.
The bread was just as we remembered it, with a rustic look and an earthy taste. Next time I might add even more walnuts.
Happy Trubar Day!
Buckwheat Bread (Ajdov Kruh)
1-1/2 cups buckwheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large potato, boiled and mashed
reserved potato water
2-1/2 teaspoons yeast
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1-1/2 cups white flour (I substituted a little whole wheat flour)
dash of salt
3/4 cup reserved potato water and/or milk
walnuts, toasted and chopped
Combine buckwheat flour and salt in a medium bowl and set aside. Boil cut-up potato in salted water until soft. Drain the cooking liquid and set aside. Mash the potato, adding enough reserved liquid to make about 3/4 cup of "loose" mashed potatoes. Pour the warm potato mixture over buckwheat flour and mix to make a soft dough, adding more reserved liquid as needed. Let stand for an hour.
Combine white flour, sugar, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Warm reserved potato water (or milk) and mix in egg. Add buckwheat dough and as much egg-liquid mixture as needed to the white flour to make a soft dough. Knead well--and don't be surprised if you need to add more white flour.
Form dough into ball and place in floured bowl. Cover and let rise for 1-1/2 hours. Punch down, divide into one or two portions. Knead in walnuts and form into rounds. Cut cross on top. Cover and let rise for about 45 minutes. Bake at 375 degrees for 50-60 minutes.
Those Easter eggs with natural dyes were not my first nod to my Slovenian heritage during this time of cooking in confinement. Before that, I had made an impromptu batch of cookies that I consider Slovenian in spirit, because their defining feature is the generous use of buckwheat.
I had gotten the urge to bake after we had been sheltering in place for two weeks. We were running low on white flour--a staple that I discovered had become scarcer than toilet paper. I finally placed an order on Amazon for the best option I could find: a ten pound bag of Italian 00 flour, which wouldn't arrive for several weeks.
My husband was convinced we must have extra flour somewhere. He hinted that it might be illuminating if I went through all those bags of flour and grain in the freezer, the fridge, and the pantry, to see what we really had.
So that became my morning project. I pulled everything out and lined those bags up alphabetically. They formed a line that snaked around most of our available counter space!
It was an embarrassment of riches--and I do mean embarrassing!
There were seventeen varieties of flour and related grains, in multiple bags, lined up from A to W. Almond Flour to Wheat Flour. And in between, some novelty items I used once or twice and forget about (brown rice, coconut, gluten-free, soy) and some familiar staples (buckwheat, corn, oats, rye.)
The wheat flour was a category in itself. We had semolina, whole wheat flour, and organic pastry flour. But the back-up supply of all-purpose flour was not quite what my husband had predicted. It turned out to be the remains of one small bag.
What we did have was plenty of buckwheat.Three different bags of buckwheat flour, bought in bulk from the corner market, along with a rather odd product (at least to our taste) called creamy buckwheat cereal, described as cracked raw buckwheat by the manufacturer.
So I decided to make buckwheat cookies, since that would preserve our dwindling supply of white flour and take advantage of the generous supply of buckwheat.
I didn't consult a recipe. I had finally figured out the proper way of adapting the Slovenian recipe for ajdovčki (buckwheat-nut thumbprint cookies) and I had made those rich little morsels a number of time. I now had the general idea of how to make a part-buckwheat cookie.
So I just tossed together what seemed like a standard plain cookie recipe, working from memory and experience, and using what was close at hand. (I wasn't in the mood for any more kitchen searches!) When I couldn't find our cinnamon, I substituted an Indian spice mix. We didn't have any fresh walnuts, but I had discovered a small bag in the freezer that contained the cinnamon/sugar/ground walnut mixture that was left over from my holiday potica baking. Brown sugar, because that's all we had. And I decided to throw in a little of that cracked buckwheat cereal. Rum, because it always helps. And on top, some white chocolate chips, since I wouldn't be using cocoa.
Those cookies turned out to be pretty good. Compared to the buckwheat thrumbprints, they were plainer, but with a stronger buckwheat flavor, since I used a half-and-half mix of flours. A little sweeter, but less rich, with fewer nuts and less oil than the butter used in the earlier recipe. No chocolatey flavor.
I would make this impromptu recipe again--but without the addition of the buckwheat cereal nuggets. Those little crunchy bits were much in evidence--and as time went on, they must have absorbed moisture from the rest of the cookie, because they had turned into rocks after a week in a storage tin. My husband reminded me that this was not an opportune moment for a cracked tooth.
These were hard but tasty cookies for hard times.
Buckwheat Cookies for Hard Times
1 cup white flour
1 cup buckwheat flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
garam masala mix (or just use cinnamon)
1/4 cup buckwheat cereal (cracked ground buckwheat--optional!)
1/3 cup ground walnut/sugar/cinnamon mix (leftover from potica--optional!)
1/2 cup oil
1 cup brown sugar
1-2 Tablespoons rum (or more to moisten)
optional: white or dark chocolate chips to decorate
Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the remaining (wet) ingredients together. Add the dry ingredients and stir until combined. If mixture is too dry, add a little more rum.
Form into walnut-sized balls, which will flatten slightly if you press a chocolate chip on top.
Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
Easter and Passover have come and gone and I still haven't posted some of the dishes I prepared over the Christmas holidays. (Was my last post really on December 25?)
Here in California, we have been sheltering in place for just over five weeks. The day before the order went out, my husband and I finished up the last of the Christmas potica at a bittersweet "last supper"shared with our friend Natasha from my Slovenian class. It will probably be many months before we can welcome another guest to our table.
We are becoming accustomed to cooking in confinement. Making do with whatever is at hand. It is far from austere. I know how fortunate we are compared to so many other people. I feel grateful every day. But it is not the same.
Like those festive hard-cooked eggs I first made for Easter (and Passover) in 2016 and finally wrote about the following year. Before that, I had never colored eggs with onion skins or any other natural dye. And I had never heard about creating intricate patterns by attaching small leaves to the eggs before boiling.
(For detailed instruction, see the original post, here.)
This simple folk art is practiced in Slovenia, as well as other communities in Europe. I discovered that this style of decoration was also a tradition in some of the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish communities where my husband's ancestors once lived.
I was already in the habit of making a traditional Passover dish of the Sephardic (Spanish) Jews: Huevos Haminados, or long-cooked eggs, in which eggs are boiled or baked for hours with onions and onion skins, to create color as well as an intriguing change in flavor and texture.
So I had come to look forward to drawing on all these traditions to create beautiful eggs that had a place in the two springtime holidays that are part of our family histories.
Easter: Pirhi & Potica
Passover: Huevos Haminados & Matzo
But this year, things were different. I had to work with what was on hand, since we were trying to rely on online ordering rather than shopping for groceries in person.
At first, we had only brown eggs available and just a small handful of onion skins to color them, so there wasn't much point in trying to create those lovely patterns. I boiled just four eggs, and I added some coffee grounds to try to deepen the color.
Then another grocery order arrived and we had white eggs. But the refrigerator held just a small sliver of onion. Now I could try to create patterns, but I had to come up with another dye. I still had some of the home-dried orange marigold tea a friend in Slovenia had given me during our recent visit in the fall. As I watched the eggs boiling away, the color looked too pale, so I added some turmeric.
As you can see in the photo at the top of the page, my eggs turned out more muted this year. Tan and pale yellow, rather than the deep burnished russet color of past years--or the new golden hue I was hoping to create. Our celebrations were muted as well. A virtual Passover seder with old friends in Chicago, and a Zoom meeting on Easter Sunday with my siblings.
But at their core, the eggs still had that same distinctive look and taste: a creamy texture, a brownish hue, a tangy nut-like flavor. However imperfect, they could still speak to me of family and tradition, of love and memory, and of survival and hope.
Belated holiday greetings, and happy springtime, from our house to yours.