Saturday, April 15, 2017

Eggs Dyed with Onion Skins for Easter (and Passover)

Last spring, I discovered Slovenian Easter eggs or pirhi. Until then, I had just one Slovenian Easter tradition: Potica.

My Slovenian language teacher piqued my interest, when she gave each of us a "pisanica." These hollowed-out, intricately decorated black-and-red eggs are a traditional folk art that is practiced in Bela Krajina, a region in southeast Slovenia. Similar styles of egg decorating are found in other parts of the country.
That first beautiful egg (in the upper left in the photo above) inspired me to experiment with another  technique I read about, using hard-cooked eggs and homemade dyes from natural ingredients. This is a tradition in Slovenia and many other Slavic cultures. It is also a Jewish custom at Passover. I decided to start with boiled onion skins, the best known natural dye.

My eggs turned out beautifully. They were a deep russet color, with delicate white markings created by binding small leaves to the eggs before dyeing. I gave one to my teacher, who told me that her family in Slovenia had made Easter eggs exactly the same way. I posted the photo above in my blog and promised to follow up with detailed instructions in a later post.

I did not intend to wait a full year!

But here we are. In the middle of Passover week, with Easter just a few days away.

My procrastination paid off. This year, when I decided to make the onion skin eggs again, I ended up using an even simpler method. And it worked just fine.

The Internet offers a variety of methods for coloring eggs with onion skins and other natural dyes. Even Martha Stewart has some good suggestions! Some people suggest making the dye beforehand, by boiling the onion skins and draining the liquid, and then soaking the hard-cooked eggs. That is what I did last year. Others recommend the one-step approach: putting everything in the pot--onion skins, eggs, water--and simmering away.

This year, I used the one-step approach. It is certainly easier. But I had another motivation. With Passover and Easter overlapping this year, I wanted a dish that would satisfy both our family traditions. So I decided to incorporate the approach used in making huevos haminados ("baked eggs"), a dish that originated with Jews from the Sephardic (Spanish) tradition. I had made it some years earlier, minus the decorative leaves and flowers.

For the Jewish dish, you add a little seasoning and cook the eggs with the onion skins (and sometimes whole onions) for many hours. Sometimes the eggs are left to sit overnight in the oven, at very low heat, especially if they are being prepared for the Sabbath. This extended cooking is supposed to add a brownish color on the inside, as well as a subtle nutty flavor and a creamy texture. Another twist: When the eggs are peeled, they often have a lovely marbelized pattern, because the shell has cracked during that long cooking. In fact, sometimes the shell is cracked intentionally, in order to create that marbleized effect.

In the photo below, you can see what this year's eggs looked like: peeled, in the shell, and sliced. Served with matzo, as we did for one of our Passover dinners, the eggs become huevos haminados!  
Huevos Haminados
A couple of other differences this year: I did not hard-boil the eggs before dyeing, and I used brown onion skins rather than red.

As far as I can tell, it didn't make much difference. Once again, the eggs were beautiful. In the recipe below, I suggest following the one-step method. This is easier and it is supposed to allow for better penetration of the dye. If you are nervous about wrapping and tying those fragile raw eggs, you can always hard-cook them first.

My preference for the one-step method seems to be supported by this charming video from a Slovenian newspaper in Cleveland, which features a nimble-fingered older woman and polka music in the background.

Happy Holidays!

Eggs Dyed with Onion Skins

1 dozen white eggs
small leaves, herbs, and flowers for decoration
6 to 10 cups of brown or red onion skins
white vinegar, about 4 tablespoons
oil, about 2 tablespoons
salt and peppercorns, 1 to 2 tablespoons each, if desired
water, equal in volume to onion skins
old pantyhose (or cheesecloth)
string or twist ties, if desired

First, prepare the eggs: If desired, rinse the eggs and wipe dry. To follow the recommended one-step method below, leave the eggs uncooked. (If you plan to use the alternative method, hard cook and cool the eggs before decorating.) Select small leaves and flowers for decoration. Sprigs of standard kitchen herbs like parsley, dill, cilantro, mint and even carrot tops work just fine. Wet a few leaves and press onto each egg. To hold decorations in place, wrap the egg  firmly in a piece of old pantyhose (or cheesecloth) and fasten the end by knotting, or by using string or twist ties. 

Recommended one-step method of dyeing:

If onion skins are dirty, rinse them briefly and drain. Fill a large pot (like a Dutch oven) with water. Add the onion skins, vinegar, plus salt and pepper, if desired. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat. Carefully lower the prepared eggs into the liquid. Pour oil over the top of the water. Cover the pot and simmer for at least an hour--or longer, for a deeper color. Check the color of the eggs periodically. If you want to make huevos haminados, or simply want an intense color, you should simmer for 3 or 4 hours and/or leave the eggs overnight in the pot of onion skins and water.

Alternative method, with eggs and dye prepared separately: Hard cook the eggs and let cool to room temperature. Add decorations and prepare as above. Next, prepare the dye. Boil onion skins in an equal amount of water for about 15 minutes. Strain the liquid. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar for each cup of liquid. Carefully submerge the prepared eggs in the warm dye. Let eggs and dye cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

Final Step: When you like the color of the eggs (and when they are cool!) carefully remove them from the pot. Unwrap, rinse, and let drain. When dry, rub with oil to provide a nice sheen. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

O Canada! Passover Mandelbrot from Toronto

When I went looking for a Passover mandelbrot recipe, I didn't expect to end up in Canada. But that is where I landed. At a recipe featured in the pages of The Toronto Star.

Why was I surprised? Canada is a multicultural society that rivals the United States in its inclusiveness. That point was driven home during a couple of recent visits I made to the Canadian Consulate in San Francisco. (That's where I got that nice maple leaf pin in the photo.)

Naturally, all the signs at the Consulate were in French and English. But it was more than just that. The Consul General is Asian. The man at the front desk had African heritage. The documents I needed were notarized by a woman with the familiar lilt of Eastern Europe in her voice. Meanwhile, a woman in a hijab and her husband were planning a trip and needed help with a visa. Canadians, each and every one.

Back to cooking!

Passover desserts are notoriously challenging, because conventional flour and leavening are prohibited. I particularly love mandelbrot, a traditional Jewish sweet that is a close cousin to Italian biscotti and Slovenian domaci prijatelj. I was pretty happy with the Passover version I'd adopted some years ago, made with matzo cake meal and potato starch, generously lightened with eggs. But it called for butter. This year, I wanted to find a recipe that used oil. It was mostly for reasons of health and convenience, but also because a butter-free version could be served with both meat and dairy meals.

The Passover mandelbrot recipe in the Toronto Star looked similar to the one I had been using. It turned out to be even easier to work with, probably because of the suggestion that the dough should be chilled for an hour before shaping. I made just a few small changes in the flavoring and add-ins, as indicated below. It came out firm, crisp, and tasty.

In fact, you might not even guess it is a Passover dessert.

And if you decide to call it a Slovenian domestic friend, no one will be the wiser! 


Passover Mandelbrot (Adapted from The Toronto Star)

1-1/2 cups matzo cake meal*
6 tablespoons potato starch
dash of salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
3 large eggs
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (or almonds)
2/3 cup chocolate chips
additional sugar and cinnamon for topping

* If you can't find matzo cake meal, grind regular matzo meal in a blender until fine.

(To follow the original recipe: Use white sugar, the grated zest of an orange and almonds instead of walnuts; skip the chocolate chips, cinnamon, and almond extract.)

Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and set aside. Beat oil and sugar then add eggs one at a time, beating until light. Add vanilla and almond extracts. Stir in dry ingredients. Fold in nuts and chocolate chips. Mixture will be soft and sticky. Cover and refrigerate for an hour or more.

Divide chilled dough into two portions. Dust a flat surface with matzo cake meal and roll each portion into a fourteen inch log. Place each log on a parchment lined baking sheet and flatten so it is about 2 inches wide. Top with cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes or until brown. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. Using a serrated knife, cut into 1/2 inch slices. Place cut side down on baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes. Turn over and bake for 8-10 minutes more. Let cool.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Danish Puff, Comfort Food from the Vault

I wish I could claim that Danish Puff, a homey but elegant childhood favorite, has Slovenian roots. But perhaps it is enough to say that it was inspired by memories of my mother.

This is another recipe that turned up in the green metal recipe box my mother passed along to me about six months ago. Even though I had a copy in my own card file, I hadn't thought about it in years. I had never considered resurrecting it. Concoctions like Danish Puff belonged in the category of laughable culinary faux-elegance from the 1950s, or so I thought. At best, it was nostalgic comfort food.

But back in the I fall, I was feeling nostalgic--and in need of some comfort. My mother's health was declining and we were helping her downsize and move into a smaller place, where she would receive more help. The upcoming elections didn't help. So I made Danish Puff for the first time in at least thirty years. I even shared some with my mother--on moving day. She seemed to enjoy it.

Setting aside my culinary snobbery, I was forced to admit the truth: Danish Puff is a simple pastry that tastes wonderful. Perhaps it no longer seems quite so exotic and vaguely European, but it is well worth making.

Perhaps you remember it from your own childhood.

It is a simple but elegant affair. Two contrasting pastry layers, the bottom one a standard shortcrust pastry and the top one a cream puff dough. Or, to be fancy and French, paté brisée topped by paté choux. Shaped into long double decker loaves, baked and sliced. The only sweetness comes from the drizzle of confectioners' sugar icing, topped by almonds. The haunting flavor of almond runs through every mouthful.

The source of my mother's handwritten recipe is hard to determine. In fact, the card I discovered in her file was a hybrid--a yellowing card in two sets of handwriting, hers and mine:

There are virtually identical recipes for Danish Puff in two of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks--including my favorite one (from both the culinary and political standpoint), compiled by the Progressive Slovene Women of America. Their version is just like my mother's, with the no-frills icing that is nothing more than confectioners' sugar mixed with a little water or milk, plus a touch of almond extract:

But that doesn't make a strong case for its Slovenian origins, since the same recipe can be found in so many other places. Including the blogosphere, where it seems to have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Everyone's mother or grandmother seems to have made it. Many sources attribute the recipe to a Betty Crocker cookbook from the 1960s (but I know it is older than that) or perhaps the 1950s.

Did Betty Crocker, America's favorite invented home cook, create this recipe?

That seems doubtful.

I am more inclined to trust the opinion of Beatrice Ojakangas, a noted cooking authority (and prolific cookbook author) from Minnesota, whose own background is Finnish. She includes a recipe for Danish Puff in Great Old-Fashioned American Desserts (U. Press of Minnesota, 2004). She describes it as a traditional coffee-and-dessert favorite of Scandinavian Americans, although, as she drily notes, it is "unknown in Denmark."

The recipe follows below. It is so similar to all the other recipes for Danish Puff (except for a few non-almond variations) that I do wonder whether there might have been a single source. Perhaps it first made the rounds when it was printed on bags of General Mills flour.

But why worry about the source? Try it and enjoy it for yourself!

Danish Puff

Bottom Layer:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons water

Top Layer:

1/2 cup butter
1 cup water
1 cup flour
3 eggs
1 teaspoon almond extract


confectioners' sugar, 1/2 to 1 cup
a little water or milk to thin
almond extract to taste
chopped or slivered almonds

Note: Some recipes suggest vanilla extract and walnuts as alternatives. But that's not how my mother made it--and I believe it changes the character of the pastry.

Bottom Layer: Cut butter into flour as for pie crust. Sprinkle with water and mix lightly. Form into a ball and divide in two. Pat each half into a 3 x 12 inch strip on an ungreased baking sheet.

Top Layer: Combine butter and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Add flour and mix in quickly to keep mixture from clumping. (Some recipes suggest cooking the mixture briefly over the heat.) Add eggs one at a time and beat well after each addition. Add flavoring and beat until smooth. Divide mixture in half and spread on each pastry strip.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 to 60 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool. Frost with a simple confectioners' sugar icing. Sprinkle with nuts. Slice and serve. Tastes best shortly after baking. If there is any left over, refrigerate uncovered.

Monday, January 9, 2017

At last: Homemade Poppy Seed Filling

Poppy seed filling may be an acquired taste, but I have always loved the assertive, slightly musky flavor. I associate it with Christmas. Of course, I did grow up in Cleveland, an ethnic town that was home to many people with Eastern European heritage.

I never did associate poppy seed filling with potica. (The very idea would have been sacrilege in my family!) I was most accustomed to it in Danish pastries and in those delicate filled cookie-pastries like the ones at the top of the page. (I'll be posting that recipe soon.) Those rich little cookies go by many different names: Kifles. Kolache. Nut Horns. The Jewish version is called rugelach.

When I began to explore Slovenian cooking, I rediscovered poppy seed filling. I used it in prekmurska gibanica and even in potica. But I always relied on the familiar canned version, doctored up with a few flavor enhancements. It tasted just fine.

This year, I decided to make my own. It was a little daunting, because I had read that the poppy seeds needed to be ground--and that a food processor or a blender wouldn't do the trick. The ideal solution was a special grinder imported from Europe, but that seemed impractical--and expensive.

An electric coffee grinder might work, according to some sources, but only if the poppy seeds were ground in small batches. I decided to give that a try.

I found a number of recipes in my Slovenian cookbooks. I finally settled on a potica filling recipe I found online from a Slovenian source. It was an all-purpose recipe, using either walnuts or poppy seeds. I cut it down by half, modified it just a little, and made it twice, in both a regular and a vegan version. Both were tasty, although the first time I didn't grind the poppy seeds long enough.

My grinder worked best when I processed no more than 1/3 cup of seeds at a time for a full minute. During grinding, the seeds begin to clump together and the color changes from blackish-blue to brownish-gray. The end product should "look and feel like wet sand." You can see the before-and-after photos below.

The recipe below makes about two cups of filling. Plenty for a single batch of cookies. For a big batch of potica, you will probably need more--especially if you love the taste of poppy seeds!


Poppy Seed Filling

250 g poppy seeds (8 oz or 1-1/2 cups)
50 g sugar (1/3 cup)
50 g honey (2-1/2 tablespoons)
50 ml milk (4 T) to start (may need up to 3/4 cup)
1 tablespoon butter
1 egg (can be omitted)
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves (or more)
2 tablespoons rum (or other spirits)
1/2 tablespoon vanilla
grated rind of 1 lemon

Rinse seeds and drain. (This may be an optional step.) Grind them in small batches in coffee grinder for about a minute. The resulting mixture should look and feel like damp sand.

Melt honey and butter in milk, add sugar, and stir till dissolved. Add poppy seeds and stir. Simmer for a few minutes, adding more milk if needed. Take off stove. Beat egg with rum, then stir it in gradually so the filling doesn't curdle. Add other flavorings. Add more liquid if needed and continue to simmer till thick. (Don't overdo this--it thickens as it cools.)

The vegan almond version: use almond milk and vegan butter, date or agave syrup instead of honey, and 3 tablespoons aquafaba or other egg substitute.  Flavor with amaretto instead of rum.

Makes about 2 cups.

For Poppy Seed Potica:

Follow the directions for preparing and shaping the dough from my family recipe, or from my gluten-free or vegan adaptations. Brush the rolled-out dough with melted butter (or dairy-free substitute) as directed and then spread it with the poppy seed filling. If filling seems too thick, add additional milk or spirits. This recipe probably makes enough filling for half the loaves in the standard recipe, or for the full recipe in the smaller gluten-free and vegan versions. But it's hard to judge (it depends on how thinly you roll the dough and how much you like poppy seeds!) so when in doubt make extra. Some recipes suggest adding chopped walnuts or raisins, which makes a nice addition and will stretch the filling.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vegan Potica: Not Your Babica's Slovenian Nut Roll (and definitely not Melania's!)

No, this is not potica the way your grandma (babica) used to make it. But this vegan adaptation is based on the written recipe I inherited from my mother, who was inspired by her own mother's example.

My grandmother would probably approve of vegan potica, if she were around today. She was unusual for her time and place. Sixty years ago, unlike most working class women in Cleveland's Slovenian community, she read Prevention Magazine and kept her own organic garden in the back yard. She was open-minded and politically progressive, as well.  Pretty impressive for an immigrants' daughter with a fourth grade education! 

I started experimenting with vegan cuisine last December, when a couple of the younger generation in my family started to shift into plant-based eating. But I concentrated on cooking rather than baking. This past weekend, with Christmas approaching and a holiday potluck to attend, it seemed like a good time to attempt the ultimate challenge for a Slovenian baker: vegan potica. I knew it could be done. I had sampled vegan potica just once, right at the source: the farmers' market in Ljubljana, Slovenia's captital. It tasted pretty good, although not much like my family version.

vegan potica, from the Ljubljana farmers' market

A little Internet research turned up a half dozen vegan potica recipes, including one "click-bait" article that purported to be from Melania Trump! (As far as I know, neither Trump has any particular interest in animal rights, veganism, or traditional Slovenian cooking!)

Unfortunately, none of these recipes seemed like good bets for duplicating my family's beloved walnut-honey potica, because they all used a less rich, more bread-like dough. My family's style of Slovenia's most famous dish presents a definite vegan challenge, because it is so rich in ingredients that are off-limits: butter, eggs, and sour cream in the dough, plus copious amounts of honey in the filling. 

I thought back to last December's gluten-free potica experiment, when I turned to adaptations of brioche or babka, since they seemed closer to the dairy-rich dough in my family recipe. So I started to explore vegan versions of brioche and babka. But then it hit me: Why not just use my own family recipe, with the plant-based substitutes other vegan bakers favored?

So that is what I did.

The details are in the recipe below. It was easy to come up with non-dairy versions of butter, milk, and sour cream. I have noted the specific products I used, in case it made a difference.

The two bigger questions were how to replace the eggs and honey. My solution involved two ingredients that will be new to many readers.

For the honey, I tried two different replacements. Agave nectar is widely available and works fine. But my husband and I preferred the more complex flavor of date syrup, sometimes known as date honey--or silan, to Israeli cooks. I already had some on hand, after purchasing a jar in our local Middle Eastern market to make an unusual version of honey cake for the Jewish holidays in the fall.

In considering possible egg substitutes, I ended up in a surprising place: draining a can of garbanzo beans. Aquafaba--bean water--is all the rage in vegan circles, but it was new to me. I was skeptical of claims that this simple ingredient has amazing properties. Then I watched what happened when I added it to the creamed butter-sugar mixture and started beating.

You know that moment when adding the egg makes a batter or dough come together? One minute, the mixture is curdled, and then everything smooths out and the volume starts to increase? That is exactly what happened when I added a few tablespoons of bean liquid.

I did worry about a possible "off taste" in the dough, so I added a little vanilla and lemon rind, as a precaution. (My worries turned out to be groundless.)

I had imagined that the vegan dough might more difficult to work with, but my experience was the opposite. It was easy to knead, although it had an unusual feel: very soft, even damp, but not at all sticky. I needed much less additional flour than usual for kneading. This dough felt very springy and "active." In fact, it began to rise almost immediately! I even put it in the freezer briefly to slow the process down, then refrigerated it, as usual. After chilling, it remained a little softer than usual, but it rolled out beautifully.

I don't know what combination of ingredients created this mysterious alchemy. But I suspect the aquafaba had something to do with it. I do encourage you to give it a try. For the less adventurous, I note other possible egg substitutes in the recipe below.

So what were the results? Impressive.

The vegan potica was a hit at the party--even though I had broken my own rules to get it done in in a single day. I shortened the overnight refrigerator rise to just a few hours. I had to serve it a few hours after baking, instead of waiting a day. Also, I had been overly cautious with this new dough and had rolled it thicker than usual. So the photo below, from the party, doesn't look as pretty as my usual efforts. But that haunting flavor was there. And there was no trace of bean flavor.

The next day at breakfast, it looked and tasted even better:

When I baked the second batch, the loaves rose higher, after the proper overnight refrigeration. I also felt more confident with the dough, so I rolled it much thinner. Those loaves went into the freezer, so I had to wait to see how they turned out.

I consider this a work in progress. But I am posting the recipe now, at the height of potica season, to make it available to readers who might want to give it a try--or even adapt their own family recipes.

Good luck!  Happy Holidays!

Post Christmas Update: Sure enough, that second batch was perfect, even after freezing! See the photo below, with recipe following.

Vegan Potica (based on my traditional family recipe, cut down by half and adapted)


5-1/2 oz (1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons) non-dairy butter, melted and cooled (I used Earth Balance)
1/2 cup sugar
4-1/2 tablespoons aquafaba * (or other replacement for 1-1/2 eggs)
3/4 cup non-dairy sour cream (I used Sour Supreme)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
lemon zest, grated
turmeric, a few pinches, for color
1 package instant dry yeast
3/8 cup non-dairy creamer (or milk), warmed (I used Wildwood soy creamer)
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for kneading
1/2 teaspoon salt

*Aquafaba is nothing more than the slightly viscous liquid drained from a can of garbanzo beans. One egg is replaced by 3 tablespoons of bean liquid. This potica recipe requires the equivalent of 3 egg yolks or 1-1/2 whole eggs, which comes out to 4-1/2 tablespoons of bean liquid. If you are reluctant to experiment with this rather amazing ingredient, you could try using applesauce, mashed potatoes, commercial egg replacers, or homemade "flax eggs" (1 T flax seed + 3 T water = 1 egg.)


1 pound (about 3-1/4 cups) finely ground walnuts, mixed with:
1/2 cup. sugar
1/2 T. cinnamon
dash of salt (optional)

1⁄4 cup melted butter substitute
1/4 to 1/2 cup agave nectar or date syrup (silan) for drizzling
(Optional: dried cranberries)

The night before, prepare dough

In a large bowl, combine the butter substitute and sugar and beat. Add aquafaba (or other egg replacer) and beat. Finally, add add sour cream substitute, vanilla, and lemon rind (if using). Mix well.

In a small bowl, proof yeast in warm cream or milk substitute and sugar. Add yeast to the first mixture.  Mix well.

Sift flour and salt. Add to the mixture in the large bowl and stir to combine.  You should have a soft, sticky dough.  Turn it out on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic.  Divide dough into two even balls and flatten them slightly.  Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

To Assemble

It is easiest to use a floured cloth to roll out the dough. Remove a ball of dough from refrigerator and place it on floured surface. Roll it into a rectangle.  The dough should be thinner than pie crust but thicker than strudel or phyllo. I usually aim for 15 x 26 inch rectangle and in recent years have aimed for thinner. With this dough, however, I ended up with a smaller rectangle, closer to 14 x 20 inches. 

Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons melted butter substitute and a quarter of the nut/sugar mixture, which should be about 2 cups. Drizzle the dough with 2-4 tablespoons of agave or date syrup. If desired, sprinkle with dried cranberries (or raisins, if you like them.)

Roll up the dough, beginning from the short end. After every few turns, prick the dough with a fork to eliminate air bubbles.   Pinch seam and ends closed and fold ends under. Normally, I would place this entire roll seam side down on a baking sheet or pan that has been oiled or lined with parchment paper. Because I was uncertain about how well this vegan dough would hold together, I cut the roll in two pieces and placed each one in a small lined  rectangular bread pan  (7-3/4 x 3-3/8 inches.)

Repeat with remaining ball of dough, for a total of four small loaves. 

Let potica rise 1-1/4 hours. (Note: Loaves don’t rise much.) Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. If necessary, bake for 10 minutes more at 325 degrees. Let cool before slicing.  To store, wrap in aluminum foil.  Potica tastes better the next day.  It stores well.  It also freezes well.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mürbeteig, a "Wee Wisdom" Recipe from the Vault

Mürbeteig is another treasure I rediscovered when I took possession of my mother's dark green recipe box.

I hadn’t made the traditional German cookie/pastry in years, even though I had a handwritten copy of the recipe in my collection. I felt a pang of nostalgia when I discovered the old yellow clipping that I had carefully pasted onto one of my mother’s note cards, when I was in elementary school. I had found the recipe in Wee Wisdom, a classic monthly children's magazine that my Slovenian American grandmother had ordered for us. 

Wee Wisdom (1893-1991) was America's longest-running children's magazine. It was the creation of an Oberlin College graduate named Myrtle Fillmore, who had also co-founded the Unity Church, a part of the Christian New Thought movement, with her husband.

Unity emphasized a “practical spirituality” that included healing through prayer and the power of positive thinking. By the mid-1900s it had evolved into a thriving organization, with a number of publications and a mail-and-radio based ministry. Unity's approach appealed to my free-thinking grandmother, who had become disenchanted with the Catholic Church.

My own mother, who was even more of a free-thinker, had her doubts about a children's magazine with a hidden religious agenda. But her fears turned out to be groundless. By design, the publication was nonsectarian. It was nothing more than a wholesome, uplifting magazine with a variety of features that would appeal to boys and girls.

Including a monthly column called "Cooking is Fun." That's what appealed to me.

Mürbeteig turned into a Christmas cookie standard at our house. The recipe was deceptively simple, almost exotic to the American palate. I had memories of a buttery, barely-sweet pastry, cut into shapes and then finished off with a crunchy topping that worked like magic: cream, sprinkled with sugar and chopped nuts.

I knew I was taking a chance, making mürbeteig again after all these years. Would it measure up? But the recipe did not disappoint.

I wondered whether there might be a Slovenian equivalent of mürbeteig. I did a search and discovered it in a German language recipe for the famed Slovenian strudel pie known as prekmurska gibanica, where mürbeteig serves as the bottom crust. In Slovene, that bottom layer is described as krhko testo, or short crust. In other words, a classic shortcrust pastry, which differs from the typical American pie crust because it includes egg and a little sugar. Krhko testo is also used as the foundation for a number of piškoti (cookie or biscuit) variations on contemporary Slovenian cooking websites.    

Mürbeteig (adapted from Wee Wisdom children's magazine)

2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon cold water

For topping: 3 tablespoons heavy cream or top milk, 6 tablespoons sugar,
1/2 cup walnuts or almonds, chopped fine

Sift flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl. Add butter, using back of the mixing spoon to blend into dry ingredients. When smooth, make a hollow in the center and and add the egg and cold water. Mix together until a dough is formed. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight if possible.

Roll chilled dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured board. Cut into shapes (I find simple rounds are best) and brush with cream or milk. Sprinkle with sugar and add nuts if desired. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Another possibility I discovered: Roll a portion of dough into a circle, brush with butter or egg, and sprinkle with a nut-sugar mixture. Cut into wedges and roll up to make the traditional Slovenian nut horn shape! 


Friday, October 7, 2016

Mom's Extra Spicy Pfeffernüsse, a Recipe from the Vault

It has been three months since my last post. Where has the time gone?

I do know part of the answer. My siblings and I have been helping our mother prepare for the next step in her journey: moving from her apartment in a large retirement community into a smaller senior residence. It is a bittersweet time, in which the sadness is balanced with reminders of the past that make me smile.

Like my mother's battered recipe collection.

For the past few years, Mom has been trying to unload possessions with a zeal that often feels premature. But she had a surprising reluctance to surrender her green metal recipe file box. At ninety-three, her kitchen activities are limited to making coffee and toast. Still, she wasn't quite ready to let go of her recipes. Finally she agreed.

Now my mother's dark green metal box sits in my kitchen, on top of own light green box. They are twins. Sisters. Mother and daughter.

My mother's old recipe box felt like a treasure chest. A culinary vault. 

The contents turned out to be a mixed bag. Yellowed newspaper clippings, torn out in haste, just in case. Recipes from friends. A large collection of improbable dishes that I call "teachers' lounge" favorites. But there were some true gems in there, too. Sentimental favorites from my childhood, mostly sweets of one kind or another. I had copied some of them into my own collection. Pfeffernüsse. Danish Puff. Murbeteig. I hadn't made them in years.

Are these Slovenian recipes?

Strictly speaking, no. Only one qualifies as a Slovenian specialty. But it's a real find: the original version of what became the treasured family potica recipe. My mother had told me the story. She remembered sitting in the kitchen of an old high school friend, copying her mother's recipe, because her own mother didn't use written recipes. And there it was, handwritten on a folded-up sheet of note paper, yellowed with age. (I'll be writing about that one in a future post.)

The first recipe I resurrected from the vault was my mother's pfeffernüsse (pepper nut) recipe. It was a Christmas cookie staple at our house. Spicy nuggets, not too sweet, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar. Made in advance, so the cookies turned rock-hard.

I have no idea where my mother got her recipe. Authentic German recipes include ingredients that never appeared in my mother's Midwestern kitchen. Citron. Anise. Rum. Black pepper. 

I have found a pfeffernüsse recipe in in one of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks, Woman's Glory. But it is quite different from my family recipe: no shortening, and the cookies are left to sit out to harden before baking.

I copied my mother's recipe into my own collection many years ago. But it never turned out like hers.  My pfeffernüsse were bland and too soft. Definitely underwhelming.

Now that I had Mom's original recipe, I could see where I had gone astray.

The recipe she had copied called for cake flour. She had added a notation, about how to substitute all-purpose flour plus something else. I had overlooked the "something else" (probably cornstarch) and ended up with a reduced quantity of all-purpose flour. No wonder my cookies were too soft!

The other problem: My mother had increased the spices. Unfortunately, I had misread and miscalculated, in cutting down her very large recipe (8 cups of flour!) to more manageable proportions. So I ended up with underspiced cookies.

(I like to think her fondness for cinnamon is a reflection of her Slovenian heritage.)

Below you will find an image of my mother's pfeffernüsse recipe, followed by my own translation.



1 cup lard or butter, melted (Mom always used butter)
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda in 2 T water
1-1/2 T (4-1/2 teaspoons) cinnamon and cloves
1/2 T (1-1/2 teaspoons) allspice and nutmeg
1 cup nuts, chopped
4 cups cake flour (or 3-1/2 cups all purpose flour plus 1/2 cup cornstarch)
salt and vanilla
confectioners' sugar

(Possible additions: Substitute brown sugar and/or a little honey for the white sugar. Use some  brandy for part of the water. Add some black pepper.)

Combine flour and spices. Set aside. Melt butter, let cool slightly. In large bowl, beat butter and sugar (and honey, if using), add eggs and vanilla and beat. Add soda dissolved in water. Stir in dry ingredients. Form into balls about the size of a walnut. Bake at 375 F for about 15 minutes, or until brown. Shake in a bag with confectioners' sugar.