Friday, November 20, 2015

Never-Fail Balkan Cornbread



Maize or corn made its way from the New World to Europe about four hundred years ago. It was enough time for Balkan cooks to develop their own special take on cornbread. There are many regional variations, but they share a few features that set them apart from the typical American cornbread.

A Balkan cornbread is usually dairy-rich. Along with eggs and milk, a typical recipe might include yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, or feta. Fresh from the oven, it is a rich, moist treat, a cross between bread and pudding that can serve as the main course. Unfortunately, Balkan cornbreads often lose their charm--or at least their moistness--once they cool off.

I have been looking for the perfect Balkan cornbread for several years now. Along the way, I have tried a few recipes for Serbian proja or projara, perhaps the best known variant. I once made a flavorful but dense cornmeal leek pie from an Albanian American cookbook. I haven't yet tried cornmeal zlevanka, a sweet dish made in Croatia and Slovenia, because it sounds more like a dessert.

Early in the fall, I found yet another recipe for Serbian proja or projara. It was on a charming blog called Paris on the Edge. The blogger, Allison, is an American artist living in Paris. The recipe comes from her Serbian friend Sonja.

Polenta, flour, eggs, oil, yogurt, sparkling water, and feta cheese. On the face of it, there was nothing unique about this recipe, except that it specified instant polenta. I'd never heard of it. Was it the same as the standard polenta I often prepared? Was it the same as cornmeal?

A little reading brought some much-needed clarity: Polenta is just another name for cornmeal, which can be purchased in different grinds. Instant polenta (which looks like a medium grind cornmeal) has been pre-cooked.

(Here's a helpful pictorial guide to the the difference between cornmeal and polenta.)

My local market was out of instant polenta, so I had to improvise with a mixture of what I had in my pantry: a bag of coarse cornmeal and another of corn flour (fine cornmeal.) I used Greek yogurt (mixed with a little kefir) instead of plain yogurt. And, in the spirit of that Albanian leek pie, I added some fresh vegetables: parsley and corn.  Oh, and black pepper for extra zest.

Despite all the modifications, my first attempt at the new projara recipe was wonderful.  Moist and flavorful. It reheated beautifully in the microwave the next day.

I have used that same basic recipe three more times. Each time, it is a little different. I have made it with and without corn kernels. I've used gluten-free flour. For my most recent attempt, I finally got hold of some instant polenta. It didn't make any difference that I could see.

There must be something magical about the proportions of cornmeal, flour, eggs, oil, and liquid. Or maybe it's the mineral water. This recipe is forgiving and always delicious and moist. At least so far.

But don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!

Never-Fail Balkan Cornbread (adapted from Allison's proja recipe at Paris on the Edge.)

3/4 c (120 g) polenta or cornmeal (see Note 1 below)
1/3 cup (30 g) white flour
1/2-1 t. salt
black pepper to taste (optional)
3 eggs
1/2 cup (100 ml) vegetable oil
3/4 cup plus 1-1/2 T (200 ml) sparkling water
3/4 cup (190 g) plain yogurt (see Note 2 below)
1 cup feta cheese (110 g), cut into "thimble sized cubes"
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen (optional)

Oil or butter an 8-inch cast iron skillet or round cake pan, or a rectangular ceramic dish. Sprinkle with a little cornmeal.

Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, mix eggs, oil and sparkling water. Add these wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. Add yogurt and stir. Mix in feta cheese cubes and optional parsley and corn. Pour batter into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm.


Note 1: Although the original recipe calls for instant polenta, the dish works with either type of polenta (instant or regular) and any kind of corn meal, although a coarse grind might be a little crunchy. I like to use a combination of medium and fine grind cornmeal (called "corn flour" in the US.)

Note 2: Plain yogurt is probably the best choice. I have also used Greek yogurt thinned with kefir or milk.

Special Diets: I have made a delicious gluten-free, low FODMAP version with gluten-free flour and Greek yogurt thinned with almond milk.

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.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The new best-ever Jewish Honey Cake, sinkholes and all

Last fall, I made a wonderful honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I was attempting a low-sodium adaptation of a recipe by the great food writer Claudia Roden. To my surprise, it turned out to be the best honey cake I had ever made.

This year, I have a new candidate: Last year's recipe, made the right way!

A few weeks ago, I decided to make that wonderful honey cake again, with a few changes. The biggest one: regular leavening instead of the low-sodium adaptation. Instead of last year's plain cake, I took Roden's suggestion and added some walnuts and dried fruit. (I used cranberries instead of raisins.) As before, I used brown sugar instead of white, increased the spices, and used orange juice along with coffee. One unplanned change: half olive oil, because I ran out of vegetable oil. Finally, to save time, I baked the cake in three small loaf pans instead of a single large springform pan.

At first, the loaves rose nicely. But somewhere along the line, that dark liquid mass heaved, rolled, and fell. When I removed the honey cake from the oven, each loaf had a deep crack in the middle.  Actually, it looked more like a crater. Or like those sinkholes ("ponikve") that are common to the karst landscape in the region of Slovenia where my ancestors once lived.

I was baffled. Why had my honey cake risen so well last year, despite the always-risky substitution of those less-potent low sodium leaveners?  I didn't have time to fret about it, because I had to rush off to a Cajun music gig up north, at a winery in the hills of Napa county.

That night, we decided to try the honey cake, even though it had aged less then ten hours.

To my surprise, those misshapen slices were delicious! They were moist. Fully cooked in the center, too. The flavor was deep, dark, and tangy. The nuts and dried fruit were a fine addition. The olive oil seemed to add depth.

My husband thought it was the best honey cake he had ever tasted.

I did a little research and soon learned that sunken honey cakes are a problem for many people--even the popular food blogger Smitten Kitten.  She had also followed the honey cake recipe of a well-established Jewish baker. Her loaves were as cratered as mine.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the most frequent cause of sunken cakes is over-rising, often because of too much leavening. Smitten Kitten discovered her honey cake did better when she reduced the baking powder.

Curious, I went back to the original Claudia Roden recipe. Oh-oh. I had made an error, when I included her "regular leavening" instructions in last year's post. Roden called for 2 teaspoons of regular baking powder and 1/2  teaspoon of baking soda, but I had reversed it in my blog post.

Mystery solved!  I had followed my own misdirections and used 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. No wonder my honey cakes were over-leavened.

I have corrected the error in last year's blog post and in the recipe below. But it is hard to go wrong with this forgiving recipe.

Dober tek!

And, if you are celebrating, Happy New Year.

Best-ever Jewish Honey Cake  (adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (I used half olive oil)
1 cup dark honey
2 T. rum
1/4 cup warm coffee
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. ginger
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup walnuts, broken and 1/3 cup dried cranberries (optional)

(Low sodium option: use 4 t. low sodium baking soda and omit the salt.)

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil, then oil and dust with flour. Or use three small loaf pans, 3 x 7 inches. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a small bowl, toss walnuts and cranberries (or raisins, the more traditional choice) in a little flour to coat. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, coffee, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth. Finally, fold in the optional nuts and cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake at 350 degrees until top is firm and springs back when touched, about 45 minutes for small loaf pans for 1 hour and 15 minutes for a large spring form pan. Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two before slicing and eating.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Belokranjska Pogača, Slovenia's answer to focaccia

Belokranjska pogača is one of Slovenia's official EU-protected specialty foods. Although the name means "pogača from Bela Krajina," it is often translated as "caraway flatbread" or "salted cake."

When I first spotted this delicacy on the official Slovenian tourist website, here, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about.Yeast-raised flatbread is hardly unique to Slovenia. Many Balkan countries have their own versions of pogača (poe-gotch'-a). So do Italians, who call it by a more familiar name: Focaccia.

But then it came up again, in my Slovenian language class. In the spring, we were studying the food traditions of the Dolenjska region, a rural area south of the capital that was the original home of my own ancestors, along with many other Slovenian immigrants in the early 1900s. And there it was again, on a list of regional food specialties. (Bela Krajina, the "official" source of the bread, is a smaller region that borders Dolenjska.)

Now I was intrigued. I decided to give this Slovenian-style focaccia a try.

What makes Belokranjska pogača unique? The yeast dough itself is straightforward: flour, salt, yeast and water, with a touch of oil and sugar. But there are very precise specifications for the formation of the loaf.

Here's the official word from the Slovenian government:

Belokranjska pogača
Bela krajina flat bread

Belokranjska pogača is a type of flat bread and is produced according to a unique recipe. It is round with a diameter of approximately 30 cm. In the centre it is 3 to 4 cm thick, thinning to 1–2 cm at the edges. With oblique lines, it is incised into squares with an approximate distance of 4 cm, coated with a whisked egg and topped with cumin seeds and coarse salt crystals. When baked it is broken along the incised angled lines rather than being cut and is best served warm.

from Slovenian Protected Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs, a government publication


There are a number of recipes available on the Internet, with just a few small differences among them. Should the yeast be proofed before the dough is mixed? Should the topping be limited to coarse salt, or is it better to add caraway seeds? Or cumin seeds?

For my first attempt, I opted for proofing the yeast before making the dough. I sprinkled the entire loaf with coarse salt, and then I added some cumin seed on one side. Unfortunately, because of a small miscalculation, I made the circle of dough too small--just half the specified diameter!

The result was a round, high loaf that looked beautiful. Inside, the bread was moist and tasty, with a coarse grain. But it certainly wasn't a flatbread. It was too thick to break, so I had to slice it.

It was a lovely country-style loaf of white bread.  But not up to European Union standards for Belokranjska pogača.

For my second attempt,  I made the dough with the much faster "all in one bowl" method. I was careful to follow precise measurements, so I ended up with a thin, large circle of dough that was exactly 30 centimeters across. For the topping, I used a mixture of coarse salt and caraway seed over the entire loaf.

This second pogača came out just right. Pretty enough, I thought, to appear on one of those official government websites. It broke into squares easily and made a tasty accompaniment to a nice bowl of mineštra.

The verdict? I enjoyed the lightness of the first loaf, even it wasn't quite the flatbread I was expecting. Partly it was the rounder shape, but I think proofing the yeast made a difference. I liked all three toppings, although cumin was certainly the most unusual.

I will certainly make this again. I will stick to proofing the yeast, even though it adds an extra step.

I might also aim for an in-between thickness. A compromise between my first two loaves.

I realize this might be breaking with tradition. But I doubt the  EU pogača police will bother me in California.


Belokranjska Pogača

500 g flour (about 4-1/4 c)
1 T salt
1-1/2 t. sugar
1 package dry yeast
1 T oil
350 ml lukewarm water  (just under 1-1/2 c)

For topping: 1 egg, coarse salt, cumin or caraway seed

First, prepare the dough.

The easy way: Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Make a well in the center, add the oil and water. Mix until you have a soft dough that is not too sticky to be kneaded.

The better way: Warm a little of the water (about 50 ml) in a small bowl and stir in part of the sugar.  Add the yeast and allow it to proof. Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture and the oil. Mix into a soft dough as above.

After mixing the dough, knead until it is smooth and not sticky. Place in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for thirty minutes.

After rising, punch down dough and place on an oiled baking sheet or other flat surface. Pat and stretch it into a circle that is about 30 cm (12 inches) across. It should be 1-2 cm thick in the middle and a little thinner at the edges. Slice the dough into squares, using diagonal lines that are about 4 cm apart. Brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle with coarse salt and cumin seed or caraway seed. If desired, let rise briefly again before baking.

Bake in an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees F (200/220 degrees C) for 25 to 40 minutes. Let cool. To serve, break into squares.  Best served warm.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Caraway Meatballs: A Healthy Update

I first made these simple but flavorful meatballs in June of 2012, during my inaugural year of weekly Slovenian dinners. The foundation was a recipe I'd spotted in Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, my first vintage cookbook. Meatballs flavored with caraway, cheese, and bacon sounded like an intriguing Slovenian alternative to the more familiar Italian version of the dish.

My first version of caraway meatballs turned out well. It soon became a favorite.

Two years later, I decided to create a healthier version, with no added salt and fewer carbohydrates.

In some respects, I followed Woman's Glory more closely: chopped fresh pepper instead of celery, and no matzo meal or bread crumbs in the meat balls. Since I skipped the salt, I compensated by increasing the black pepper and adding some garlic. I used turkey bacon instead of regular bacon in the sauce. Finally, I served the meatballs over spaghetti squash instead of pasta or polenta.

The result was delicious. Full of Central European flavor and guilt-free.


Caraway Meatballs with Sauce (low salt, low carb)


1 lb. ground beef (or beef/pork mix)
1/4 c. grated sharp cheese
1 t. caraway seeds
1/4 c. green or red pepper, chopped
1 T. fresh parsley
pepper, black and cayenne
1 egg
1 clove garlic


1/2 c. chopped onion
3 strips turkey bacon, diced
24 oz. jar strained tomatoes
pepper and garlic to taste
parsley to taste
1/4 t. sugar

Mix all the ingredients for meatballs. Form into balls and set aside.  For sauce, brown the bacon and onions, then add meatballs and brown.  Add tomatoes and seasonings.  Simmer an hour, or longer if you like, adding water as needed.

Serve over spaghetti squash (to make it healthy), polenta, or spaghetti.  Sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese, if desired.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sweet Omelet Sponge for Father's Day Breakfast

What does this photo look like? A sponge cake? A soufflé? A giant pancake?

This traditional Slovenian dish is called Pohorska omleta--in English, Pohorje omelet. It is a sweet egg-based dish from Pohorje, a mountainous area in the northeastern part of the country. I had seen photos and recipes on a few of the Slovenian government's tourist websites that proudly feature traditional national dishes. Not much to this one, I thought. Just a sweet omelet that is lightened with beaten egg whites. I did wonder about one odd touch: a little flour added to the omelet batter.

It wasn't until last month that my interest in the Porhorje omelet was piqued by the Professor, a Facebook friend in Slovenia. (He's an American who teaches translation at the University of Ljubljana.) He posted a photo and a recipe, and then asked his American friends to weigh in: What would you call this dish in English?

The usual translation is "folded omelet" (aren't they all?) or "biscuit omelet" (like a British cookie?).  Omelet itself seems like an odd name for a dish that Slovenians usually serve for dessert, with a generous garnish of sweetened whipped cream and jam or fruit sauce. Cranberries are a traditional accompaniment. 

This translation challenge turned into a cooking adventure. I decided to whip up a Pohorje omelet for Father's Day breakfast. I wanted to see for myself what this dish ought to be called.

I found plenty of recipes on the web, all variations on the same theme. Separated eggs, small amounts of flour and sugar, and perhaps a bit of vanilla and lemon rind.  Except for the proportions, it sounded just like baking a sponge cake layer.

A number of these recipes specified an identical formula of three's:

3 eggs
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter to grease the pan

I liked the ease and simplicity of this formula--although I did increase the measure to 4 of each ingredient, since I thought our visiting son might be joining us. And since this was a breakfast dish, I skipped the whipped cream and used a simple fresh berry mix, sweetened with a little sugar and Amaretto.

Before and after baking, the omelet looked like a familiar sponge cake layer:

It was easy to remove from the pan, top with fruit and fold in half.  The finished product looked pretty. Almost good enough to be on one of those official government websites.

I couldn't wait to cut into the omelet and solve the mystery.

The result? Delicious!

Pohorje omelet turns out be a simple but unusual dish, with an elusive texture that is difficult to categorize. It is more eggy than a sponge cake--but lighter and drier than an omelet, thanks to the beaten whites and the touch of flour. It does resemble a soufflé, but it has more substance--and it won't collapse!  It is definitely a hybrid. An ideal breakfast or brunch dish, especially with fresh fruit. Whipped cream and jam transform it into a fine dessert.

The origins of this lovely dish also seem to be mysterious. One official Slovenian website says it is "an example of the invention of heritage in the period after the end of the Second World War."

"Invention of heritage" sounds like an oxymoron! Cooking expert Janez Bogataj puts a slightly different slant on it: The dish was created by "chefs who were flirting with international cuisine" after the war ended.

But what "international cuisine" could have inspired this dish?  There is nothing quite like it in any sources I have consulted.  I would like to think of this as a uniquely Slovenian twist, somewhere in the border region between several more familiar dishes.

The name? The best I can offer is sweet omelet sponge. Why not make it and decide for yourself?

Pohorje Omelet (Sweet Omelet Sponge)

4 eggs whites
4 egg yolks
4 T. sugar, divided
4 T. flour
1 t. vanilla
lemon rind, grated
4 T. melted butter (or less) for pan

Filling: jam or fresh berries (cranberries are traditional)
Topping: confectioners sugar or sweetened whipped cream

If using fresh fruit, mix and set aside. I used fresh strawberries and blueberries, mixed with a little sugar and amaretto.

Beat egg whites with half the sugar until stiff but not dry. In another bowl, beat yolks, remaining half of sugar, vanilla, and lemon rind until thick. Fold egg whites into yolk mixture. Sprinkle flour on top and fold in, taking care to avoid deflating.

Melt butter in a 10-inch pan. Pour in batter and gently spread. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes, or until lightly browned and firm to the touch. It will resemble a sponge cake layer.

Let cool slightly, loosen edges, and turn out on a platter, top side down. Spread with jam or fruit filling and carefully fold in half. Sprinkle with confectioners sugar or sweetened whipped cream. Slice into pieces to serve.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Albanian Mystery Cake Revisited

Our son was visiting from Kosovo, so I decided to make an encore version of the delicious meal I had prepared from the Albanian-American cookbook he had sent me for my birthday in January.

The main dish, a beef and eggplant moussaka, had been a standout, so I was eager to serve it again.The dessert, on the other hand, was more of an experiment. The women of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church in Massachusetts (the authors of the Albanian Cookbook) called it Authentic Albanian Cake, but I had my doubts. It was definitely a Mystery Cake.

The recipe had seemed straightforward: a simple, one-bowl affair, with ingredients that can be found in anyone's kitchen. In fact, it reminded me of a frugal American cake that has gone by various names over the years: Depression cake, eggless-butterless-milkless cake, or (my favorite) wacky cake. But this Albanian version turned out to be full of surprises. 

For starters, the batter was so liquid that it bubbled in the pan. After baking and cooling, the dessert ended up in layers, with a dense, pasty filling sandwiched in between two crust-like layers. The flavor was mild and inoffensive. Perhaps this was meant to be a sort of poor man's baklava. This dessert was odd and hard to categorize, at least by American standards. I wondered what my son would think of it. 

Authentic Albanian Cake, Version #1

For this second attempt, I made a couple of small changes to pep up the flavor. A touch more sugar--and brown instead of white. More cinnamon, plus a little vanilla. A mix of walnuts and almonds.There were also two unplanned changes: Italian 00 flour (often used to make pasta) because we were out of all purpose flour. And extra baking powder, when I discovered that the three cans in my pantry were all a little (or a lot) past the expiration date.

This time, the result was completely different. Unbaked, the batter was thicker. After baking, it had a familiar texture: uniformly light but moist. Very much like an easy, old-fashioned American spice cake. Or even a "wacky cake," although the Albanian version is lighter on the sugar and heavier on the oil.

Authentic Albanian Cake, Version #2

I strongly suspect that the unusual texture of the first cake was the result of two mistakes: Forgetting to reduce the water when I cut the original recipe in half, and using baking powder that was long past the expiration date. The second cake was lighter because the baking powder was more potent--and perhaps because of the touch of acidity introduced by the brown sugar. The American approach to this kind of cake always includes a bit of vinegar, so it makes sense.

Now that I have made the cake the proper way, I still wonder: Is this really a traditional Albanian dessert, or is it simply an adaptation of an American standard? The jury is out on that one. I'm hoping one of my readers in Kosovo or Albania will weigh in.

Whatever its origins, this is an easy and pleasant cake. It is a perfect dessert when time is short and you need to work with simple ingredients that are already at hand. It is also a good, basic foundation that can be enhanced with more spice, more nuts, and additions like dried fruit or coconut.

Update: In doing some additional research on America's long-popular wacky cakes, I've made a few interesting discoveries that offer modest support for the possibility that this really is a traditional Albanian sweet.

Even though this frugal American cake is typically associated with the Great Depression or the Second World War, historians note that it dates back to the early 1900s, if not earlier. I also discovered a fascinating new name variant in a few places, like this in this typical recipe for a white wacky cake. According to some sources, it's also known as Patrushka cake, which offers more than a hint of Eastern European origins. 

Authentic Albanian Cake (with a strong resemblance to Wacky Cake!)

--adapted from the Albanian Cookbook (1977, 2000), by the Women's Guild of St. Mary's Albanian Orthodox Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

1-1/2 cups water
2 cups flour
1 cup oil
2/3 cup sugar (I used brown; increased from 1/2 cup) 
1/2 cup nuts, chopped (I used half walnuts and half almonds)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (increased)
1 teaspoon vanilla (my addition)
2 teaspoons baking powder
confectioners sugar for topping

(For the original version in the cookbook see my previous post)

Combine flour, cinnamon and baking powder together in a large bowl and set aside. In a medium bowl, beat oil, sugar and vanilla together until thick. Beat in water. Stir this liquid mixture into the dry ingredients. Fold in nuts.

Pour batter into an ungreased (or paper-lined) 8 x 11 inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown. When still warm, sprinkle with confectioners sugar. Cut into squares to serve. 

(Note: A much simpler mixing approach should also work. The original Albanian recipe calls for mixing everything together in a single bowl, in no particular order. American wacky cakes are often mixed directly in an ungreased baking pan.)