Yeast Crescents with Walnut Filling

I just came back from a month long trip to Europe to see the family. I must say there wasn’t much baking going on while I was there – the kitchen in the apartment I was renting was so tiny I wouldn’t’ve even been able to place two baking sheets side by side on the counter – but the less time I spent in the kitchen, the more I enjoyed visiting with friends and family. I’ve missed them all more than the words can say, and I treasured every moment: The hugs, chats, and laughs we’ve shared together will now have to carry me over for a whole year, at least.

Living an expat life is not easy. Sure, it is exciting to be able to travel new places and get to know new people, and it’s exhilarating to rise to the challenge to build a completely new life from scratch somewhere else. It binds you to the person you’re in this adventure with – after all, at least in the beginning there won’t be anyone else you could depend on for a while. But this life also comes with an inevitable sense of loneliness: there are birthdays you are going to miss, weddings you won’t be able to attend. Not to mention Christmas holidays when you try your hardest to replicate the magical atmosphere you used to know from home, but despite the traditions you try to keep alive and cookies you bake with your kids exactly the same way your mom used to, somehow it still doesn’t work: the cookies taste different, the Christmas tree doesn’t smell quite so fragrant, and deep down, you know it’s not the same. It can’t be – it’s about the people, and they’re not there with you.

But you keep keeping on, and after a while you learn to adapt. Little by little you put down roots. You start making the new place your home and just when you think you might’ve finally gotten it down, something happens: a conversation in the grocery store or chit-chat with your hairdresser perhaps, which will remind you again that even after all these years you’re still very much a foreigner. You think differently, and no matter how much you try, in many ways you are still unlike the people around you. At that moment you can’t wait to go back “home”, even if for a short while. You get up, fly across the globe and eagerly step off that plane… and within hours you realize the strangest thing: The life you’ve been building somewhere else has changed you, and now even here, in a place you grew up in and used to know so well, you’re different. There are things you don’t understand anymore, some that annoy you, or downright drive you crazy. You might be home, but you’ve become a stranger in your own land.

You’re now officially an expat: a person whose home is neither here nor there, or who has home in both places at the same time. I still haven’t quite figured out how to have two homes. It feels weird to fly out to go “home” and then to be returning “home” when the trip is over. But that’s exactly how it is and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. Home is where people you love are, and as long they will be here and over there, thousands miles apart, so will be my two homes.

I have to say I’ve missed my big kitchen while away. I’ve never appreciated it more than when I was bumping into Mr. Photographer when we randomly met in the teeny rental kitchen getting a glass of water in the middle of the night. As usual, I brought new cookbooks and tons of cooking magazines from the trip, and couldn’t wait to put them to good use. These little yeast croissants are a special dessert from the region I grew up in. The yeast dough they’re made from is very rich – traditionally, the weight of the butter should be about 30 % of the amount of flour used. The high amount of butter and no egg whites in the dough also make the pastries very soft. The croissants can be filled either with walnut or poppy seed filling. After they’re formed, they are given a coat of egg wash and quite unusually they’re left to rise not in a warm place, but in a draughty spot to make the egg dry up. When that happens, they’re brushed with egg yolk again – the double egg wash will give them their typical cracked glaze appearance. They should’ve had more of a horse-shoe shape; they were just right going into the oven, but still puffed up a little too much while baking. Oh well – they still disappeared in no time, and making them helped me to deal with the very fresh acute homesickness I’m feeling at the moment… so I guess they’ve accomplished what they were supposed to 🙂

(Note to self: When you’re scheduling to publish a post, it would be helpful not to forget to insert the pics! I’ll blame it on the jetlag… sorry about that.)

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Yeast Croissants with Walnut Filling

(recipe makes about 30 pastries)

Dough:
  • 390 g (about 13.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 scant teaspoon dry yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup lukewarm milk, divided
Walnut Filling:
  • 2 cups walnuts, ground
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/8 cup hot milk
  • handful of raisins (optional; not in the traditional recipe, but I always add raisins to nut- and poppy seed filling to keep it moist)

+ 3 egg yolks, beaten – for egg wash; 1 egg white – for brushing the edges of the dough

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Method:
  1. To make the yeast dough, first combine 1/3 cup of lukewarm milk, pinch sugar, and yeast in a small bowl. Let stand for couple of minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In the meantime, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough except milk into a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. When the yeast mixture looks nice and bubbly, pour it in, and with the mixer on a low speed, begin kneading the dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, carefully adding the rest of milk if necessary to make a smooth and soft dough. Let the dough rise, covered in a warm spot, for 30 – 40 minutes.
  3. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling by combining all the ingredients listed. The filling should be somewhat sticky and hold together enough so that you can make a small cylindrical “snake” out of it. If it’s too dry, add a splash more milk, if it’s too wet, add in some plain breadcrumbs/cookie crumbs. Cover the filling and set it aside.
  4. Turn the risen dough onto a floured surface and divide it into small balls (each portion should weigh about 25 g/0.8 oz.) Cover the dough balls with a dish towel and always take just the one you’re working with to keep them from drying out. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  5. To form the crescents, take a ball of dough and roll it gently into an oval. Roll about 10 g/0.3 oz. of filling into a small cylinder and place it in the middle. Brush the edges of the dough with a little egg white and enclose the filling into the dough. With a palm of your hand, gently roll the filled dough into a thin cylinder about 10 cm/ 4 inches long and place it seam side down on the baking sheet, giving it a horse-shoe shape. Continue making the pastries, giving them enough space on the sheet to rise.
  6. Brush the croissants with egg yolk and let them rest, uncovered, in a cold drafty place until the glaze dries up (I chilled mine for about 20 minutes in the fridge).
  7. When the egg wash dries up, take the pastries out of the refrigerator and give them a second layer of egg wash. Let them rise for about 20 minutes on the counter while you preheat the oven to 375 °F (190 °C).
  8. When the oven is ready, prick each croissant twice with a fork to prevent it from bursting open while baking, place the baking sheets in the oven, and bake the pastries for about 12 – 14 minutes until they’re darker golden brown.

 

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Braided Christmas Bread (Vianočka)

I just glanced at my calendar and realized that Christmas will be here in less than a week: five days to be exact. Yikes. Normally at this time I’d be running around like a mad woman, taking care of last minute shopping, wrapping gifts with one hand while stirring something on the stove with the other. Oh, and continuously removing dry needles from all around the house. I love to have live tree at Christmas, but I swear the amount of needles it always brings with itself is somehow far greater than the sum of needles on its branches. And they must have feet, too, because they are all over, from the living room through the bathtub to my bed even – like tiny green pointy soldiers trying to take over the world.

This year has been strangely different. I have almost no gifts to wrap, and I haven’t caught the bug that usually sends me into the pre-holiday cleaning frenzy. We don’t have the tree up yet, either – my men decided a small pre-lit tree will do just fine, but none of them is in a hurry to actually take it out and set it up. The way I see it – we might even have one of the big photo light stands that we use when photographing my food take place of the tree this year. It’s been towering in the middle of the living room for months, and if it’s still there on the 24th, I might just hang some ornaments on it and call it good.

But the surprising thing is that none of this bugs me too much – nor the dust bunnies, nor the dirty sinks, not even the lack of a tree. Yes, I’ve been baking for weeks now, but not because of the holidays approaching, or at least not because I need to have fifteen kinds of cookies by Christmas as it used to be the case not too long ago. I’ve been baking – procrastibaking you could say – because it allows me to connect with the traditions I grew up with or people that shared their cherished recipe with me, and that need to connect always grows stronger around the holidays in me. Baking is my Zen, and while I’m rolling out that dough and pressing the cookie cutter into it, I tune out the world around, all is well, and nothing can make me to lose my cool. Well, almost nothing 🙂

This braided egg-enriched bread is traditionally baked back home around Christmas time. It’s similar to brioche or Jewish Challah, and can be braided in many different ways. Unfortunately, I haven’t been gifted with any spatial skills whatsoever and the thought of having to braid nine or ten strands of dough makes my head hurt… so I leave the elaborate preparations for professionals and stick to simple three-braid bread. Vianočka is slightly sweet and mighty tasty with its buttery taste and poppy seed or almond crunch. If you’re lucky and still have some left after a day or two, it’s also said to make a great French toast and wonderful bread pudding. It never lasts more than a couple hours around here, though! This recipe makes two loaves, so I’m hoping to hide one away in the freezer for Christmas morning.

At the height of holiday stress I’d like to wish us all may our Christmas and the days leading to it be peaceful. After all those years of pre-holiday craziness I used to for the most part bring upon me myself, I’m finally starting to really *get* that Christmas isn’t about the spotless house nor the scrumptious goodies… and it’s not about what’s under the tree, either. It’s who’s around it that matters, and if you think about it that way, you probably already have all you need. Enjoy.

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Braided Christmas Bread (Vianočka)

(adapted from Nick Maglieri’s Bread)

 

Sponge:
  • 112g water, lekewarm
  • 14g (0.5 oz.) active dry yeast
  • 100g (3.5 oz.) unbleached bread flour
Dough:
  • 800 g (28 oz.) unbleached bread flour
  • pinch salt
  • 100g (3.5 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 65g (2.5 oz.) light brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • all of the sponge
  • 225g milk, lukewarm or room temperature

+ 1/2 cup raisins, soaked in 1/2 cup water & 1/2 cup rum
– 2 egg yolks, mixed with 2 tablespoons water – for egg wash
– poppy seed, slivered almonds, and pearl sugar – for sprinkling the top of the loaves

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Method:
  1. To make the sponge, combine water, yeast and flour in a bowl, and stir with a whisk until no dry flour remains. Cover and set aside in a warm spot for 20 minutes until the sponge has doubled in size.
  2. Place flour, salt, butter, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, lemon zest, and vanilla in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. Add in all of the activated sponge, turn the machine on a low speed, and gradually pour in the milk. Knead the dough on a low-medium speed for about 8 minutes until the dough is fairly firm, smooth and elastic (If the dough seems to be too wet, add in a couple of tablespoons flour, one tablespoon at a time; if it is too dry, add in some more milk, one  tablespoon at a time). At the end mix in the rum-soaked raisins, making sure they are evenly distributed in the dough. Transfer the dough into a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  3. Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured board. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, cut off 1/3 of the dough, then cut that third into thirds again. Take the larger piece of dough (the remaining two-thirds) and cut that into thirds as well. Let the dough rounds rest under a dish towel for about 10 minutes.
  4. Assembling the breads: Start working with the three larger thirds – roll each portion into a rope about 14 – 15” (35 – 38 cm) long. Place the three strands together, pinch them at the top and braid them fairly loosely together, pinching the strands at the bottom end. Set the braid on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  5. Take the three smaller dough balls and roll each into a strand that’s about 2″ (5 cm) longer than your braided loaf. Braid these three strands together, pinching the ends to seal. With rolling pin or your hand, make a small indentation in the center of the loaf on the baking sheet, and brush the indentation with a little water. Place the smaller braid on top, and tuck its ends underneath. Set aside.
  6. Make the second loaf in the same way, placing it on a second baking sheet with parchment paper.
  7. Cover both loaves and let them rise in a warm spot until they become puffy, about 30 – 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 °F ( 175 °C).
  8. Just before baking, brush the loaves with egg wash (I used two coats to achieve dark golden color), and sprinkle them liberally with poppy seeds/almonds/pearl sugar, if desired.
  9. Bake the breads for about 45 minutes, until they’re golden brown, and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. (Check the loaves after 20 minutes, and if they seem to be browning too quickly, cover them with aluminum foil.)
  10. Cool the loaves on the baking sheets for couple of minutes, and then transfer them onto a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Generous Christmas Cake (Štedrý koláč, Skladaník)

This weekend folks in many parts of Europe celebrate St. Nicholas’ day. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop from Myra in today’s Turkey, and a great Christian saint. Because of many miracles attributed to his intercession he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. Growing up we used to shine our boots on St. Nicholas eve and place them by the window in hopes that St. Nicholas would leave small presents in them for us to awake to. It was without a doubt the only day out of the year when we willingly polished our shoes, which was without a doubt a miracle in itself! St. Nicholas checked his good and naughty list and rewarded each of us accordingly. As it was, the gift distribution in each boot was pretty much equal among me and my sisters and I bet all the other kids in the neighborhood: a couple of mandarin oranges, peanuts, some chocolate, and a wilted potato plus a scrap of coal to remind us to do better and try to stay out of trouble next year. I’m not sure why a tater was used as a “reward” for naughty kids (you can go ahead and punish me with potatoes every day!), but the coal was a symbol of hell in which we were to burn one day if we wouldn’t mend our ways. Just one example of the kind of positive reinforcement we grew up with! 🙂

St. Nicholas day marked the beginning of the Christmas season for us. In the coming days moms and grandmas broke out their rolling pins and cookie cutters and in kitchens and pantries started piling up all kinds of traditional cookies and sweets, often made according to generations’ old recipes. This cake is one of such Christmas desserts. There are a couple of things Slovak Christmas baking can’t be done without, namely honey, walnuts, and poppy seed, and in this cake you’ll find them all. It’s a sweet yeast cake, in which thin layers of dough alternate with layers of moist nut, poppy seed and prune filling. It is the kind of cake our grandmas used to make – simple yet scrumptious, full of perfectly balanced flavors. Making this cake takes some time, but the method is pretty straightforward: While the dough is rising, you make three kinds of sweet filling (some recipes call for a fourth additional layer of sweet farmers’ cheese), and then just roll out the dough thinly and layer it with the fillings. Finish with a coat of egg wash and bake the cake until baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after you take it out of the oven, brush it with some melted butter to keep it soft, cover it with clean towel and let it cool. I added some rum-soaked raisins to the poppy seed filling, and just the smell of vanilla, lemon peel, cloves, and cinnamon coming from the oven was enough to get me into Christmas mood!

Sometimes, cakes are not mere treats: Just like the shiny boots lined up for St. Nicholas, they can be mementos of childhood and markers of heritage, and as such, their tradition should be kept alive as long as possible! I hope you’ll give this cake a try when you’ll be in a mood for something a little different this Christmas season!

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Generous Christmas Cake (Vianočný štedrý koláč)

(adapted from http://www.mealujemto.sk)

 Dough:
  • 600 g (21 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 300 g (10.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 90 g (3 oz.) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 egg yolks
  • pinch salt
  • 300 ml (10 oz.) whole milk, lukewarm
  • 2 ½ teaspoon dry active yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
 Poppy Seed Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground poppy seeds
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk
  • handful of raisins
  • ¼ cup spiced rum
  • ¼ cup water
Prune Filling:
  • 2 cups dried prunes
  • enough water to process the prunes to thick consistency
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
Walnut Filling:
  • 200 g (7 oz.) ground walnuts
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup milk

+ 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon water – for egg wash
3 tablespoons melted butter – for brushing the top of the hot cake

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Method:
  1. Mix the dough: Combine 4 oz. lukewarm milk with pinch of sugar and yeast; let stand for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough except milk in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast mixture looks bubbly, add it to the bowl and start mixing the dough on medium speed, gradually adding the remaining milk. Knead the dough until soft, smooth, and elastic, about 10 minutes. If the dough seems too dry, add couple tablespoons milk as needed.
  3. Transfer the dough into a well oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 45 min. – 1 hour.
  4. Prepare the fillings: To make the poppy seed filling, combine water and spiced rum in a small bowl. Add raisins, set aside, and soak until the raisins are plump. In a small saucepan, combine poppy seeds, sugar, honey, lemon zest, vanilla, and cinnamon. Warm up the mixture over a low heat, adding as much milk as to make a smooth, easily spreadable filling. Add in the rum-soaked raisins. Transfer the poppy seed filling into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
  5. Prepare the walnut filling the same way as the poppy seed filling; set aside until needed.
  6.  Make the prune filling: Process all the ingredients in a high-speed blender until smooth; set aside.
  7. Assembling the cake: Line the bottom of a big and deep rectangular baking pan with parchment paper and butter the sides. (My pan is approx. 40 x 30 cm, a little less than the half-sheet pan). Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C). When the dough is risen, punch it down and divide it into four equal parts. Keeping the rest of the dough covered, roll out one fourth of the dough into a thin 3 mm rectangle that fits your baking pan. Sprinkle a little flour on the surface and the rolling pin to prevent the dough from sticking if needed; I found it wasn’t necessary. Transfer the rolled out rectangle into the pan lined with parchment. Dock the dough with a fork and spread it with the poppy seed filling.
  8. Roll out the second portion of the dough and place it carefully on top of the poppy seed filling. Dock the dough with a fork and cover it with the prune filling.
  9. Roll out the third quarter of the dough, place it on top of the prune filling, dock it again with a fork and cover it with walnut filling.
  10. Roll out the last portion of the dough and place it on top. Dock it with the fork and brush it liberally with the egg wash.
  11. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 40 – 50 min. until it’s baked through and the top is nice golden brown. Immediately after taking it out of the oven, brush the top with melted butter to keep the cake soft. Cover it with a clean dishtowel and let cool. Cut the cake into squares and serve.

 

 

Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

Life is full of rules: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Don’t mix stripes and polka dots. Exercise regularly. Don’t wear socks in sandals. Never lick a steak knife. Most of the rules are there for a very good reason (the sock and sandal one especially!); but sometimes you just want to forget they exist and do things a little differently. I think that’s how the concept of breakfast for dinner came to be  – to give the responsible folk an opportunity to shake things up and bend the rules a little. Depart from the usual boring chicken and pasta and have a pancake or two instead.  Indulge. Just a bit.

Well, Slovak people took it one step further: Why  have  breakfast for dinner, when you can go straight for dessert?! Yep, you heard me. In Slovakia, you can legitimately eat dessert for dinner, and no one is going to bat an eye, much less to scold you for not eating your veggies. It’s freaking sugar addict paradise over there, I’m telling you.

To be honest, these dumplings definitely aren’t the recipe to make when you’re in a pinch. Boiling the potatoes, pitting the fruit, and rolling the dumplings does take some time.  But the good news is they freeze really well, and since your counters are already covered in flour and there is sticky potato dough stuck behind your fingernails, you might just as well make double batch. Or if you’re crazy kitchen maniac with slightly masochistic  tendencies like me, you can open an entire production line and make sixty dumplings at once when plums are in season. And when you’re done and the dumplings are neatly stacked in Ziploc baggies in the freezer, you can pat yourself on the back and enjoy a little Martha Stewart moment: Well done, Mother, keeper of the hearth and home, well done! And then… I don’t know… about a month later, on a day when you really-truly don’t have time to squeeze cooking in,  you open the freezer and find out, astonished, that the sixty dumplings are gone. Such is the life with teenagers. (Note to self: Next time, aim for a hundred.)

Now, when I said dessert, I didn’t mean some elaborate high end kind. These dumplings are quite simple and rustic. I think of them as cousins of Italian gnocchi, just bigger and sweet. The plums enclosed in a soft potato dough are wonderfully juicy,  and the marzipan that hides in each of them cuts down the tartness and makes the humble dumpling just a little more sophisticated. And the melted butter and generous dusting of ground poppy seeds/walnuts and powdered sugar on top? What can I say – go big or go home, right?! We Slovaks sure know how to indulge. Today we go big… and tomorrow we’ll hit the gym.

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Slovak Potato Dumplings with Plums and Marzipan

(makes about 15 dumplings, depending on the size of the plums)

Potato Dough:
  • 600 g (1 lb. 5 oz.) starchy potatoes
  • Pinch salt
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) cream of wheat/wheat farina
  • 150 g (5.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons potato starch (optional)
  • 1 large egg
Filling:
  • 700 g (1 lb. 8 oz.) small fresh plums
  • 50 g (1 – 2 oz.) marzipan, diced

+ 4 tablespoons each ground poppy seeds/walnuts, powdered sugar, and melted butter

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Method:
  1. In a big pot, cook whole, unpeeled potatoes until soft. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and chill them for at least 2 hours before proceeding. (I usually cook the potatoes the night before).
  2. While the potatoes are cooling, carefully slit each plum so that you can remove the pit. Don’t cut all the way through, so that the two halves still remain together. Replace the pit with a piece of marzipan. Set the plums aside.
  3. Make the potato dough: Run the cold potatoes through a potato ricer or grate them on the smallest opening of the box grater. Transfer the potatoes to a big bowl, add all the remaining ingredients and mix, until everything comes together and forms a soft dough. (Alternatively, you can mix the dough in your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook.)
  4. Making the dumplings: Tear off uniform portions of the dough, just big enough to cover each plum. Make sure to enclose the entire plum in the dough. Roll the dumpling between your palms to make a nice smooth ball. It’s important to work somewhat fast while making the dumplings, because the potato dough gets stickier as the time goes on. To combat the stickiness, use a little more flour/farina as needed.
  5. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer. With a large spoon, one by one carefully lower about six dumplings into the water. Stir once to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot, and cook until the dumplings rise to the surface, 5 – 7 minutes, depending on the size of the dumplings.
  6. With a slotted spoon, remove the dumplings from the pot and transfer them to a big shallow pan. Brush them with a little butter so that they won’t stick together and continue cooking the remaining dumplings in the same way.
  7. Serve hot with more melted butter and a generous dusting of poppy seeds or walnuts and powdered sugar.
Note:

If you wish to freeze the dumplings for later use, flash-freeze uncooked dumplings on a tray lined with parchment paper, and when they’re frozen, transfer them to heavy-duty freezer bags. When ready to use, cook the dumplings from frozen same way you would cook fresh. They will just take a little more time to cook compared to the fresh ones. You can also freeze already cooked dumplings, just make sure to let them cool completely before flash-freezing on a tray. If I do that, I flash-freeze them on a paper tray, and when they’re frozen, I stick the entire tray into a Ziploc. Then you can either gently steam them, or just nuke them in the microwave.

To make the dumplings gluten-free, replace the all-purpose flour with your favorite gluten-free flour mix and instead of the wheat farina, use hot rice cereal or finer cornmeal. (I haven’t been able to find fine rice cereal and usually just run the coarse-ground cereal through my Vitamix to make it finer.) The gluten-free dumplings are just a bit more sticky than the regular ones – nothing that couldn’t be helped by a little more melted butter! (I haven’t tried to freeze the gluten-free version, though.)

Traditional Czech Kolache (Chodské koláče)

You know how when you were little everything was always better at the neighbors? Neighbor kids had better (and more!) toys, could stay up late when you weren’t allowed to, and their Mom cooked way better than yours. Even if she just smeared some butter on a slice of bread for you, it was the best bread and butter you’ve ever had!

So for this week’s recipe we’ll go to the (Slovak) neighbors, the Czech folks.  For a very long time, we used to share the same country, and we have a rich common history together, including many shared culinary traditions. Both Slovak and Czech people love leavened baked goods, and can work miracles with flour and yeast. Little old grandmas in tiny villages don’t need a scale – they just dump an entire sack of flour onto a wooden block, crack in couple of eggs from chickens scratching in their backyard, add some melted butter and yeast bloomed in milk, and then roll up their sleeves and get to work. Forget kitchen mixer – they make do with just their own wrinkled hands and lots of elbow grease. After years and years in the kitchen, they understand how the dough behaves and what it should look like. They might not know exactly why it does what it does, but years of practice taught them what works and what doesn’t. They bake by feel, by sight, by smell – the same way their mothers and grandmothers did. Recipes scribbled on yellowed pages of an old notebook are passed on from generation to generation and cherished as the biggest treasure. Crumpled records of life passing by.

Chances are, you’ve already heard about kolache. But despite what many Americans think, kolache aren’t just yeast goods filled with various sweet fillings. In both Czech and Slovak kolach is a much broader term, encompassing many different dessert-type creations. Cake, pie, tart – everything can be kolach under right circumstances! And it is koláč (singular) and koláče (plural); there is no such thing as kolaches – just have to throw it out there.These particular kolache, typical of a geographical region in western Bohemia, are made from leavened dough. Big rounds of thinly rolled dough are filled with combination of a sweet farmers’ cheese, poppy-seed filling, and thick plum preserves, and decorated with raisins and blanched almonds. The fillings can be either piped on in alternating stripes, or the entire round is given a generous layer of farmers’ cheese, and then it’s decorated with poppy-seed and plum filling. Either way, the combination of three – colored filling is as beautiful as it is delicious, and many bakers don’t even stop there: they spread the kolache with combination of whipping cream/sour cream while they’re still hot coming from the oven to make them moist and even more toothsome.  At the end you have these beautiful, soft rounds of deliciousness to sink your teeth into!

It turns out, there are things that truly are better at the neighbors. They say good fences make good neighbors, and it may be so. But still, it pays off not to build our fences too high – not so much so we can see what our neighbors are up to, but more so we can learn from each other and share what’s worth sharing. And kolache are the best example of that.

chodske kolace

Traditional Czech Kolache (Chodské koláče; makes 10 – 12 big rounds)

Dough:
  • 4 teaspoons dry yeast
  • 2 cups (500 ml; 16 oz.) lukewarm milk, divided
  • 200 g (7 oz.) white sugar
  • 1 egg + 3 egg yolks
  • 1 kg (2 lbs.) all-purpose flour
  • 250 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
Fillings:
Sweet Farmers’ Cheese Filling:
  • 1 kg (2 lbs.) Farmers’ Cheese (see Note)
  • 1 egg yolk + 2 egg whites
  • 200 g (7 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • (up to) 1/3 cup whipping cream (optional; to make the filling more spreadable)
Poppy-seed Filling:
  • 250 g (9 oz.) ground poppy seeds
  • 250 g (9 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) honey
  • 1 tablespoon of tart jam (raspberry, currant)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ – ½ cup milk (or cream)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Plum Filling:
  • 1 ½ cups dried plums, soaked in water for 30 minutes
  • water as needed to process the plums
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons rum (or rum flavoring)
Glaze (optional):
  • ¼ cup each sour cream and whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar

+ raisins (soaked in rum/water); blanched almonds – for decoration
1 egg (beaten) – for egg wash

chodske kolace 2

Method:
  1. To make the dough: Combine lukewarm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon sugar, and set aside to activate the yeast. Place all the remaining ingredients for the dough into a bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with a hook. After 10 – 15 minutes, when the yeast mixture looks foamy, add it to the ingredients in the bowl. Knead at a low speed for about 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic. Transfer it to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot for 45 – 60 minutes until it doubles in volume.
  2. While the dough is rising, prepare the fillings. For the farmers’ cheese filling, mix farmers’ cheese, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, and lemon juice and zest. Beat egg whites until firm peaks form, and lightly fold them into the filling. Lastly, add as much cream until the filling is smooth and easily spreadable. Cover and refrigerate.
  3. For the poppy-seed filing, combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and warm them up over a low heat, stirring constantly. If the filling seems too thin, add a small handful of cookie crumbs. The filling will firm up as it cools, and it needs to be thinner so it is easier to “paint” with. Set aside.
  4. For the plum filling, process the plums with water until thick mixture is achieved. Transfer to a bowl and thin with a little rum/water if needed – again, you need the right consistency so the mixture will pass easily through an opening in a Ziploc bag when decorating the kolache. Set aside.
  5. Turn the risen dough onto a work surface, punch it down, and divide it into 10 – 12 equal parts, about 200 g (7 oz.) each. Keeping the other covered, roll each one into a circle. With your fingers, form an edge, and coat the edge with egg wash. Transfer the circle onto a parchment paper.
  6. Spread the entire circle with farmers’ cheese filling. Transfer a little of the poppy-seed and plum filling into two Ziploc bags and “paint” the round to your liking. Decorate with almonds and raisins.
  7. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C). Bake the kolache for about 20 minutes until the edges are nice golden brown.
  8. For the glaze, mix cream, sour cream, and sugar, and coat the kolache while they’re still hot.
Note:

You can buy farmers’ cheese in Russian/European grocery stores. Some higher end grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market carry it as well. Farmers’ cheese is thicker than ricotta, so I don’t think ricotta would be a good substitute, but you can easily make farmers’ cheese at home, which is what I do now. The bonus is I have leftover whey from making the cheese, which freezes well and is wonderful for making pancakes or yeast baked goods.

Homemade Farmers’ Cheese
  • ½ gallon whole milk (pasteurized is OK, but not ultra-pasteurized), or a combination of milk and a full-fat buttermilk
  • scant ¼ cup white vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Heat the milk over a low heat, stirring occasionally. When it’s close to a boil, take it off the heat and stir in salt and vinegar. Immediately you’ll see curds forming on the surface. Let the milk mixture stand for about 15 minutes undisturbed, and then drain it through a cheesecloth or a nut milk bag. (Reserve at least some of the whey!). Lift the cheese cloth up, wrap it around the cheese, twisting to expel the moisture. Store the farmers’ cheese in the refrigerator. (Makes about 1½  – 2 cups cheese).

chodske kolace 3

Traditional poppy-seed roll

’Tis tough to grind poppy seeds to a paste,
By mixie or by any means in haste;
Such is the grittiness of seeds tho’ small,
Invincible a foe, need not be tall. (J. Celes: Poppy seeds)

The poem proves two things: First, you can clearly make up a poem about just about anything, and second, to bake this traditional Central and Eastern European pastry you’ll need some elbow grease. Tiny black poppy seeds, harvested from dry seed pods of the poppy plant, are widely used in various cuisines around the world, mostly for decoration on top of baked goods. The pastry I want to show you today is different, in that the poppy seeds won’t be just modestly sprinkled here and there to add visual appeal and texture. In this traditional yeast roll they really take center stage, and we’ll need a lot of them, which is where the elbow grease comes in. (Did you know it takes between one and two million of seeds to make up a pound? I love to collect these utterly useless bits of culinary information.)

To make the filling for the roll, the seeds first need to be ground to a paste. Most Slovak bakers still use a hand-cranked grinder for this task, which gives the seeds a perfect consistency. I’ve got such grinder too, and use it often, given that I also have two teenagers and their manly strength at my disposal. The resultant poppy-seed paste is then sweetened and flavored with many wonderful things – sugar, cream, honey, lemon, and vanilla, to name a few. It seems that every region has its own recipe for the filling, and even every baker adds his or her own special touch to it. (I like to add a dollop of a tart jam and a handful of raisins, because everything is better with raisins, especially if they’re soaked in rum first). When you’ve played with the filling and made it so lip-smackingly delicious you can’t stop nibbling at it, it’s time to roll it up in the sweet dough and hide it away in the hot oven. Many good things come to those who wait, and in this case, if you can hold off for just half an hour, out of the oven emerges this shiny, sweet pastry that you can eat for breakfast, snack, or a dessert. The filling is usually just rolled up in a dough jelly roll style, and the pastry is then given a coat of egg wash and baked until golden. I changed it up a bit, and decided to cut the dough into strips and wrap them around the roll.  Not only it makes the pastry more interesting, but because the strips provide an additional layer of dough around the roll, there is less risk the roll will split open during its rise in the hot oven. I’m quite happy with the results, and from now on it will be my go-to method of making the roll.

Even though many Slovaks (and Czechs, Poles, Croatians, Ukrainians, and Russians for that matter) are very fond of poppy-seed desserts and  can’t imagine holiday table without them, poppy seeds have a very distinctive taste that people tend to either love or hate. For those who can do without them, I’m offering an alternative walnut/pecan filling, which is made exactly the same way. There is really no reason anyone should miss trying a slice of this homemade buttery goodness.

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Traditional poppy-seed roll

(makes 2 small or 1 big sweet roll)

Dough:
  • ½ cup milk, lukewarm
  • 40 g (5 tablespoons) icing sugar
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 250 g (2 cups) all-purpose flour, plus a little more if needed
  • pinch of salt
  • 60 g (¼ cup, 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Poppy-seed/Nut filling:
  • 250 g (9 oz.) ground poppy seeds (or ground walnuts/pecans)
  • 250 g (9 oz.) icing sugar
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) honey
  • 1 tablespoon of tart jam (raspberry, currant)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ – ½ cup milk (or cream)
  • ½ cup raisins, soaked for 30 minutes in ½ cup water with ½ cup rum, then drained

+ 1 egg yolk with 2 tablespoons of milk, for egg wash

Method:
  1. To make the dough: In a small bowl, mix the lukewarm milk, yeast, and pinch of sugar. Let stand for 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. In a bowl of your stand mixer, mix all the remaining ingredients for dough. Add the yeast mixture, and knead for 10 – 15 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. If it’s too sticky, add a little more flour, 2 tablespoons at a time; if too dry, add a little milk/water to achieve the right consistency.
  3. Transfer the dough into an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot until it doubles in volume, 45 minutes – 1 hour.
  4. While the dough is rising, prepare the filling:  In a small saucepan, combine all the ingredients except milk (cream). Over a low heat, gradually add milk or cream to achieve soft paste-like consistency. Let cool at a room temperature, don’t chill (room temperature filling will be easier to spread).
  5. When the dough has risen, punch it down and divide it into two equal parts. On a floured surface, roll one part of the dough into a 7 x 9 inch rectangle, keeping the other half covered.  Position the rectangle crosswise to the work surface, short side close to you, and spread half of the filling on two thirds of the rectangle, leaving the last third empty. Pick up the shorter side of the dough rectangle, and roll the two thirds into a jelly roll, enclosing the filling, but don’t roll all the way.
  6. Cut the last third of the dough into strips about ½ inch wide, and wrap them around the roll. Pinch the ends of the roll together or tuck them under to prevent the filling from leaking.
  7. Transfer the roll seam side down onto a parchment lined baking pan, cover with a towel, and make the second roll in the same fashion.
  8. Allow the rolls to rise again, covered, while you preheat the oven.
  9. Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 °F (170 °C). Prick the top of the rolls with a fork to prevent splitting, brush the pastries with egg yolk mixed with milk, and bake for about 30 minutes until dark golden brown.
  10. Cover the rolls with a clean towel while cooling to keep them soft. Let cool completely before slicing.