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

Icing:

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!

Enjoy!


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.