When I was young, cookie season started in mid-December and continued until early January. Friends and family all had platters and trays of cookies on their tables, often of the multi-tiered variety. Each was carefully wrapped in plastic ready to be unwrapped when guests arrived. The platters were replenished after each group of guests left.
In my circle of family and friends, cookies usually fell into one of two categories, Italian-American or Slovak-American.
Nut rolls and poppy seed rolls are Slovak (well, OK, they’re really pretty much pan-Eastern European but since I grew up in a half-Slovak family we considered them to be Slovak even though we knew they were also made by the Poles, Ukrainians, Slovenians, and other Eastern Europeans in town) but they were made by the Italian side of my family as much as by the Slovak side.
There were also nut horns, butterballs, and thumbprints which defied ethnic baking boundaries.
However, flat, rolled cookies, like these butter cookies, were not usually made by Italian-Americans. The totos that I wrote about last December and the colored cookies that are coming up later this week were not usually made by Slovak-Americans.
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This recipe came to me by way of Aunt Ann who was married to my father’s brother, Jano. She said it was Grandma’s recipe.
I remember eating these cookies and seeing them piled on my grandmother’s table over the holidays.
These cookies are similar to the sand tarts that are common in the central part of Pennsylvania where the Pennsylvania Dutch, of German extraction, historically lived. The big difference, though, is that the dough for these butter cookies is prepared more like a pie crust while the dough for sand tarts is prepared more like cake batter. That is, for these cookies, flour and sugar are cut into butter with a pastry blender whereas for sand tarts the butter and sugar are first creamed together.
There also are sand tarts that I think of as more Southern. These are usually rolled into balls or formed into shapes and baked but not rolled thin like Pennsylvania Dutch sand tarts and my grandmother’s butter cookies.
Grandma Mihalik's Butter Cookies
The cookies should just be pale golden brown on the bottom. The color and weight of the cookie sheet significantly influence cooking. I find that shiny aluminum cookie sheets of medium weight work best. Dark metal will cause the bottom of the cookies to brown too much. Allow the cookies to rest for about 30 seconds before removing them from the cookie sheets. If you wait too long the cookies will lose their flexibility and are likely to break.
Combine cinnamon and three tablespoons sugar. Reserve.
Grind the walnuts and reserve.
Put the butter in a mixing bowl and leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly.
Add 1 cup of sugar and flour to the butter.
Mix with a pastry blender until little beads form.
Add the cream and egg yolks and continue mixing with the pastry blender until a shaggy dough forms.
Press into a log, cut in half (or quarters) and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll a portion of dough between sheets of waxed paper to approximately 1/8 inch thick.
Cut into shapes.
Arrange on ungreased cookie sheets.
If the dough starts to warm too much it will be difficult to get the cookies off the waxed paper. If this happens, put the rolled out dough, still between the waxed paper, in the refrigerator for a few of minutes.
Brush with unbeaten egg whites.
Sprinkle with ground walnuts
Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar.
Bake 350°F approximately 8-9 minutes or until light brown on the bottom.
Remove from the cookie sheet almost immediately and cool on a wire rack.
One of the interesting consequences of working on this blog is that it is getting me to cook more Slovak food.
We ate way more Italian food than Slovak food when I was growing up but, nonetheless, Slovak food was a significant presence on our table.
Things that only lived in my memory, like the Chicken Paprikash that I posted a few weeks ago, and my Grandma Mihalik’s Butter Cookies that are coming up in a week or two, are now real. And it’s not only the Slovak food. The Chinese Five-Spice Roast Pork from last week hasn’t been on my table in more than 40 years!
Part of the reason is that, as much as I enjoy cooking, I hadn’t devoted as much time to planning what I was going to cook as I did when I was younger. That is, until I got deep into this blog (and the restaurant cookbook I’ve been asked to write).
In Junior and Senior years of college there was a plan for dinner for every day of every week. Sometimes there was a plan for lunch, too!
Good provisions weren’t conveniently located to the University of Pennsylvania campus except for some specialty items from the ethnic markets near campus or the occasional very basic item from one of two nearby (in-super) supermarkets. Grocery shopping was done weekly and involved a trip to Ninth Street (sometimes called the Italian Market), and to the Pathmark supermarket in Broomall, PA.
Every meal got planned and a shopping list was created.
The planning was usually done in the evenings when I needed a break from studying (which I know some of you think I never did!). I would sit down with a cookbook or two, or my box of recipes handwritten on 3” x 5” index cards, or the typewritten recipes from Mrs. Hugh, my roommate’s mother and, over the course of the week, generate a list of what my roommate and I were going to have for dinner each night. Some were favorites but many were new, like the whole poached fish I made from Marcella Hazan’s first cookbook or Mrs. Hugh’s Crispy Duck (see the photo embedded in this blog post).
One of my favorite books was a slim volume by Charmaine Solomon. Charmaine was from Sri Lanka and two of the resident advisors in my college house, Reggie and Nanacy Rajapakse, were also from Sri Lanka and knew Charmaine. Charmaine’s Far Eastern Cookbook was copyrighted in 1972 (the year I started college). The edition I have was printed in 1973 so it was quite new when I bought it in 1974 shortly after entering the International Residence Project. I read that book cover to cover, like a novel, many times. I could sit for hours and pore over Charmaine’s recipes.
In 1976, when I graduated college, Reggie and Nanacy bought me another of Charmaine’s cookbooks as a present, The Complete Asian Cookbook.
Another favorite cookbook was the [Ceylon] Daily News Cookery Book which was in the collection of the Van Pelt library at the University of Pennsylvania. I would check it out, keep it as long as I could, return it, and then check it out again. It was a hardcover book with a red cloth cover. It was simply titled the Daily News Cookery Book. Reference to Ceylon was nowhere to be found in the title. Many years later, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I was able to get a reprint of the book (with the word Ceylon added to the title).
My point, though, is that my cooking repertoire expanded because I worked at it. Ray and I planned every meal, we went grocery shopping, we cooked, and we most certainly ate. I was still able to keep up a good cooking pace through medical school but after that, as I got busier and busier, it became harder and harder.
While I can put food on the table any given night without much thought, recreating past favorites or trying out new recipes requires more planning. I now have a calendar specifically devoted to cooking. Dishes get planned out weeks, if not months, in advance. It’s a lot of work, yes, but it’s tremendously rewarding to prepare my favorite foods, many of which I haven’t had in many years, and introduce them to others.
Cabbage and Noodles, sometimes called Halushki, was frequently on our table. I remember it particularly being served with Salmon Patties, one of my favorite Friday meals when we didn’t eat meat. We had it other times, too, but the association of Cabbage and Noodles with Salmon Patties is very strong.
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Cabbage and Noodles (Halushki)
Although three pounds of cabbage sounds like a lot, it cooks down a tremendous amount. If you wish, you can add a teaspoon or two of caraway seed to the cabbage during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Though my family did not do that, it is not unusual to do so.
Aunt Mary kept my grandparents well-supplied with food. My Aunt Ann pitched in from time to time as well.
My grandparents were really keen on soup. I guess when you’re raising a family of seven sons through the Great Depression and its aftermath, on a steelworker’s income, preparing filling and budget-friendly food becomes a necessity.
After the early 1960s when my Uncle Gusty moved back to the United States from Japan with his wife and their children, all seven of my grandparents’ sons lived in Johnstown with their wives and children. Most of us would visit on Sunday afternoons arriving sometime after lunch and leaving before dinner.
Very frequently a large pot of soup would appear for anyone who needed a little something to hold him or her over till dinner. Often it would be potato soup or sour mushroom soup (made with dried mushrooms and spiked with a little vinegar). My father talked longingly about a sour cabbage soup called kissel which nobody was making any longer.
Other than soup, baba (sometimes written bubba), and sweets at the holidays, I don’t remember eating much at my grandparents’ house though I do remember my grandfather and my uncles consuming a fair amount of beer, and, on special holidays, shots of whiskey.
Most of the Slovak food that I ate was at home or at one of my uncle and aunt’s houses.
Chicken Paprikash is considered a Hungarian dish but it was common on the Slovak side of my family. My grandfather was born in 1890 in a small town, Nitrianske Sucany, not too far from Bratislava, in what is now Slovakia. My grandmother was born a few years later. In 1909 when my grandfather came to America, he left what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovakia did not exist as a country. Food diffuses with cultural contact (think about the popularity of Spam in both Hawaii and Korea which can be traced to the presence of the US military). I suspect that’s how Chicken Paprikash became something made by my Slovak grandparents.
My version of Chicken Paprikash is a combination of my mother’s and my Aunt Ann’s. When I went to look up the recipe to make in preparation for this blog I discovered that I had never written it down! Luckily I remembered just how to do it.
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Using bone-in chicken with skin improves the flavor of the final dish. Flabby skin from braised chicken is not appetizing, however, so remove it near the end of cooking before putting the chicken in the finished sauce. Since paprika is the major flavor in this dish be sure to use fresh, high-quality paprika, preferably Hungarian. Sweet paprika was the norm in my family, not hot, and certainly not smoked which would totally change the flavor. You can use whatever chicken parts you prefer but I think the texture of slowly braised thighs is superior. Serve the chicken with buttered noodles or mashed potatoes, both of which go really well with the sour-cream-enhanced sauce.
Pat the chicken dry and season liberally with salt and pepper.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan.
Sauté the chicken on both sides, starting skin-side-down, until brown on both sides. Do not crowd the chicken. Do this in batches if necessary.
Remove the browned chicken to a platter.
Empty the oil from the pan and wipe clean.
Add two tablespoons of butter. Sauté the diced onion until golden.
Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, approximately 1 minute.
Add 3 tablespoons of paprika and sauté for approximately 15 seconds (paprika burns very easily).
Add one cup of broth and mix well.
Add the bay leaf, browned chicken pieces and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add additional salt and pepper to taste. Cover and braise on low until very tender, approximately 1 ½ hours being sure to taste for salt occasionally. Add additional broth if needed to keep the pan from drying out.
About 15 minutes before the chicken is done, remove the skin and discard.
When the chicken is fully cooked, remove it to a platter.
Remove the bay leaf.
Pour the cooking liquid, without straining, into a small pot and keep it warm on low heat. You can skim fat from the top of the cooking liquid if you would like.
Wash and dry the pot used to cook the chicken. Melt the remaining 6 tablespoons of butter in that pot.
Add the finely diced onion and sauté until golden.
Add the flour and cook 2-3 minutes, until no longer raw.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of paprika and sauté 15 seconds.
With the flour-onion-paprika mixture on medium heat, begin to ladle in the reserved cooking liquid a little at a time, stirring well after each addition to avoid lumps.
When all the cooking liquid has been incorporated, add any remaining chicken broth, if all of the original 2 cups was not used to braise the chicken.
Bring to a boil and cook for one minute. The sauce should be quite thick. It will thin with the addition of sour cream. If the sauce is too thin, boil it longer as you will not be able to boil it once the sour cream has been added.
Stir in the sour cream. Adjust salt and pepper. Add the chicken and heat gently without boiling.
Baba was a favorite food in our house. We often joked that my mother should open a shop selling pizza and baba. We were convinced it would be a success, as were a number of family friends.
Although Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, was originally founded by Germans (everyone, regardless of ethnic background, had sauerkraut, sausages, and pork on New Year’s Day), Italians and Eastern Europeans were among the largest ethnic groups when I lived there. So, a “fusion” shop selling pizza and baba wasn’t so far-fetched!
Baba means old woman in Slovak. I can’t tell you how it came to be applied to this very specific type of potato cake and whether it was just in our family or more widespread, though I suspect the latter.
Other than the crispy skin of our Thanksgiving turkey, this is the only food my sister and I fought over. This, however, was three-way guerilla warfare also involving my father. Crispy turkey skin has an immediacy about it. It needs to be eaten right away, hot and crispy, or it loses its appeal. The fight is right out there in the open, a virtual “land grab.”
Baba is different. As good as it is freshly made, we all preferred it after a day or two. Any leftover baba would be wrapped in aluminum foil and put in the oven, which had a pilot light way back then. That kept it ever so slightly warmer than room temperature. The baba would become chewy.
The natural tension that developed was between letting the baba mature till it had the optimum chewiness versus losing out entirely if someone else ate it first.
We all kept our eyes on the oven which was conveniently located at eye-level. If it looked like the package had been disturbed, we could swing into action, grabbing what was left and eating it even if it didn’t have the optimum chew. “Any baba is better than no baba” was definitely the operative mentality.
There was always the chance, however, that the first person to go for the baba would eat all of it, especially if there were only a few pieces left.
There was also the chance (sometimes turned into reality) that someone could deftly open the package, remove a piece of baba, close the package, and put it back in the oven it in a way that made it look undisturbed. Well implemented, this was a strategy for getting more baba since others could be lulled into complacency thinking the cache of baba was still available to them for the taking.
The ingredients of baba are pretty standard potato cake fare, potatoes, onions, salt, pepper, flour and, depending on the cook, egg. Two things make it unusual in my experience: caraway seed and the cooking method. To be sure, Slovaks put caraway seed in lots of foods but I have yet to find a recipe for Slovak potato cakes that contains caraway seed.
As for cooking method, baba is cooked in the oven in a rimmed baking sheet. Remembering that my grandparents raised seven sons, who in later years were augmented by daughters-in-law and grandchildren, baba was made in large quantities. When there wasn’t enough batter to fill another baking sheet “to the thickness of your finger,” as my Aunt Mary would say, the remaining batter would be turned into individual potato “pancakes” in a frying pan in shallow oil.
The proportions given here will nicely fill an 11” by 17” baking sheet. If you prefer to fry the potato cakes rather than bake them, by all means do!
Slovak Potato Cake (Baba)
I remember watching my mother make this, and learning from her. Though it always tasted the same in the end, it seemed like the lack of precise measurements was an issue. My mother had no difficulty cooking her regular canon of Italian food without measurements. My suspicion is that the issue with Baba is that she didn’t make it all that often. I make it even less often (though I think that’s changing) which prompted me to carefully measure ingredients until I got a perfect batch and then stick with those measurements going forward. My mother put an egg in her Baba. My Aunt Mary did not. Aunt Mary, who lived next door to my Slovak grandparents for years, insists that Grandma never used egg. I have not tried it without the egg, being happy to stick with a recipe that works. Before food processors, the potatoes and onion were grated on the fine side of a box grater. The food processor eliminates the most tedious part of making Baba.
Peel the potatoes. Rinse and dry them and cut into 1 inch cubes.
Weigh out 1600 grams (3 ½ pounds) of potato cubes.
Cut onion into 1 inch chunks.
In two or three batches, depending on the size of your food processor, thoroughly grind the potato and onion, putting some potato and some onion in each batch.
Put the ground potatoes and onions into a large mixing bowl. Add the lightly beaten egg, salt, black pepper, and caraway seed.
Stir in about ¾ of the flour. Add enough of the remaining flour to thickly coat a spoon. Chances are you will need all the flour. If in doubt, just add it.
Very, very generously grease an 11” x 17” x 1” baking sheet with lard. After you think you’ve used enough, add more! Remember, most potato cakes are fried. These are baked. They definitely need some fat for texture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Dot very generously with lard.
Bake 425°F until browned on the bottom, about 30-40 minutes, turning the pan front to back after 20 minutes.
When the bottom is brown, you’ll need to flip the Baba upside down. To do this, set another baking sheet of the same size on top of the Baba. The bottom of the baking sheet should be sitting on top of the Bubba.
Flip the pans over. If you had enough lard in the pan, the Baba should release from the pan and be sitting, upside down, on the bottom of the other baking pan.
Slide the Baba back into the original baking pan with the browned bottom now facing up.
Bake another 20 minutes or so until browned on the bottom and thoroughly cooked.
Turn out of the pan onto a large cutting board.
Cut into 16 pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Although you can use solid vegetable shortening in this recipe, I suggest you use lard for better taste and better health. You can find information about lard vs. vegetable shortening in this post.
It is unfathomable to me that someone could voluntarily go on a low carbohydrate diet.
Avoiding gluten, short of having full-blown celiac disease, is equally unthinkable.
All of my most favorite foods start with flour.
Some contain flour and potatoes.
Roughly in order these are Potato Gnocchi, my Slovak Grandmother’s Potato Cakes and a three-way tie between Pasta (of almost any sort), Dumplings, and my Aunt Mary’s Bread Rolls Stuffed with Mashed Potatoes and rubbed with garlic and oil.
Of those five foods, the only one I get on a regular basis is pasta. I have pasta 3 or 4 (or 5 or 6) times per week. I could probably have it every day and never tire of it. A few days without pasta and I begin to have serious cravings.
Until just recently, I had a frenetic travel schedule for work. One of the first things I would do upon landing in a city that I was likely to return to over and over for work was to find a really good restaurant, preferably an Italian restaurant or one with a goodly number of Italian dishes on the menu. Failing that, I would look for a restaurant with an ingredient-driven menu that was not into precious or pretentious presentation!
Sometimes finding that restaurant was elusive and my pasta cravings would be in full swing by the time I got home.
Over the years, my mother-in-law has learned that the best thing she could make for dinner on a day when I’m returning from a trip is pasta. Even if I’m not having pasta withdrawal symptoms, there are few foods that I would rather have. Actually, there’s only one: gnocchi, which truth be told, is just the Italian word for dumpling, which as you’ve noticed is on my list in its English form, too!
Sometimes the restaurants I’d find were so spot-on perfect that I would just work my way down the menu over successive trips. In this category are the recently closed Dish Osteria in Pittsburgh, Bari Ristorante in Memphis, Antico in Chicago, and, until the recent change in the menu, Tre Soldi in Chicago.
Sometimes I’d find a chef whose cooking I really enjoyed, as happened with Bruce Bogartz in Knoxville a number of years ago. My business partner and I followed Bruce through at least three different restaurants. Sometimes we’d just walk in and sit down and Bruce would come over and say: “Can I just cook for you this evening?” That would be the sum-total of ordering.
Sometimes my business partner and I would find a restaurant that would accommodate our cravings as happened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We’d usually get to the restaurant late on the day we came into town. After a few trips, we got bold and asked for something that wasn’t on the menu. Something simple. Something Italian. As I recall it was spaghetti with anchovies, garlic, olive oil and red pepper. The chef accommodated us. From then on, at least once during every trip to Harrisburg we asked for the same thing, sometimes we’d mix it up by asking for a bit of fennel seed to be added. A salad of arugula with olive oil and lemon juice always rounded out the meal.
While it’s easy to find pasta on restaurant menus, it’s pretty difficult to find dumplings unless you’re in a dumpling culture like Eastern Europe.
After two trips to Prague, I discovered that it was basically impossible to just order dumplings. I frequently found myself ordering some sort of “Hunter’s Plate” which had an array of cooked meats and, you guessed it, dumplings.
Unless you are seriously trying to avoid carbohydrates or gluten, give these a try. They honestly take less than 10 minutes to whip up. You could get a serious paper cut opening up a box of Bisq…er, biscuit mix, in less time!
In order for the dumplings to cook properly, they need to be placed on top of food that is just submerged in the cooking liquid. A little bit of the dumpling will sink below the liquid but, basically, the dumplings should sit on top of the food and steam, rather than boil in the liquid itself. Growing up, the “food” below the dumplings was often kielbasa and sauerkraut. For this post it was turkey with mushrooms and peas in a light cream sauce due to the presence of leftover roast turkey in the fridge. Stir the contents of the pot before adding the dumplings as you won’t be able to do it afterwards. Prior to adding the dumplings, be certain that the heat keeps the liquid at a steady low boil with the lid tightly on the pot.
Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are “lumps” no bigger than flakes of oatmeal.
Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the beaten egg-milk mixture.
Using a fork, gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid by starting in the center of the bowl and stirring in a circular manner, gradually widening the circle to incorporate more and more of the flour.
When the batter will not incorporate more flour, add a few tablespoons of the remaining milk.
Continue stirring and adding milk a few tablespoons at a time, until all the flour is incorporated and you have a fairly stiff but still somewhat sticky batter.
Drop by rounded tablespoonsful on top of whatever you’re cooking in the liquid, such as sauerkraut, pot pie, etc.
Cover tightly and cook 20 minutes without opening the lid. The contents of the pot should stay at a steady, low boil.
Carefully scoop the dumplings onto a serving platter.
Growing up with an ethnically Italian mother and an ethnically Slovak father, we mostly ate Italian food with Slovak food appearing on the table every week or two. On Sundays we usually went to visit my father’s parents and got a bit more Slovak food.
There were some classic American dishes that appeared on our table, too. But, honestly, not that often. The only thing my mother made that I didn’t like was hamburgers. Well, that and liver.
But even my mother didn’t like liver. She made it because my father liked it. There was never the expectation that anyone else would eat it.
When she made liver…and that process involved running from the living room, through the dining room, to the kitchen to turn the liver as it sautéed and then running back to the living room to avoid the smell…she always made something else for the rest of us. Well, that wasn’t so unusual either. Remember…Southern Italian mother…food is important…everyone needs to eat. There were nights when she would make one meal for my father, one for my sister, and one for me. She would eat one of the three.
We always ate dinner together as a family and, despite the comment above, we usually at the same meal. Sometimes, though, we each got individually catered food.
But back to hamburgers for a moment. My mother was a great cook. I know she used really good beef for her hamburgers. She usually picked out a whole cut and had the butcher grind it. She never bought ground beef that I recall. I still follow the basic blueprint of her hamburger recipe today and enjoy it. So, I can’t really tell you why I thought her hamburgers were awful. But I did.
Soup was a big deal in our house. My father really liked soup. Interestingly, I don’t remember having Caraway Soup more than a few times while growing up. I do know, however, that while I was in college I got the recipe from my mother after it appeared on our table one day. It seemed like a revelation.
It has been a regular on my table ever since.
Slovak Caraway Soup
This is a light, refreshing soup based on a vegetable broth for which the ingredients are almost always on hand. I like serving it as a first course though it works equally well for lunch or as a light supper. Grating the vegetables on the large holes of a box grater was one of my mother’s tricks. It makes fast work of prep and the small pieces quickly flavor the broth.