Slovak Potato Cake (Baba or Bubba)

June 7, 2017

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!

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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.
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Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Peel the potatoes. Rinse and dry them and cut into 1 inch cubes.
  2. Weigh out 1600 grams (3 ½ pounds) of potato cubes.
  3. Cut onion into 1 inch chunks.
  4. 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.
  5. Put the ground potatoes and onions into a large mixing bowl. Add the lightly beaten egg, salt, black pepper, and caraway seed.
  6. Mix well.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Dot very generously with lard.
  10. Bake 425°F until browned on the bottom, about 30-40 minutes, turning the pan front to back after 20 minutes.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. Slide the Baba back into the original baking pan with the browned bottom now facing up.
  14. Bake another 20 minutes or so until browned on the bottom and thoroughly cooked.
  15. Turn out of the pan onto a large cutting board.
  16. Cut into 16 pieces. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Recipe Notes

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.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Slovak Caraway Soup

April 26, 2017

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.

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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.
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Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 45 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Cuisine Slovak
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 45 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Shred the carrots on the teardrop holes of a box grater.
  2. Shred the celery on the teardrop holes of a box grater.
  3. Thinly slice half an onion.
  4. Combine carrots, celery, sliced onion, 2 teaspoons of salt, ½ teaspoon of black pepper and 2 quarts of water in a stock pot. Cover. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Add the caraway seeds. Cover and simmer another 25 minutes.
  6. Strain the broth. Discard the solids.
  7. Return the broth to the stock pot. The soup can be made several hours ahead to this point.
  8. When your ready to finish the soup, return the broth to a bare simmer.
  9. In a heavy-bottomed stock pot large enough to hold the soup, sauté the minced onion in butter until soft but not brown, about 3-4 minutes.
  10. Add the flour to the sautéed onions and cook until lightly colored, about 2 minutes, stirring almost constantly.
  11. Stir the hot broth into the onion-flour mixture a ladleful at a time, stirring well while adding the broth to avoid lumps.
  12. After about one-third of the broth has been added, the remainder can be added all at once.
  13. Bring to a boil and boil gently for 1-2 minutes to thicken. Adjust salt and pepper.
  14. While the soup is boiling, beat the eggs with 1/3 cup of water. Season the eggs with salt.
  15. While constantly whisking the stock, drizzle in the eggs to create shreds of egg.
  16. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Casserole)

January 13, 2017

The word sformato in Italian means deformed or shapeless.  When applied to food, standard Italian-English dictionaries often translate it as pie or soufflé. It is none of the above.

A sformato is most definitely not deformed or shapeless.  In fact, a food historian described a sformato as “something that was cooked in the mould [sic] and then extracted from it” (Alexandra Grigorieva, Naming Authenticity and Regional Italian Cuisine in Authenticity in the Kitchen: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2005, edited by Richard Hosking).  Nor is a sformato really a pie or a soufflé as those terms are usually used.  It has no crust of any sort, as would a pie.  It is not puffy like a souffle.  Sometimes it doesn’t even contain eggs.

A sformato is most often made of vegetables, usually bound with some combination of eggs, cream, cheese, and/or béchamel (balsamella in Italian), and cooked in a baking dish.  I think the best English translation of the word is casserole.

Sformato di Spinaci, spinach sformato (or, reluctantly, spinach casserole), is one of those dishes that has iconic status in my husband’s family.  Like Merluzzo in Umido, the recipe came from Italy with his grandmother whom we called Nonni.  Nonni is one of those made up words that sometimes take hold in a family based on mispronunciations of little kids.  The Italian word for grandmother is Nonna.  However, Nonni is to Nonna as Gramma is to Grandmother.

Just as Pasta Ascuitta has only one meaning in my family, Sformato has only one meaning in my husband’s.  If you simply say “sformato,” everyone knows you mean spinach sformato, and not, for example, cauliflower sformato.

I first had sformato at Christmas Dinner at my in-law’s house in 1989.  Although I had been cooking northern Italian food since 1973 based largely on Marcella Hazan’s wonderful cookbooks, that Christmas was really the beginning of my learning to make some of my husband’s family’s northern Italian favorites.  It’s really a whole different taste profile from the southern Italian dishes I grew up with.

I’ve actually taken a heretical twist with my interpretation of Nonni’s sformato. I’ve added a little balsamella for moisture. This was most definitely not in the original, though it is not an uncommon addition to sformato. If you want to make the original version, just leave out the balsamella.  It will be a little drier.  You might want to not squeeze the spinach quite as tightly if you don’t include the balsamella.

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Sformato di Spinaci (Spinach Sformato or Spinach Casserole)
Nonni always made this with ground beef but Italian sausage, casing removed and crumbled, works really well (a bit of southern Italian heresy creeping in!). It can also be made without meat, but the amount of spinach should be increased by an additional 10 oz. to a total of 30 oz. I have occasionally used fresh spinach but, honestly, frozen chopped spinach works just fine. I doubt you could reliably tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison of fresh vs. frozen spinach in this dish.
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Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
For the spinach mixture
For the balsamella
Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Passive Time 15 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
For the spinach mixture
For the balsamella
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Instructions
For the spinach mixture
  1. Cook the frozen spinach in a heavy bottomed sauce pan tightly covered until thawed, breaking up the spinach from time to time.
  2. As soon as the spinach is thawed, pour the contents of the pan into a fine mesh sieve and allow the spinach to drain and cool.
  3. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze small handfuls of the spinach to remove excess water.
  4. Cut through the mass of squeezed spinach about eight or ten times with a knife then rub it through your fingers to loosen it. It will be pretty tightly wadded up from squeezing out the liquid.
  5. Brown the ground beef or sausage in olive oil over medium heat. You want to get some really browned bits of meat for the flavor. Don't make the mistake of just cooking the meat until it is no longer pink.
  6. When the meat is nicely browned, add the onion and cook until golden and soft. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes.
  7. Combine the meat mixture and spinach in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and allow to cool briefly.
  8. Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs by removing the crusts from a slice of two-day old home-style white bread. Tear the bread into pieces and whiz in a food processor until processed into evenly sized crumbs. Reserve.
  9. Melt the butter and toss with the breadcrumbs. Reserve.
  10. Make the balsamella (see directions below).
  11. Add the balsamella to the cooled meat and spinach mixture. Stir well, loosening up the spinach. When well combined, stir in the eggs. Be certain that the mixture is not so hot that it cooks the eggs.
  12. Reserve two tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese and mix the remainder into the spinach-meat-balsamella mixture.
  13. Pour the spinach mixture into a buttered 9-inch round or 8-inch square baking dish. Sprinkle top with the buttered crumbs and reserved Parmesan cheese.
  14. Bake at 350°F for approximately 60 minutes or until golden brown.
  15. Cool about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
For the balsamella
  1. Heat the milk in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan until bubbles begin to form around the edges. Do not bring the milk to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour when the foam subsides. Cook for several minutes without browning.
  3. Add the milk, approximately two tablespoonsful at a time, mixing well after each addition. Adding the milk in small amounts should allow you to stir out any lumps before adding the next bit of milk.
  4. After all the milk has been added, bring to a boil and cook for one minute, until thickened.
  5. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg.
Recipe Notes

This recipe doubles well.  If you want to cook a double recipe in a single pan, use a 9-inch by 13-inch baking dish.  Bake at 325°F rather than 350°F as it will brown too much around the outside before the inside is cooked.  If necessary, raise the heat to 375°F at the very end, and put the sformato on the top shelf of the oven, to brown the top.

If you want to use fresh spinach, use 2 pounds instead of the 20 ounces of frozen spinach.  Remove the stems.  Wash the spinach, shaking off most of the water.  Put the spinach in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with just the liquid clinging to the leaves.  Cook covered, over medium heat till fully wilted.  Drain and proceed as above with the exception that you will need to do much more chopping of the cooked and squeezed spinach than the eight to ten cuts suggested above.

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