Czech Plum Dumplings

I’ve never been a big fan of fresh plums.  I have always wanted to like them, little orbs of summer that they are, and occasionally would try one or two from the fruit drawer in the fridge where my mom stored them.  Like the peaches we got, they always disappointed, but we also knew that the produce that made its way to our local grocery stores was also the most lackluster.  But even now, when I’m able to grab a few from a farmer’s market (so, as tree-ripened and as sweet as one could hope for), I never have any desire to eat them raw.  Cooked, roasted, baked, simmered, or jammed, however, they’re, at least for me, perfectly irresistible.

Czech Plum Dumplings (2 of 11)

Over ten years ago now (ugh) when I lived in the Czech Republic, I soon learned that plums were such an important fruit there that different words existed for the different varieties–to a Czech’s mind, then, an Italian prune plum and a sugar plum are perhaps as different as a peach and a nectarine.  And that late-summer-to-early-fall Italian prune plum is the key component to a whole range of delicious things:  from slivovice (plum brandy) to povidla (plum butter) to plum dumplings.  I’ve made the first two from that list, and have long been meaning to make the final entry.

Czech Plum Dumplings (11 of 11)

I’ve made them before, in fact, but not on my own.  The village I lived in for one year as an English teacher had previously housed a Czech language school for foreigners.  During the old communist days, students came from the so-called “nonaligned” countries to study at Czech universities–usually technical subjects like engineering–but needed an intensive crash course in Czech before they started.  Hence they lived in language school’s dorms for a year before they were off to Prague, Brno, or other Czech university towns.  Today the institute runs preparatory courses (for Czech students) to prepare them for their college entrance exams.  If I remember correctly, you sit for an exam in the program of your choice–medical, legal, general studies.  If you don’t get in, you can come to this program and spend another year preparing to retake the exams.  (Yeah, no pressure). Anyway, “Cestina pro cizince” (Czech for foreigners) is no more, but one of the program’s teachers, Alena, still live in the town–and lucky for me, she took me on for lessons.  Not bad to have “CSL” (“Czech as a second langauge?) teacher with twenty years of experience introducing you to the insanity that is Czech grammar. Since I was there in the evenings, Alena also took it upon herself to make sure I had a good grounding in Czech food.  She was one of those people who can whip up any number of things from scratch (of course she was!) and while I sadly must admit I haven’t retained all that much, I do remember making these dumplings with her.  A big bowl of blue-purple oval fruits, tvaroh (Czech “farmer’s cheese”, also known as quark), milk, flour, and butter.

Czech Plum Dumplings (1 of 11)

Czech Plum Dumplings (3 of 11)

First we mixed and kneaded the soft pillowy dough–me and Alena by hand, today me and little H with the stand mixer–

Czech Plum Dumplings (4 of 11)

An assembly line was set up, and we wrapped each fruit in its own little package–

Czech Plum Dumplings (6 of 11)

moistened the edges to create a seal–

Czech Plum Dumplings (7 of 11)

and set them aside while we waited for the water to boil.

Czech Plum Dumplings (8 of 11)

We slipped them into  boiling water to poach, and a few minutes later, carefully fished them out, hot and slippery.

Czech Plum Dumplings (10 of 11)

Drizzled with butter, powdered sugar, and poppy seeds.  My favorite type of lesson about culture–via the stomach.

Czech Plum Dumplings (11 of 11)

Note:  you’ll notice that it took me a while to get this post up as these plums, even if early fall fruits, are no longer in season. However, you can use other fruits so you don’t have to wait until next September.

Czech Plum Dumplings
Recipe Type: breakfast, dessert
Cuisine: Czech
Serves: 4-6
Ingredients
  • 2T butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup “pot cheese” (farmer’s cheese, quark, tvaroh, tvarog).
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups cake flour or a combination of cake and regular flour. (I used 240g cake and 30g regular flour).
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 – 1 1/2 pounds fruit (prunes, apricots, cherries, apples or other firm fruit; I used 16 plums)
  • melted butter, poppy seeds, additional quark, and powdered sugar for serving
Instructions
  1. Cream butter, egg and cheese together. It’s OK if it’s a bit lumpy. Add the salt, flour, and milk to make a medium firm dough. Depending on the firmness of your cheese, you may have to add more milk. Allow to rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil while you make the dumplings.
  3. Break off pieces and form into balls–you’ll want 16 or so. Let rest 15 minutes to allow the gluten to relax. On a floured surface, roll dough out into rounds and place a pierced fruit in the center. Dab the edges of the dough to create an adhesive edge, wrap around the fruit, and pinch together, sealing the edges well. Set aside on a floured surface, sealed side down, while you make the other dumplings.
  4. Gently slip into boiling water one at a time but as quickly as possible. Cook for 5-8 minutes turning once. Remove with a skimmer or slotted spoon.
  5. To serve, tear open a dumpling with two forks, and drizzle with melted butter, more cheese, poppy seeds, and powdered sugar
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Lebkuchen (Austrian Gingerbread Cookies)

Sad to say, this blog has a regrettable dearth of Christmas cookies.  (Or cookies in general).  I hope this post can help make amends.  With marmalade (if like me you have too much), brown sugar, molasses, a riot of spices, plenty of eggs, and of course candied ginger, these cookies are full of flavor and well worthy of the holiday season.

Christmas Lebkuchen (8 of 8)

I’ve loved this slightly chewy, soft gingerbread cookie (in contrast to the crisp, snappy variety) since enjoying is as often as I could in the Czech Republic.  Besides beautifully decorated showpieces, every grocery store stocked multiple varieties single serving cakes filled with your selection of jam and glazed in a thin veneer of chocolate.  Years later, I even imposed upon  my friend Jennifer to bring me back some from her annual trip to Austria, along with marzipan and plum paste.  (That’s sort of a lot, isn’t it?)

Christmas Lebkuchen (1 of 8)

These cookies are so easy to make–it’s whirred up in the food processor and frozen for at least four hours to stiffen it up a little.    I left mine in the freezer a full twenty four hours, and you can see how soft and viscous it is even after that–so don’t skip that step or you may turn an easy cookie making venture into a frustrating one.

Christmas Lebkuchen (3 of 8)

Scooping out with a cookie scoop is definitely helpful (see that part about being sticky and viscous above), but the good news is even as imperfect as my scoops started looking, they all baked up into lovely rounds.  Even my younger son enjoyed helping–that’s his cute little hand.

Christmas Lebkuchen (2 of 8)

Christmas Lebkuchen (4 of 8)

The frosting is as simple as can be–sugar held together by milk and a bit of butter.  It’s nothing but pure saccharine, which actually is the perfect icing for such complex and rich cookies.  Everyone I shared these cookies with gave them rave reviews, and I hope you enjoy them as much as we all did!

Christmas Lebkuchen (6 of 8)

Lebkuchen (Central European Gingerbread Cookies)

Ingredients
  • Cookies
  • 1 1/2 cups blanched whole almonds
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sweet orange marmalade
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped candied ginger (1 ounce)
  • 1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 5 large eggs
  • Icing
  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Spread the almonds on a rimmed baking sheet and toast for about 10 minutes, or toast, stirring frequently in a hot dry skillet for about 5 minutes, until fragrant and lightly golden. Remove to a plate to stop the cooking, and let cool completely.
  2. In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ground ginger, cloves, allspice, salt and nutmeg.
  3. In a food processor, pulse the cooled almonds until coarsely chopped. Add the brown sugar and pulse until incorporated. Add the marmalade, candied ginger and molasses and pulse until the mixture is well blended and the nuts are finely chopped. Add the eggs all at once and pulse until just incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and pulse until incorporated and the batter is uniform in color.
  4. Scrape the soft batter into a bowl, cover and freeze until very firm, at least 4 hours.
  5. Preheat the oven to 350° and line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  6. Using a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop, scoop 8 level mounds onto each baking sheet, about 3 inches apart. Freeze the remaining batter between batches.
  7. Bake the cookies in the upper and lower thirds of the oven for about 20 minutes, until risen and slightly firm; shift the pans from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. Transfer the sheets to racks and let the cookies and pans cool completely. Repeat with the remaining batter.
  8. In a bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with the milk and butter. The butter will eventually incorporate. Spread the cookies with icing (it’s easiest to pick each cookie up and frost it rather than frost them on a plate) and let dry completely before serving or wrapping.
Notes

The cookies can be stored between sheets of wax paper in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Christmas Lebkuchen (7 of 8)

Dan Leader’s Zitny Chleba (Czech Light Rye) from Local Breads

Having finally figured out how to achieve windowpane using my machine, and having finally “gotten religion” about creating a steam environment in my oven, I have been newly inspired in my bread making pursuits.  (Not that I needed encouragement).  I even decided to try to cultivate my own rye starter using Dan Leader’s instructions in Local Breads.  Given my bad luck with wheat, it was all the more exciting when in only four days I was ready to go.  Rye is supposed to be far easier to ferment than wheat, which I am sure was helpful; in addition I used organic pumpernickel grind from King Arthur and filtered water from my fridge water dispenser unit.  (The other bonus of having a rye starter–I can bake for people with wheat allergies).

Have new sourdough, must bake!  I quickly settled on a Czech bread from Local Breads.  I remember often buying this bread when I lived in the Czech Republic, though my memory fails me as to the exact taste.  Light rye is a little more approachable than 100% rye bread (which I do like but to me is slightly less versatile).

There are a few interesting steps here.  After an initial kneading for 7-8 minutes you allow the dough to rest.  Here’s the dough at the end of the first knead:

And here’s the dough after the second knead.  I imagine the rest in between allows the gluten to develop in the wheat while preventing the rye from being over-mixed.  The windowpaning isn’t completely obvious in this photo (and perhaps it’s a touch underdeveloped) but it’s certainly far better than my past doughs.  You can also see that this is a fairly tacky dough, but not as sticky as it appears in my photo.  (I can only do so much without a photographic assistant in the kitchen!)

The usual:  set the dough to rise; shape and set to rise again…

Interestingly, here rather than score the bread you prick it all over, known as “docking.”  The idea is to promote an even rise.  Like scoring, this step is also to allow an escape for the steam building up inside the bread.  By creating “escape hatches” you can control where the steam escapes, rather than your loaf ripping open wherever it feels like it.  (It’s an aesthetic point, as the bread still will taste fine).

If you were wondering what it looks like when this happens, I have a photo for you.  It turns out I did not dock my loaves aggressively enough–you’ll see how they split open in the heat of the oven.  I didn’t mind–this doesn’t typically happen to me and I chalked it up to the fact that I am doing a better job developing the gluten as well as creating a good baking environment.  And myabe they split open, but as aesthetics are subjective, I can say I liked it!

Pretty on the outside

And a nice crumb inside.

I used regular rye flour as I don’t have white rye, which has to be specially ordered–which I may just do with my next King Arthur order.  It’s quite versatile as the rye flavor is mild, and like all sourdoughs, keeps wonderfully (it does have a bit of commercial yeast as well).   The only tweak I need to make is to figure out how to keep my crust from going soft after the loaves cool.

Poppyseed Plum Swirl Bread

You could be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a post about chocolate, at least if you just went by this first picture.  In fact, the first time I had this oh-so-typically Eastern European filling (at a Russian bakery in Seattle’s Pike Place Market) I was a little surprised–it’s not that it looks exactly like chocolate, but that would be your best guess.  To be sure, it’s quite disorienting to open your mouth, sure you are about to enjoy some chocolate,  and find you are tasting something entirely different.  When I got over the shock, I found I quite liked it.

Which was a good thing because the poppyseed plum combination is everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe, so I was in good shape when I was living there.   To make this nearly black filling, the poppyseeds should be ground, and the plums come in the form of povidla (or powidl, povidel, and a host of other names, depending on the country) which is unglamourously (and surely for some, unappetizingly) translated as prune paste (or butter). 

Besides my periodic urge to make something vaguely Czech, I have Mark Bittman to thank for inspiring this.  I’ve been having so much fun with the How To Cook Everything app on my Iphone.  (It’s really great to be able to plan meals while holding little H when he’s nodded off; no agonizing decision as to whether I dare to put him down).  One of the Bittman variations on simple white bread is exactly this.  You can use any enriched white dough recipe (by that I mean, a dough with a bit of sugar and butter).  We often use this same method to make cinnamon swirl bread, and I’m sure the possibilities are unlimited as to what you fill your bread with.

But, digressions aside, this particular bread was, of course, poppyseed and povidla.   More specifically, 1/4c poppyseed and 3/4c povidla.  While you can find it here in the US, my povidla is directly imported from Austria.  (My good friend Jen goes there every year with her husband and unfortunately for her, on her last trip I had a request list all prepared.) 

 As for my poppyseeds, they were out of your standard size spice jar (in contrast, in the Czech Republic these seeds come in pound-sized bags–I told you they love it).  I was pleased to see that Bittman does not require you to grind them; something most recipes I’ve seen require .  Andrea at Family and Food and I have discussed whether or not this grinding is necessary, so here was a perfect chance to put this to the test.   Skipping this step would greatly simplify things, as I understand poppyseeds can be very difficult to grind.  (Yes, there are even special grinders for this purpose, but I’d rather not have another single use kitchen gadget, nor do I have a coffee grinder which could do the trick).  A good poppyseed grinder, in any case, may be hard to come by.  Even in the Czech Republic, where such a tool is more commonplace, I heard the standard complaint that “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”  Who knows, but I sure don’t know how to pick one.  I do know that  you can even find tinned poppyseed filling in stores here, (perhaps even in the Kosher section!) but mixing up the povidla and poppyseeds sounds much better to me–canned filling seems like something that could go very wrong, though I’m speaking purely out of conjecture here.

Now, in the end, perhaps it’s a bit more authentic if you grind the poppyseeds, but I enjoyed this bread all the same.  Good is good, after all.

The filling was slightly runny,  so perhaps I could cut back a bit on the jam the next time, though I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.  Drippingly sweet and rich filling is not necessarily a bad thing.   The important takeaway is I need not shy away from other poppyseed-filled goodies (such as  kolace or buchty) merely because I don’t have all the poppyseed processing accoutrements.  And that is a good thing to know, wouldn’t you agree?

Yeasted Almond and Raisin Babovka

Babovka is what I’m choosing to call this cake (but you can also call it Kugelhopf or Gugelhopf  (or babka or kuglof…and surely there’s some other names out there I’m missing).  I’m not sure what’s the easiest to pronounce, so take your pick! 

While it’s only idle speculation, I imagine that this is a European ancestor of the Bundt cake–baked in a decorative, fluted mold, hollow at the center, often with a swirled filling.  While my particular version is yeasted (and with no “surprises” other than raisins), I’m sure I’ve had more definitively “cake” type versions “in my time.” 

Personally, I’m calling this Babovka because that’s what it’s known as in the Czech Republic, where I first encountered it (and fairly ubiquitous–you’re much more likely to run across this than you are a Bundt cake these days).  It was always mentioned by my students when it was time for one of those oh-so-cliched foreign language lessons “Traditional foods of your country”).  They would consult their English-Czech dictionaries to tell me that in English, it was known as a “Gugelhopf.”  (Hmmm…not entirely illuminating). 

In any event, somewhat recently I came across recipes for the Alsatian “Kugelhopf” cake, or the German “Gugelhopf” and it got me thinking (and got me making some additions to my Amazon.com wishlist).  I ended up getting a 10 cup capacity mold for Christmas (the size is actually not all that standardized, surprisingly enough for something that is sort of an unusual product) as it seemed to be on the larger end, and I figured were I to make  recipe calling for an 8 cup mold it would just not fill all the way.  (Alternately, I’d have to deal with overflowing batter). 

Not to be a repeating record, but guess which yolk is from the TRUE free-range hen?

 I looked at a few recipes. Nick Malgieri’s Babka called for 12 egg yolks, that was the end of that one (anyway, we’ll be seeing enough of him around here soon enough).  I thought about Dorie Greenspan’s version and another one listed on epicurious, but finally ended up choosing a yeasted version that I loosely based on a recipe in Rick Rodgers Kaffeehaus.  Being a cookbook that focusses on Central European coffeehouse treats, it has its  fair share of Kugelhopf recipes.  I also love it for sentimental reasons–photos and descriptions of the great coffeehouses of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague,  and of course with instructions on how to recreate the delicious cakes and pastries so unique to that area. 

 

The original recipe is a bit odd–namely, you are instructed to separate the eggs, make the dough, and then stir in (not fold!) whipped egg whites which are meant to deflate into the batter.  I have absolutely no idea what the purpose of this is (though I have seen this technique in various Ukrainian Easter Bread (Paska) recipes and have been similarly puzzled).  I can’t say if this is necessary, but if anyone knows I’d be very curious to find out! 

 

 

In the end, I’d have to say this was more bread than cake.  But a sweet bread, along the lines of a Pannetone or Pandoro–so no complaints here. 

 

 

Yeasted Almond and Raisin Babovka  (based on, but adapted from, Kaffeehaus). 

  • 3 3/4t active dry yeast
  • 1c milk at 110-115F
  • 1/2t sugar
  • 1c AP flour (unbleached)
  • 12T butter at room temperature
  • 1/2c sugar
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1/2t vanilla extract
  • 1t almond extract
  • 1/2t salt
  • 2 1/2-3c AP flour (unbleached)
  • 1c raisins
  • 1/4c sliced almonds
  • confectioner’s sugar, for serving

Make the sponge:  add the yeast, sugar, and flour to the warm milk and let rise for a half hour.  

Pour the sponge into a stand mixer and beat in the butter.  Then add one by one the four yolks and beat until incorporated.  Add the extracts and salt.  Add the flour to form a soft tacky dough.  You may not need all the flour–wait before adding more to allow it to incorporate (it may take a minute or so).  Beat for five minutes to obtain a soft dough. 

Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.  Add to the dough (the whites will deflate), leaving you with a soft batter.  Stir in the raisins. 

Butter your mold and press in the almond slivers.  Pour in the batter and allow to rise until the pan is nearly full.  Bake for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and bake another 3o minutes (to prevent over-browning). The cake should register at 205F. 

Allow to cool and serve with powdered sugar.

Pork Liver Part 2: Liver Dumpling Soup

That title is making your mouth water isn’t it?  Just the word liver seems to cast a pallor over the whole recipe (though ‘dumpling’ probably doesn’t sound all that exciting either, at least where it’s clear we’re not talking about the sweet variety).  As I mentioned in my last post, I had a half pound of pork liver left over.  While I was sort of maxed out on liver, courtesy of the pate itself, I also didn’t want to waste the rest of it.  (The liver, by the way, was rather inexpensive, especially for “grass fed” and so forth, but that’s not the point). 

I found a recipe for liver dumpling soup in The New York Times Cookbook and thought that might be a good use of it but decided to look online as well.  I kept coming up with search results giving me pate recipes–but finally found another version of the liver dumpling soup.  Especially since this one had a nice Czech subtitle, (Hovezi Polevka s Nudlemi a Jatrovymi Knedlicky) I figured this was what was ordained for that second half pound of liver.  I have, after all, had this soup plenty of times (though I remember it best from Vienna–but then it’s part of that whole Central European cuisine that has lots of similarities across the once-Habsburg lands).  In afct, this recipe was posted on Saveur which (having bought it from time to time) seems pretty gourmet, not something I’d associate with liver meatballs!

Very easy.  You just puree the liver with the seasonings and drop them by spoonfuls into simmering broth.  I used chicken broth instead of beef (because I had it, and it was about to expire) and made much smaller dumplings than suggested (the recipe only called for six to be made–those would be seriously massive dumplings!)  We also used egg fettucine rather than angel hair pasta, again, because that’s what we had on hand, and it was a really great substitution.  The broth itself turned out to be quite flavorful, thanks to the dumplings lending some richness to the cooking liquid.  I know you don’t want to believe me on this, but the soup is really good.  And inexpensive.  I know, it’s liver, but so is foie gras (and all sorts of other fancy French concoctions, such as, oh I don’t know, pate maison?) and while I suppose some people don’t like the idea of eating fattened duck or goose liver, noone says, “what am I, chopped foie gras?” 

Liver mix, pureed and ready for the soup:  mmm!!!!

Liver mix, pureed and ready for the soup: mmm!

Tasty little dumplings!  (I'm serious!)

Tasty little dumplings! (I'm serious!)

Keeping with the Central European theme, I also made cucumber yogurt salad with dill.  Perfect way to get some vegetables into the dinner as well.  As a first step, you slice and salt the cucumbers over a colander.  It really is amazing how much water they release.  I think you need to leave it for at least a half hour but longer is certainly better–you’ll see what I mean by observing how much water collects (we set the colander over a plate).  Then you need to rinse the cucumber slices before mixing in yogurt (my recipe called for 1 cup per cucumber but I halved that), dill, and minced garlic.  And you need to rinse them well.  This is where I stumbled–such a seemingly easy instruction to follow as well.  Unless you are looking for something approximating the flavor of a cucumber-infused salt lick, make sure to wash all that salt off.  As you are probably guessing, there were no vegetables served with dinner after all.  Oh well.  At least I used up the liver, right?

Well, at least it looks right.

Well, at least it looks right.

Czech Liver Dumpling Soup (adapted from Saveur)

  • 1/2 lb. pork liver, cut into chunks
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 tsp. fresh marjoram, finely chopped
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper, plus more to taste
  • 6 cups beef broth
  • 4 oz. angel hair pasta, broken into thirds

Grind pork liver until smooth in a  small food processor, about 10 seconds. Add butter and egg. Pulse to combine. Transfer the pork mixture to a medium bowl. With a rubber spatula, mix in the garlic, bread crumbs, salt, marjoram, and pepper until well combined. Refrigerate the pork mixture for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil over high heat in a large saucepan. Adjust the heat so that the broth simmers. Using a soup spoon, scoop out 1 heaping portion of liver mixture from the bowl. Using a second spoon, scrape liver mixture into broth, forming an oval-shaped dumpling. Continue to use up all the pork mixture, making 5 more equal-size portions. Cook the pork dumplings in the simmering broth, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add pasta. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally, until the dumplings are cooked through and the pasta is soft, about 15 minutes. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary and ladle soup into 6 small bowls.