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

Leek and Celery Pie

When I lived for a summer in Sarajevo, one of my favorite things was the local “fast food.”  Enjoying cevapi  (kebabs made with ground lamb meat) with hot charred bread on a warm summer evening in the old town center of Bascarsija was only made better when followed by a scoop of ice cream or a selection from a stunning array of baklavas.  But for a meal on the go–breakfast, lunch, or dinner–the burek shops had you covered.

Leek and Celery Pie (2 of 2)

You have had something similar to burek if you’ve ever had a spanakopita (the Greek version) or a borek (the Turkish name).  You could even stretch the definition a bit to include a Viennese apple strudel.  The idea is the same, regardless of the language:  a filling of meat, vegetables, or cheese, wrapped in flaky layers of phyllo dough, butter as the glue holding it all together.  I usually went for the spinach or cheese versions–no surprise there–sometimes the meat, and once even the potato pie.  (But to be honest, none of it is exactly what I’d call diet food).

As you know, I’m often drawn to recreating these food memories at home.  And with that, here’s a homemade, burek-inspired savory pie. 
Leek and Celery Pie-drizzled 1

I initially shied away from this recipe when I saw it on epicurious–were they really asking me to make my own phyllo dough?  Let out your breath:  you’re not rolling out 20 paper-thin sheets, but rather just two rectangles.  The dough is extensible and easy to work with, and best of all can be made in advance.  It’s tender thanks to the vinegar and yogurt in the crust, and even becomes flaky as it bakes in the oven. (And if you’re still panicking–or even just pulling a face at the idea of this–just use storebought phyllo dough or puff pastry.  Because you still want to make this).

As for the filling, it’s a mix of many flavors that encourage the best out of each other, and that makes for a remarkably satisfying meal.  Mild, gently cooked leek and celery are boosted by feisty aged cheese, and generous handfuls of chopped parsley, mint, and dill keep it lively.

I’ve made this a few times, each time doing at least one thing the “wrong way,” but always enjoying the final product.  To avoid the effort of chopping, I’ve whirred up the leeks and celery in a food processor, but learned that it’s preferable to do the chopping by hand (sorry).  But you can go electric, just keep in mind that it’s very easy to over-process in the machine, and even if you don’t, using the processor releases a lot of liquid.  You can drain it off before proceeding, as I did, with perfectly good results, but my more “old-fashioned” attempt with a big old knife turned out better. 

I’ve also made this with less than the full 10 cups of leeks, which still yields wonderful, if perhaps slightly less generous, portions.  And I’ve even used a mix of dried and fresh rather than just fresh herbs (horrors!  heresy!), as my planning ahead skills are not always the best.  If you are better than I in this regard, but like me hate shelling out for bunches of herbs that you’ll only use a measly few leaves of, don’t worry: you’ll  get a lot of mileage (and tons of great flavor) out of your purchase here.

Leek and Celery Pie--fresh out of the oven

Leek and Celery Pie adapted from Epicurious

Note:  You will need a jelly roll pan or other rimmed baking pan to make this recipe

Crust (can use store-bought phyllo or puff pastry to similar effect)
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour (a little over 18 ounces) plus additional for dusting 
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup whole-milk yogurt (preferably Greek-style)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the bowl
  • 1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

Filling

  • 4-6 lb leeks (white and pale green parts only),
    chopped (about 10 cups–though I’ve used less)
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 large celery ribs, chopped (about 3 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 2/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
  • 1/4 lb Greek feta, crumbled (1 cup)
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 1 1/2 oz) or preferably finely grated Kefalotyri if you can find it.
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 large eggs

Make the dough

Stir together flour and salt in a large bowl, then add the water, yogurt, 1/2 cup oil, and vinegar. If you have a stand mixer or food processor, it’s best to use these to very briefly knead the dough so that you don’t inadvertently add too much flour.  You want a soft, smooth, but pliable dough.  If you knead by hand, knead about 4 minutes and resist adding extra flour if at all possible.  Oil a large bowl, form the dough into a ball, and roll it around inside the bowl to coat.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp towel and let dough stand at room temperature 1 hour.  This will allow the dough to rest and relax, which will make it far easier to roll out–so it’s definitely worth the wait.  (You can keep the dough up to three days in the fridge before using, tightly covered with plastic or in a plastic bag.)
 
Make the filling

Wash the leeks and celery well and drain them, if you haven’t already.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet or a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking (as you don’t want to brown the vegetables once you add them).  Sauté the leeks and celery with 1/2 teaspoon salt, stirring frequently, until softened and translucent, around 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool about 10 minutes (stirring will promote cooling).   Note: you can do this step a day in advance and refrigerate but like the dough bring to room temperature before proceeding.

Place your oven rack in the middle position and preheat  the oven to 375°F.

Stir the herbs into the leek and celery mixture along with the cheeses, pepper,  and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Lightly beat eggs with remaining 3 tablespoons oil in a small bowl, then stir into leek filling.  (This is why you want to allow the filling to cool slightly–so as not to cook the eggs or prematurely melt the cheese).

Make the pie
 
Brush baking pan with 2 tablespoons oil.

Divide dough in half and flour a work surface.  Roll out one half on a floured surface into a rectangle about an 1 1/2 to 2 inches wider on all sides than your pan (i.e. if you have a 17 X 12 inch pan, you want to roll out to about 20 X 15 inches at a minimum, or even a bit bigger).   If the dough resists, let it rest about 10 minutes, which will allow the gluten to relax and will result in the dough being more yielding.  Fold your rectangle loosely into quarters and transfer to your pan, then unfold dough and fit into the pan, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Spread the filling evenly in pan.

Roll out remaining dough on floured surface with floured rolling pin into a rectangle about 1 inch wider on all sides than your pan. Lift dough and drape it over filling, leaving it slightly wrinkled. Roll edge of bottom crust over top to
form a rope edge all around pie. Brush top of pie with remaining 2 tablespoons
oil (or drizzle it on and use your fingers to spread the oil out over the surface). Score top crust into serving pieces with a sharp knife.

Bake the pie until golden brown, 50 to 60 minutes.  Allow to cool and serve at room temperature.   

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?