“Srechno va Zdravo!” Or, Happy and Healthy (new year to you)!
Funny enough, I’ve been using “zdravo” as my standard greeting for a long time now, totally ignorant that I wasn’t actually saying hi, but rather, “health.” Huh. The typical greeting I’d say is Zivjo, but you’ll hear zdravo occasionally…I had no clue there was substantive difference.
I digress. What I want to tell you about today is of my time in the Slovenian countryside, New Years, amazing hospitality, and food. Lots and lots and lots of food. Some of it good, some of it not so good, but all in tremendous quantities thus far unknown of in my direct experience.
It all started with my desire to learn how to make strudel. You see, I love strudel. It’s not too sweet, and in the interest of my own personal health (-remember this thought for later), not too rich. It also straddles the zone between desert and breakfast, both of which are my niche specialties as a chef from a houseful of great cooks. Moreover, the authentic strudel is relatively uncommon in the United States. Or at least, I’ve rarely seen the real thing sold. Thus, I desperately wished to unlock the secrets of strudel. This would not only be an excellent life skill to carry onwards, but it would also provide the fall-back career option of strudel entrepreneur, and when people ask, “So, what did you do on your Fulbright?” allow me to reply, “learned how to make strudel.”
I know that strudel is stereotypically Austrian, but Slovenia’s strudel is just as good. Remember, for a large chunk of time Slovenia was in Austria. Plus, if you want to be picky about it, strudel dough is essentially the same as the filo-like dough used to make burek, and there is nothing more Balkan or Ottoman than that. Austria gets the fame for it, but strudel dough is a creature of the south and east, not the west.
Luckily for me, one of my friends who I met on my Brussles trip is an avid cook and baker, interested both in international cuisine as well as her own traditional foods. She lives in a small village outside of Maribor, a city bordering Austria, in the north. I managed to swing an invite to her house to learn how to make strudel. Or, I think she may have suggested it in the vague sense at one time, and then I asked her directly if I could come over the Christmas break. Some things are too important to be left to chance. I really wanted to learn how to make strudel. It’s something of a fading art form, even here. Most people simply buy it at bakeries, or if they go the extra mile to make it at home, use pre-made sheets of filo dough. Forget my fall-back career choice, its for the good of the world that I preserve this knowledge.
Invite obtained, off to Maribor I went with only a change of clothes and my pajamas and a small hostess gift.
Strudel making was just as amazing and both far easier and far more difficult than I had imagined. Since the dough needs to rest, they had prepared some earlier in the day so we could jump right in. (I would make another batch of dough once these ones were done.) Stretching the dough out is a magical process. I checked online afterward, but very few sources made the dough by hand, much less, “right,” i.e. predominately without a rolling pin. The dough shouldn’t need it. Rather, it should just just expand with a light touch.
The best pictures I found of the process can be found here: http://easteuropeanfood.about.com/od/strudels/ig/Cheese-Strudel/
What we did looked much like what you can see above, only on a smaller scale. We used smaller lumps of dough, going well off the edges of the kitchen table rather than of a banquet table.
We made two types- wait, no, three types of strudel. One apple, one apple-cheese (as in, soft fresh cheese,) and one filled with savory feta-like cheese. All were fantastically delicious. I will aim to hone my craft while I’m here, so that way I can go back to my teachers and make sure I have everything down pat before I return to the States. They made it look so easy! And it was easy! But so much with the dough is knowing when it has the right feel, and I know only practice will ingrain that feeling into my brain.
Whew, its well past midnight. I shall have to wait for tomorrow to tell you about Day 2…and Day 3. And then Day 4, of what was supposed to be an overnight trip to make strudel, that turned into a Slovenian food-fest that culminated with me gaining more weight then then I knew possible in a four-day time span (remember one of my motivations in learning how to make strudel? Ha! Any healthful benefits of strudel were drastically drowned out by what was consumed later,) and sampling pig’s head.
p.s. I changed the picture in the header, as you may have noticed, to something more seasonal and wintery. This photo was taken at Lake Bled. Dear lord, I love the mountains.