Nakládaný hermelín (marinated cheese) is the best thing on earth. The end.

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And it’s otherworldly with beer and brown bread. This I know.

Yes, I also know that fresh is always better. But my spice cabinet begs to differ. And at 4:00 pm on a Sunday, it wins.

Here’s how you make Nakládaný hermelín.

Ingredients
A few rounds of Camembert
sliced garlic (2-3 cloves per cheese round)
rosemary
thyme
allspice
juniper berries (15 per whole cheese round)
equal parts pepper and sweet paprika
thinly sliced onions (including 1 red onion)
thinly sliced red and green bell peppers
bay leaves
vegetable oil (preferably sunflower oil)

Slice each round of cheese in half and scatter the garlic over each half. Next sprinkle over the rosemary, thyme, allspice, juniper, pepper, and sweet paprika. Close the rounds. Scatter a thin layer of onions, bell peppers, and bay leaves over the bottom of the jar. If the jar will fit a whole round of cheese, add it whole; if not, slice the cheese into halves or quarters (or whatever will fit) and add one layer. Add a few more slices of onion and bell pepper, and then cram in as much cheese as will fit without squishing beyond recognition. Submerge everything with sunflower oil, seal, and refrigerate for at least 48 hours. (Beware that refrigerated garlic in oil can lead to botulism if not consumed within a week.)

Aren’t recipes that end by warning with disease fun? Carpe diem!

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To be honest, I’m a little worried now.

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After all, this cheese is for the party that Megan’s throwing to celebrate the launch of our DailyLit projects.

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Poisoning people at your launch party is simply not done in New York.

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Or anywhere, really.

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But it looks pretty spectacular, especially in those jars I took the Water Taxi to Brooklyn to get, this morning.

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I love the Water Taxi.

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At least it was a glorious day for a boat ride.

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As I waited for the Water Taxi at Pier 11, and then in Red Hook, I realized how happy I am to be living in a city with a harbor, again. Maybe after The Big Launch Party Cheese Debacle, I’ll need to find another city with a harbor, in which to live anonymously.

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Maybe I should’ve made bábovka.

The Ghost in the Pantry is now up on DailyLit.com! To start receiving installments of the cookbook, just sign up here, and you’ll get a dose of Czech and American cooking in your inbox each day.

hermelin

Next up on here, I’m looking forward to doing one of my favorites, nakládaný hermelín cheese, which isn’t in the cookbook because few people make it at home. However, hermelín is one of the major food groups in Czech snacking, along with beer and rolls, and is pub food at its finest.

To pickle hermelín cheese, you slice rounds of this cheese, the Czech camembert, into horizontal slices and then pack them into a jar with sliced onions, green and red peppers (even chiles, if you like), bay leaves, pepper, and garlic. Then you drench everything in oil (vegetable or olive) and let it marinate for a day or two–or for longer if refrigerated. Served with slices of bread and beer, it’s a heady mix of spices and creamy cheese. My favorite place in Prague for nakládaný hermelín is the Týnská literary cafe, just behind Týn Cathedral in Old Town Square.

After the cheese detour, we’ll plunge back into the realm of family recipes with soup. Indian Summer in New York is fading!

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It’s too bad you can’t hold culinary seances. I don’t need any Blithe Spirit hijinks, but “Really? Ten eggs? No butter?” would do, for starters. A direct line to my great-grandmother’s baking spirit might settle what size eggs are critical for this recipe, and why it doesn’t require any butter or oil.

On the other hand, since my great-grandmother was known not necessarily for precise measurements but for using every pot in the house to cook, as I’m prone to do, she’d probably just laugh. The cake benefits from orange and lemon zest, so if you’re using fresh orange juice and lemon juice (which you should be, if you’ll pardon my saying so), zest those finely and add them to the batter.

Confession time: this is a really eggy cake. If you don’t like eggy cakes, or if your doctor would faint at the number of eggs in the ingredients, you might try one of the other cakes on this blog, or in the book. But if you pair this with a scoop of yogurt over the frosting–and maybe a drizzle of hot orange syrup–a slice of this cake satisfies a fall craving for a bright, simple dessert. (Or breakfast.)

Sunshine Cake

The counterpoint to my great-grandmother’s dark cake, this cake benefits from a carton of small-farm eggs with bright yolks.

9 large or 10 small eggs (if very small, use 10 egg yolks and 12 egg whites), separated
1 ½ scant cups sugar (sift once before adding)
¼ tsp. salt
1 ¾ cups flour
3 tbsp. orange juice (add up to 2 tbsp. more, if you wish)
1 ½ tbsp. lemon juice
zest of half an orange (optional)
zest of one lemon (optional)

Beat yolks until thick and lemon colored, adding sugar gradually. Sift flour and salt together four or five times, and add juices and flour, folding in, alternately, the egg yolks. Beat whites until stiff but not dry, and fold in to egg yolk mixture.

Bake in angel food pan for 1 hour–but test beginning at 40 minutes! Place in oven as soon as it is turned on; set heat at 225°F, increasing by 25° every 15 minutes until—for the last 15 minutes—oven is at 350°F. However, let cool in pan about 1 hour. Before frosting, poke all over with a cake tester to allow frosting to seep in.

Frosting for large cake
4 tbsp. orange juice
2 tbsp. butter, softened
1 tsp. lemon extract
powdered sugar (enough to thicken so as to spread easily)

Mix ingredients together with wooden spoon; gradually add powdered sugar for spreading consistency.

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Now that I know I can whip egg whites into peaks, it’s incredibly satisfying.

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Aside from the vinegar-and-salt trick, I find having techno music playing at ample volume helps when whipping egg whites. I doubt my great-grandmother would approve.

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It’s 6:00 pm. Do you know where your Bundt pan is?

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Doubling the frosting recipe gives you enough to ladle over a slice or two. Bonus.

This is a tiny digression from family recipes, but it’s too good to pass up!

Between a toy store and the cheerful Řehoř Samsa cafe in Prague’s Lucerna passageway lies a forbidding closet of a bar. With its cramped depths and (appropriately) volcanic-red lighting, Bar Ignis is hardly welcoming, unless you’re down on your luck–but it does have the most entertaining menu board I’ve ever seen. Clearly, there’s a frustrated novelist or poet with a warped sense of humor buried back there, somewhere…
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Hungry? Eat, for Pete’s sake!*
Hot game sausage –>photo of the animal available
Homemade hot dog –>only in Ignis
Pickled hermelin cheese optimist or pessimist**
Brussels pâté with cranberries
Black Forest ham
Bread with fat and cracklings
Bread with fat spread
ONLY HERE!
Wine from the casket
Rosé served with a strawberry
Champagne served with a strawberry : 2 dl Kč 78 [6 3/4 oz.; ~$4.60]
Sangria with melon
Retsina Greek wine
Red wine: 2 dl Kč 49 [6 3/4 oz.; ~$2.90]
Lambrusco
Merlot (late harvest)
Rulandske
Portugal
Cabernet Sauvignon
Frankovka

*In Czech, this rhymes and sounds a lot snappier.

**No idea what the “optimist or pessimist” part means (but hermelin cheese is the Czech version of Camembert, and is insanely good).

This is one of the easiest (and most comforting, I think) fall dishes to cobble together when it’s pouring. (You probably know how to make it already!) No doubt you have apples and onions on hand, and there’s probably a pork chop or two stashed in the freezer. While the pork chops thaw, you can go back to your blanket, cup of tea, and the stack of books next to your bed. If you need to stall even more–and autumn is, in some ways, all about drawing things out–you can marinate the pork in olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, and a bit of vinegar.

In the cookbook (coming soon from DailyLit!), I note that this is one of those rare recipes my husband and I both grew up eating–although he was eating it nearly six thousand miles away behind the Iron Curtain.

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This is adapted from the Czech original.

Pork Chops with Apples and Onions

2 pork chops
salt
freshly ground pepper
2 tbsp. oil
1 tbsp. butter
1 medium-large onion, chopped
4 small apples, cored and sliced in rounds

Trim pork chops and pound lightly. Season; sear in hot oil on all sides. Add butter, chopped onions, and sliced apples. Stew until cooked. (Add a bit of water before covering.) Serve with potatoes.

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In Prague, mustard is sold in mayonnaise-sized containers; the Czech word for mustard is hořčice, which has a deliciously thick and appropriate sound, I think. (I know, the original recipe doesn’t call for mustard, but pork chops are somehow inextricably associated with mustard, for me.)

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Apples and onions browning together. Right after the onion-sage-and-celery aromas of Thanksgiving morning, this is one of my favorite swirls of fall smells.

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The final version. (Those spots are the result of a few crazed dashes of cinnamon.)

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If you want to be faithful to the recipe, you can serve this with potatoes boiled with a few teaspoons of caraway seeds, though potatoes in any form (such as garlicky mashed potatoes) would round things out. Don’t expect to do anything later but retreat back to your blanket and books, however!

Bábovka fit for a president.

I finally did it. Before being socked by the early fall chill with a cold and going to bed for four days, I managed to whip up a pile of egg whites without using any motorized power but my own flailing elbows. At the end, the counter, tea tin, pasta jar, and salt and pepper shakers were covered in egg white, but I did it. And it was worth it, since the effort produced an honest-to-God Czech-looking bábovka of the same ilk that emerges from ovens in Prague. VICTORY.

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Given the title, you know that this isn’t just any cake. It’s high-office cake. Democratically-elected-by-a-landslide cake. Streamers-and-ticker-tape-parade cake.

For Prezidentská bábovka, you bring out the good stuff: fine dark chocolate and ground hazelnuts. It’s the kind of family cake that the words “happily munching” bring to mind. And it’s very easy to make.

President’s Cake
Prezidentská bábovka

A luxurious, special-occasion bábovka, flecked with chocolate and ground nuts. Also perfect for weekend breakfasts.

2 ½ cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup butter
6 eggs, separated
1 tbsp. vanilla
½ to ¾ cup grated chocolate
¾ cup ground hazelnuts (3 ½ oz.)
1 cup heavy cream

Butter and flour a Bundt pan, and set aside.

Sift together flour and baking powder, and set aside. Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a large bowl, mix sugar with butter and egg yolks. Add vanilla. Add grated chocolate, nuts, cream, and flour mixture.

Beat egg whites into firm peaks. Gently fold egg whites into batter. Ladle batter into Bundt pan, and bake for 50 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. Let cool for 20 minutes before removing from pan.

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Grated chocolate is an underappreciated food form.

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Eureka!

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This is the cake that keeps on giving. It takes thirty minutes to make, and you’ll reap the rewards and praise for two weeks.

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You could go nuts and serve with fresh whipped cream, but only on formal state occasions.

Next up will be cakes from the American side–my great-grandmother’s trifecta: Lady Baltimore, Sunshine, and Devil’s Food.

My love of all things involving Austria, apricots, and family is documented here, today. :)

Wachau apricots

Wachau apricots

Brainchild of food writer Kim O’Donnel and friends, the Canvolution is another great idea from the Pacific Northwest. If you’re a fan of jam, pickles (of all kinds), or anything else preserved, you’ll want to check out the Canning Across America site and their updates on how to get involved locally. Best thing about it? Canning is easier than you think! (And I say this as a one-time-only cherry jammer. I may branch out from freezer jam yet…)

In a brief detour from recipes of strictly friends-and-family provenance, I give you Mrs. Nováková’s bábovka. The intrepid Mrs. Nováková, doyenne/editor of the Czech section of the publishing house where I used to work, biked merrily to and from work in good weather, and poured homemade hazelnut liqueur for the office, in bad. Sharing an office with Mrs. N. and her team of three giggly (but very sweet) editorial assistants supplied a good eighty percent of my Czech vocabulary. The Czech and English sections occasionally bonded through our mutual love of 1,001 Baby Animals (from the house frontlist), and through mutual outrage at the typesetters and Chinese government censors.

Everyone seems to have a bábovka recipe–and Jakub’s aunt’s recipe is coming up, later this week–but this one is extraordinary, studded with rum-soaked raisins and flecked with orange zest. In a word, fantastic. (Thanks to Petra for sending the recipe–and to Mrs. N., for sharing it.) :)

Mrs. Nováková’s Tvarohová bábovka
Adapted from the original

bread crumbs
1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening or margarine
4 eggs, separated
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
9 oz. cream cheese
raisins soaked in orange juice (or in rum)
zest from 1/2 to 1 orange

Butter a Bundt pan and coat with breadcrumbs (as you would with flour). Set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix together sugar, shortening (or margarine), 4 egg yolks, and vanilla. Sift together flour and baking powder; set aside. To the sugar and egg yolk mixture, add the cream cheese, flour and baking powder, raisins, and orange zest.

Whip the four egg whites into soft peaks. Fold into batter.

Bake at 325 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. (Poke with a cake tester or sharp knife to make sure it’s done.)

The last line of the recipe is Nikdy nezklame: Never disappoints. So any errors in this version are entirely mine.

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Go to your closest farmers’ market. Buy eggs. Break open, according to recipe. Marvel at the deep orange color. Proceed. The results are worth it.

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Batter and an errant orange.

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For Bábovka, you butter the pan and coat it not with flour but with fresh breadcrumbs. It’s a brilliantly subtle layer that vanishes as soon as you eat a piece of the cake–so the first taste you get isn’t sweet, but toasty and almost savory.

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If, unlike me, you have a handheld mixer and can beat the heck out of egg whites, your bábovka will look somewhat more lofty than this one. What I tend to think passes for soft peaks (done by hand in a bowl, by someone without Julia Child’s stamina or copper) clearly doesn’t cut it. But the cake still tastes amazing.

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In a fit of practicality, I froze half, but had to dig it out of the freezer two days later, since we’d devoured the first half of the cake. This morning, we chased the last of it around the platter and had it for breakfast, Prague style.

Gentle reader, I wouldn’t suggest mixing cream cheese and pickles unless I really meant it. I mean it.

The mighty Mt. Olive spear

The mighty Mt. Olive spear



Reading this recipe from the photograph I’d taken of it in Prague, I had my doubts.

“Cream cheese and pickles?” I asked Jakub, from the kitchen table.

“Yes,” he said, looking up from watching a movie on the couch. “You spread it on veka slices. You know, on baguettes.”

“Wait a minute.” I suspected some translation cover-up. “‘Baguette’ in Czech is bageta. What’s veka?”

Jakub shrugged. “Bread is bread.”

“No, it’s not,” I protested. “Baguettes have special crust! And crumb! There’s a whole layer of the French government devoted to baguette inspection!”

He frowned. “Fine. No, we did not have baguettes under Communism. Veka just means ‘loaf of white bread.’ You like chlebíčky–it’s on that kind of bread.” (Yes, but that’s softer than a baguette.)

It’s true. I interrogated my husband about kinds of bread found in Communist Czechoslovakia. I’m not a very nice person.

Chlebíčky are open-faced sandwiches that you can find in any good deli in the Czech Republic. I think they’re the sandwich in its best form: the combination of toppings (though this one is a classic) are endless. Usually they’re topped with a wedge of hard-boiled egg and curl of ham or salami.

(My fondness for chlebíčky is documented here and here, as well as here, along with a general sprawling ode to Czech food.)

How many chlebíčky Jakub has eaten in his lifetime probably numbers in the thousands. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Jakub's grandmother's recipe

Jakub's grandmother's recipe

Pomazánka / Spread

approx. 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
2-3 pickles, shredded (a mix of sweet gherkins and dill pickles)
salami, diced finely
1 1/2 cooked potatoes
half an onion, diced and rinsed in cold water
1 tbsp. mustard
1-2 tbsp. mayonnaise
hard-boiled egg, carrot curls (optional)

Mix cream cheese with shredded pickles, salami, and potatoes. Add diced onion and mustard, and mix. Finally, add the mayonnaise. Spread on slices of crusty French bread and decorate with wedges of hard-boiled egg, or with carrot curls.

In my country, we call this RELISH.

In my country, we call this RELISH.



I asked Jakub, “So are these sweet or sour pickles?”
“Both.”
“Can’t I just use relish?”
“What’s relish?” he asked.

Just shred everything, really

Just shred everything, really



If you have a food processor, you’re set.

Pomazánka / Spread

Pomazánka / Spread



Don’t turn back at this point, or you’ll miss the best potato salad ever. It might sound different, sure, to American ears, to have potatoes, pickles, and onions wrapped together by cream cheese (and then to spread it on bread), but it’s not that fundamentally different than a recipe with mayonnaise… Right? In any case, it’s delicious, and when you spread it on sliced bread (of any kind), you’ve got the basic spread for chlebíčky, the Czech gift to the sandwich world.

Needs more ham

Needs more ham

The biggest secret of my stable, nuclear family is that we’re deeply nomadic, at heart. For the last hundred and twenty years or so, we’ve been moving away: on my father’s side, from northern and western Ireland, from New York and New Jersey to Indiana and Southern California; on my mother’s side, from a small town in the north of Italy (and from Ireland), from Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky to the Colorado plains. Each of my parents moved to California in the late ’60s because it was so different than where they’d grown up, yet after twenty years they were eager to move on.

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My parents were worried, they later told us, that if the family stayed in Orange County, my brother and I would be sucked into Southern California surf culture and never leave. Aside from the fact that neither my brother nor I had the faintest idea of how to surf–my brother was eight when we moved–and freckled profusely after ten minutes in the sun, it was a reasonable concern. But there were others: my parents had lived through enough earthquakes (including the 1971 San Fernando one, when my dad’s apartment building swayed so much he could see daylight through a crack in the wall and had time to ponder what would happen to the pool up on the roof) that the “big one” loomed ever larger in their imagination. And my grandparents’ house in the Denver suburbs was just sitting there, empty. So we moved away.

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Moving boxes were always a fixture in our garage: my dad’s, packed with electrical-engineering and astronomy books; my mom’s, with bright sheaves of holiday cutouts, alphabet posters, and music from all her classrooms. And then my brother and I had our own, which, along with new boxes, we re-used for treks to and from college, and first (even second) apartments. The screech of packing tape makes my family giddy.

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However, after moving to three different countries in the last five years, I took the packing tape, last fall, and stashed it far away in the back of the hallway closet here in Astoria. And I don’t want to see it for at least another ten months.

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Maybe all this moving is why I gravitated toward the solidity of family recipes (even though the oldest ones are crumbling). The certainty of the results is reassuring, when everything else (career, the future, the vagaries of the MTA) is not.

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This recipe is my great-grandmother’s, on my mother’s side. Her title for the recipe is straightforward and confident. And it’s true.

The Best Apple Dumplings You Ever Ate

6 Granny Smith apples, sliced thinly
4 cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
½ stick of butter
½ tsp. nutmeg or cinnamon

Dumpling Dough*
3 1/2 to 4 cups sifted flour
1/2 stick butter, softened
2/3 cup milk

Add water to stock pot. Add sugar, butter, nutmeg (or cinnamon). Simmer gently.

For dough: Combine to make rich biscuit-like dough. Roll to about ½ inch thick. Take knife and cut out pieces of dough the size of a saucer. Place in the palm of your hand, and fill with the sliced apples. Bring up edges to form a ball, the dough covering the apples. Drop in hot syrup. Be sure to baste tops with syrup, as this makes a nice brown top. *Alternatively, use a pie-crust recipe.

Bake in medium-hot oven (325° F) for 30-40 minutes, and keep warm until served. The syrup in which the dumplings are baked serves as the sauce. My great-grandmother notes, “Do not make dumplings large, and use no sugar inside of the dumplings. There lies the secret. I use a little cinnamon in the dumpling although it isn’t necessary. These are fine.”

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Be prepared for an urge to drink the leftover syrup out of the pan.

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At the end, you’ve got a golden, flaky dumpling.

The dumplings meet Manhattan ;)

The dumplings meet Manhattan ;)

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