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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 ;)

In compiling recipes for the cookbook, it’s a gentle surprise to find that some seem to have been border-hopping for generations. Vepřové žebírko s jabulky a cibulí, for example, is Pork Chops with Apples and Onions–a winter staple in American families as equally as it is in Czech families, as it turns out. “You grew up eating this, too?” we exclaim a few times an evening, stumbling over cookbooks.

This Stuffed Eggplant recipe is one of these.

Plněné lilky (Stuffed Eggplant)

Plněné lilky (Stuffed Eggplant)

Stuffed Eggplant

2 small eggplants (or 1 large eggplant)
vegetable or olive oil, for frying
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 strips bacon
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
grated Parmesan
vegetable oil

Clean and halve the eggplants. Scoop out as much flesh as possible, without leaving a hole. Arrange eggplant halves in an oiled baking dish, season with salt and pepper, and bake at 400°F for 10-12 minutes or until slightly browned.

Meanwhile, chop eggplant flesh and sauté in oil in a non-stick pan on medium-high heat until browned on all sides. Remove and set aside. In the same pan, sauté bacon until fairly crispy; remove, chop, and set aside. Add onion and garlic, and sauté for a few minutes before returning eggplant and bacon to pan for a final toss together. Turn off heat, season mixture with salt and pepper, add egg, and mix together.

Divide the mixture between the eggplant halves. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F, and bake for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan, and serve with potatoes or bread. (Rice or orzo would also round out the dish.)

Since I added basil and oregano to the eggplant, bacon, and onion mixture, the result is a Czech-Italian hybrid…

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One American-sized eggplant would have fed a whole family, but little Italian ones would be ideal as appetizers.

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There’s a strange beauty in stuffing vegetables–everything seems to fit together, but there’s a lot more of it than when you started. This filling lends itself to additions of everything from sautéed mushrooms and fresh breadcrumbs to crabmeat, sundried tomatoes, or chopped nuts.

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Exactly where this recipe came from is a mystery, to me. It’s one of the dozens from my mother-in-law’s card file; many of them probably came from a larger work published by the Kalich house (where J’s mother worked as an editor) in the late ’80s or early ’90s. After J’s mother’s death, though, there was little cooking from scratch going on in the family, except when Dana came for Christmas, and the recipes sat on a pantry shelf in clear plastic strawberry cartons. When we moved in, I asked J’s father if we could have a shelf for our arborio rice and jumble of spice jars, and when I moved aside a woven-reed breadbasket, I discovered the stack of recipes that reminded me instantly of my mother’s collection.

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Whenever my brother and I complained as teenagers, my mother would admonish us, “You’re from pioneer stock. Chin up.” This, and the stories from the branch of the family that trekked out to the Colorado prairie on a covered wagon in the 1880s, was enough to silence us for a while.

My great-grandmother’s family settled on the eastern plains, in Kit Carson County, just past the line in Colorado where a summer afternoon can turn humid and fierce with storms. My grandmother spent part of her childhood there, an only child hunting for arrowheads and avoiding rattlesnakes, before her family moved into Denver.

One of a handful of recipes from my great-grandmother, this one for a lemony mint drink is the kind of thing that would improve a summer afternoon far from town.

Mint Drink

Mint Drink

Mint Drink

2 cups sugar*
1 quart water
juice of 3 lemons
rind from 1 1/2 lemons
2 cups mint leaves
ginger ale

Cook sugar, water, lemon juice, and lemon rind for 10 minutes. Pour boiling mixture over mint leaves. Let stand all night. Strain, and add equal parts to ginger ale. Color with green food coloring. Float pineapple sherbet on glass.

[*1 cup is enough, unless you don’t plan to use much ginger ale.]

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The base is a lemon-flavored simple syrup; you could update it (if you wanted to) by using thyme instead of mint…but the lemon-mint combination is ideal for summer.

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Lemon and mint steeping in a giant bowl. Our apartment smelled like an herb garden.

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The results, the next morning…

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At first, I resisted adding the green food coloring. Then I decided that the effect demanded to be seen…and it was just as impressive (and startling) on a drab New York windowsill as it would have been on a sun-bleached Colorado porch.