- 1 inch piece of fresh yeast (or 1 envelope of dry instant yeast)
- 2 tsp sugar
- 200 ml warm milk
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 100 ml plain yogurt or buttermilk
- 1 tsp coarse salt
- 2 Tbsp butter at room temperature
- 650gr all purpose flour (a bit more for dusting the counter)
- 120 gr (1 stick) butter at room temperature
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
I am standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes. A coffee maker is gurgling just to the right, and a few feet behind me there is a skillet with onions and potatoes cut in small cubes, destined to become a diner-worthy accompaniment to the eggs and toast. It’s cold in our small 70s kitchen that could have easily come from an Updike Rabbit novel, but all the smells that surround me scream comfort and warmth. The grass in the front yard sways in the rhythm with the wind that blows from the west, bringing along the briny smell of the ocean that manages to break in through the open door.
We don’t have a dishwasher and I should feel dismayed and frustrated as this is the first time that I have to do without that luxury since I arrived on the American soil more than twenty years ago; but I don’t feel burdened: there is a beautiful rose bud that opened this morning monopolizing my view and competing with an idyllic scene featuring several small boys milling around, chasing one another along the sidewalk.
We might be experiencing the record-low temperatures for Southern California for the first time, but my nose being cold on most mornings is the small price to pay for the eternal and uninterrupted blue that greets me when I open my eyes and inevitably makes me smile. A jasmine bush hugs one side of the garage door and its sweet fragrance reaches me through my bedroom window as I try to silence the alarm clock.
Yes, life is hectic and I still need at least five or six extra hours a day to accomplish everything. But even with the constant adrenaline rush I manage to take in all the beauty and serenity around me and acknowledge how grateful I am that my girls and I are living on this particular street, in this bungallow decorated by many wooden artifacts from Papua New Guinea, Thailand, and Japan, with this wonderful woman who is old enough to be my mother, but young enough to be my soul sister, a confidante and a friend. I cannot wait to tuck my girls in their bunk beds, pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the edge of her bed for our regular nightly chit-chat.
As I wave to the neighbors and greet the mailman, I feel as if I truly belonged to this street with its undulating tall palm trees, luscious yards, and red-tiled roofs. Every day is like a present, unexpected, but eagerly awaited and greatly appreciated.
There are several large plastic bowls resting on the brown-and-yellow-tiled kitchen floor filled to the capacity with oranges my dad picked from the tree in the back yard. Freshly squeezed orange juice is on the menu this morning; and many mornings to come. I feel as if I were living a dream as the sweet, sticky liquid runs down my fingers and the smell of fresh citrus envelops me. It might not sound grand or imposing, but a glass filled with the juice that came from the fruit in our back yard makes me tremendously happy to be alive right now, in this beautiful part of the world that I can finally call home.
We did not celebrate Valentine’s Day in Serbia when I was growing up. So my first February on the new continent, I strolled through the aisles of the grocery stores in a western suburb of Detroit, and gazed in amazement at the piles of chocolates, pink and red hearts, red roses, and enormous helium balloons. I felt like Bugs Bunny in that cartoon where he imagines he has a weird disease whose symptoms include multicolored dots dancing in front of his eyes. I was dazzled by the exhibit of commercialized romance, wondering where all the pink and red ended up.
I worked at a small family restaurant that Valentine’s Day and a few minutes before closing, a white teddy bear holding a huge red helium heart-shaped balloon appeared at the door. I chuckled and shook my head, amused by the utter silliness of the moment. But the balloon was heading in my direction and I froze when I saw my husband’s bearded face behind it, smiling from ear to ear, his eyes sparkling in anticipation of my mushy and tearful response to this oh-so-very romantic gesture.
Everyone around me was oohing and aahing, and I wished that I could wave my magic wand and disappear; or at least have the teddy bear and the balloon disappear. I should have known that Don would pull something like that. After all, he took me to see Howard the Duck on our first date after I arrived to the U.S. And he was extremely excited when an old Gypsy sold him Huey, Dewey, and Louie wall ornaments silhouetted in wrought iron at the market in my home town in Serbia. I did not have the heart to tell him that I really thought all the kitsch I saw around me was meant for high school kids.
Throughout the years I got accustomed to seeing men in suits and ties logging behind them big red heart-shaped balloons and stuffed animals, bedazzled crimson boxes filled with chocolates too sweet for my taste, and cards brimming with tasteless and sappy poetry. I overcame my cultural shock and learned to accept these funny expressions of affection that came my way on the Day of Love.
I feel pretty domesticated on American soil after more than two decades of domicile. My second marriage is in its terminal and final phase and Valentine’s Day ambushed me this year. It would have snuck by unnoticed had my girls not insisted on making some red velvet cupcakes for their BFFs. I don’t want to infect them with my grumpiness and disdain for this holiday when they are so enthusiastic and eager to offer the world their small share of red, sweet, and chocolatey. It only seemed appropriate for me to let them take the center stage.
Oh, I participated in the madness, too, but in an unorthodox and weird way. My contribution this year is Seville orange marmalade whose seemingly contradictory nuances of flavor perfectly describe my life at present: it is slightly bitter, bright, sweet, and fresh, with a hint of exotic and mysterious. And it is the bitterness that I look forward to, as it seems to only bring out and accentuate the sublime taste of the preserves in all its complexity.
After I take the kids to school in the morning, I make a strong cup of Turkish coffee, spread some good butter on a piece of crusty Tuscan country bread and grab a small jar of marmalade. It has become a ritual I anticipate with glee. I wait patiently as the sweet orange jam slowly oozes from the spoon onto the bread, welcoming the bitterness that lingers for a few seconds. This marmalade is not comforting and mellow. It is bold and assertive. It does not coddle and caress, but most definitely reminds me that life is, indeed. bitter and sweet and exciting and unpredictable.
I don’t know how many teddy bears, chocolate boxes, and big, red, hear-shaped helium balloons are in my future. I’d prefer to avoid them if possible, but even if I see them approaching me from the distance, I won’t be embarrassed and I won’t roll my eyes in disapproval. After all, I know that there would be someone’s huge smile hiding behind them and that’s all that counts. In the meantime, I’ll bid Valentine’s Day goodbye, with my fingers sticky from the marmalade.
Seville oranges originated in China and Arab explorers brought them to Europe, where they reigned for the next few centuries, before their sweeter cousins took over. The first orange marmalade was made from Seville oranges, as they are high in pectin. Inclement weather made a ship carrying them take shelter at the Scottish harbor of Dundee, where a local grocer bought the whole cargo cheaply. His wife used a few sacks of sugar sitting in the store to make marmalade and soon after, they started a jam-making business.
Seville oranges are hard to peel and have too many seeds. Their juice is sour and tart, but abundant, which makes them perfect for juicing, marinades, and dressings, as they are not especially good for eating fresh. Their slightly bumpy skin is fragrant and rich in essential oils, and when zested adds a fresh citrusy punch to a salad, a bowl of wilted greens, or grilled fish.
SEVILLE ORANGE MARMALADE
- 1 dozen Seville oranges
- 3 Meyer lemons (mine were from my neighbor’s tree)
- 4 cups water
- 7 cups sugar
Prepare the jars and lids. Heat a big pot of water and when it boils, submerge the lids and the jar inside and boil for 5-10 minutes. Invert them on a clean paper towel to dry.
Scrub oranges and lemons and cut them in half. Squeeze the juice and strain it. Reserve the pits, the pulp, and the membranes and tie it in double layer of cheesecloth (this is where all the pectin resides).
Using a grapefruit spoon scrape as much of the white pith as possible, as that’s what makes the marmalade bitter. Cut the skins in thin strips and then in smaller pieces.
Boil the skins for an hour to make them softer and drain. Add the squeezed juice (I had about 3 cups), water, and cheesecloth with pits and pulp.
Heat until it boils, and then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 1 hour. Add the sugar and continue simmering for another hour, until the skin is soft and translucent. To check if the marmalade is ready, place a small plate in the freezer for 5 minutes. Drip a few drops on it and swirl it around. If it barely moves, it’s done. If it runs, it needs to cook a little bit longer.
Turn the heat off and let it cool slightly. Carefully fill the jars and close the lids tightly. Keep the marmalade in the fridge for a month.
Thanks Robert from Melissa’s Produce for the gift of this beautiful citrus!
When the times get tough financially, my instincts kick in and the survival mode becomes default. But I don’t really change my modus operandi, as frugality is somehow ingrained in me, and I just keep on doing what I do best: digging through my pantry and my freezer and putting healthy, nutritious, appetizing food in front of my girls, playing with ingredients, pimping up the leftovers, and offering colorful and enticing meals that would make them appreciate all aspects of the culinary world.
Sometimes the prompts come from them, if they feel inspired and creative – in the rare moments when they are not entranced in a fantasy play or a puppet show. But most of the times it takes a few minutes poring through the contents of my legume drawer or taking inventory of every refrigerator shelf to come up with a perfectly balanced meal that would be cost-effective, creative, flavorful, and overall nutritious.
It breaks my heart when I see food being wasted. I collect the tough asparagus stems, cauliflower stalks, celery leaves, and lettuce cores to make a vegetable stock. I salvage the roasted chicken carcass with all the gelatinous deposit on the bottom of the pan and make a hearty chicken stock. I collect egg whites for a future angel food cake, and pork fat for the day I feel inspired to render lard. I place parsley and cilantro stems in bags and add them to stews and soups, reluctant to waste even a smidgen of the goodness they impart.
My freezer is a repository of oddly shaped bags containing fish heads, shrimp and lobster shells, chicken gizzards, and stock. There are labeled plastic containers with leftover tomato sauce, chopped herbs, and duck fat, along with neatly wrapped packages of beef and lamb bones destined for a soup.
The girls rarely know what they will have for breakfast or dinner, because I employ all my resources when I start to contemplate it. They are adventurous and open to new culinary challenges, which makes my thought process much easier.
School lunches are limited in creativity as they have to be stored in a locker for hours, eaten within fifteen minutes and relatively easy to handle. They eat outside and have no access to a microwave. I smuggle a Ferrero Rocher treat or a square of dark chocolate in their paper bags to give them a sense of adventure.
This week they had state testing and school let out earlier, which allowed me more freedom with their mid-day repast. They arrived from school famished and I had a perfect meal for them every single day, taking advantage of the amenities I had at home, excited to offer them something different than the usual sandwich or wrap fare.
True to my nature, I had to be frugal, and most days the lunches were spruced-up leftovers. But every single time their faces lit up and they brought the plates to the kitchen licked clean.
These tostadas elicited a whole lot of squeals. I loved how my girls’ faces alighted with excitement when I poked the eggs and released the yolks. This lunch did not cost me anything, but a few minutes of my time and some kilowatts of energy. But it made my daughters feel special, loved, cherished, and adored. And in the times when every dollar spent has to be spent wisely, that’s the only thing that matters to me.
LEFTOVER TOSTADA WITH POACHED EGG
- Corn tortillas
- Remoulade (recipe bellow)
- 1 Roma tomato, diced
- Black bean and corn salsa (recipe bellow)
- Jack cheese, shredded
- Poached eggs (recipe bellow)
Preheat the oven to 450F. Place corn tortillas on a cookie sheet. Spread remoulade all over the tortilla. Spoon salsa and diced tomatoes on top. Sprinkle with cheese and place in the oven. Bake for five minutes until the cheese is melted. Take out of the oven and place each tortilla on a separate plate. Place a poached egg on top, sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
Mix together ½ cup of mayonnaise, 1 tsp of capers, 1 tsp of lemon juice, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, a bit of salt, and 1 tablespoon of chopped dill.
Black Bean Salsa:
Combine 1 can (14oz) rinsed black beans, 1 cup frozen cor kernels, 1 chopped jalapenÃ±Ã±o, ½ shopped onion, salt, pepper, and lime juice.
Heat the water in a small stainless steel pot until it boils. Turn the heat down to simmer. Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Break an egg into a ramekin and pour it carefully into the boiling water. Fold the egg white over the yolk with a spoon and cook for 1 minute. Using the slotted spoon remove the egg and place it onto a plate covered with a few layers of paper towels to absorb the moisture.
I prefer to stay home for Mother’s Day. I relish the moment I hear the first whispers of my girls as they tiptoe into the kitchen and start preparing breakfast for the family, trying in vain not to make any noise as they pull pots and pans out of the cupboards. I am comforted by the familiar sounds that meander around the hallways and arrive at my doorstep: the hissing of oil when it meets a hot pan; the crackling of egg shells; the grating of the whisk against a plastic bowl; bacon starting to sizzle as its edges curl and brown; the hypnotizing whir of my hand mixer; the subdued thuds of drawers getting shut.
I stretch like a spoiled Angora cat and play along, feigning sleep, as I squint through one eye at a time in anticipation of their arrival to my room. They open the door and enter in a solemn procession, valiantly trying to stay focused, but by the time they reach the backboard of my bed, they explode in giggles. Chattering excitedly, they approach offering gifts of food they lovingly prepared for me and laid on a silver-plated tray covered with a starched damask napkin. One long arm proffers a bright and still fizzing Mimosa, and I sit up against the pillows, the tray safely resting in my lap. They jump on the bed, surrounding me, racing each other with colorful and thoughtful home made cards, covering my face and my hands with tender kisses.
The three of them are all the crowd I need to feel happy. And this Mother’s Day, we’ll stay home and spend all day indulging our taste buds and surrendering to whimsy. My oldest will make a couple of Mimosas and we’ll clink the glasses, toasting to mothers everywhere, and sending virtual kisses to my sister in Germany and Mother in Serbia.
Some of my favorite bloggers have compiled lists of their favorite, delectable Mother’s Day recipes. I always find inspiration there!
It’s spring break week and every day seems like a Sunday. Most of my friends have packed their bags and left sunny California for even warmer, more tropical climates, and I cannot wait to hear their stories of culinary escapades and see their sun-kissed faces once they return to reality.
The girls have been going to the pool every day for a few hours and we are taking walks down to the beach, breathing in the ocean air with full lungs, happy to call this amazing town our home. I let them be lazy, grateful for the moments when they envelope me in their elongated teen limbs and plant soft kisses in my hair and on my cheek. We hug a lot these days and stay in a clinch for minutes, an intertwined statue of femininity at its most fragile state, and at the same time the epitome of strength.
I went to the drugstore on the last day of school and brought home a bag of small, luxurious, nice-smelling, and utterly-meant-to-spoil items, promising them a day of pampering, the three of us the only patrons of the exclusive spa. They ogled pretty bottles and jars and giggled with anticipation, only to leave and continue playing with their Barbies, excited by the interruption, but eager to get back to their stories.
They are starting to like boys just a little bit, but their affection is aimed exclusively at out-of-reach young actors like Asa Butterfield and the adorable kid who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. Their male schoolmates are still the specimens of an icky, unknown, and hostile species, but I observe the sudden attention they pay to putting together outfits they would wear to school and at the same time exhale in relief when they innocently pull the plastic box filled with Barbies from underneath their bed.
I indulge them in the kitchen and ask every morning if they crave something special. They stretch their arms and yawn, look at one another, the sleep slowly fading from their semi-closed eyes. This lazy week allows me to to spend time with breakfast and I love the feel of not rushing and expanding my options to include anything they might desire.
Invariably, on one of the mornings, they decided in unison that they wanted biscuits. Biscuits used to intimidate me. I viewed them as spoiled Southern Belles, finicky and over-sensitive, fragile, pouty, and easily offended. I dreaded the thought that they might turn on me, scorn me for not belonging, and refuse to play nice. But I was determined to win them over and prove that a Southern Slav is as skillful as any Southerner below the Mason-Dixon line to tackle their snobbish peculiarities. I wanted to be accepted into their inner circle–big hats, mint juleps, and fainting spells with the necessary vapors included.
Coming out of the oven they were gorgeous, golden around the edges and pale in the middle, filling the kitchen with their comforting aroma. They perched perkily on the plate, and when the girls reached for them and opened them up, they were flaky, tender, and light, with a crumbly crust. They thirstily accepted the first yellow pad of butter, perfect in their seeming simplicity. I felt vindicated and for just a second I thought I heard the reverberating echo of horses’ hooves disappearing into the distance, as the breeze brought a touch of Southern humid heat into our California home.
There are certain things I learned on my quest to attain the perfect, flaky, light biscuits:
1. The butter has to be really cold. I don’t own a food processor and I mix my dough by hand. That’s why I borrowed Mother’s grating method for keeping the butter chilled. The more time the flour, the dough, and the biscuits spend in the fridge, the better.
2. Do not overwork your dough, or the biscuits will be tough. I cut my biscuits in squares to avoid the remnants form the circles, as they always make for tougher biscuits, having been rolled several times.
3. Once you shaped and placed them on cookie sheet, you can cover them with a plastic wrap and freeze them. To bake them, let them sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.
4. The biscuits should be eaten immediately.
5. If you donâ€™t have buttermilk, you can make your own in minutes. Measure ¾ cup regular milk and squeeze 1 Tbsp of lemon juice. The acid will slightly curdle the milk and turn it into buttermilk! You can use it immediately.
SOUTHERN BELLE BUTTERMILK BISCUITS
- 2 cups all purpose flour*
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp baking soda
- 8 Tbsp very cold butter
- ¾ cups cold buttermilk
* I was not able to find White Lilly flour that everyone recommends for quick, flaky breads, as it has much less gluten then the all-purpose flour. Next time I will have to experiment and substitute some of the all-purpose flour with cake flour, just for comparison.
Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Using the side with the biggest holes on your grater grate the butter as quickly as you can. Mix with a fork and add buttermilk. Mix until combined. Turn the dough onto a very lightly floured kitchen counter and knead just a few times. (The dough will be slightly wet). Wrap in the plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 20 minutes to allow butter to cool off.
Preheat the oven to 475F.
Turn the dough out on the lightly floured counter and flatten into a rectangle with a rolling pin without pushing too hard and overworking the dough. It should be about ½ inch thick. Using a sharp knife (or even better a pizza cutter) cut into 2 inch squares. Sprinkle with a little flour and place on a cookie sheet. (If the time allows, put the cookie sheet in the freezer for several minutes to ensure that the butter stays chilled.) Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden. Serve immediately.
Last year: Rosemary Focaccia
My girls are not the type to grab the box of cereal and milk, and call it a proper breakfast, even on the school mornings. If my alarm miraculously fails to scream the most obnoxiously repeated sound in my ear at the proper time, I have to go for the emergency cereal box and offer it to them, feeling inadequate and very guilty. But usually I make them omeletes, sunny-side-up eggs accompanied with a half of a grapefruit and some cottage cheese, french toast with raspberry sauce, roasted red peppers sauteed with cream cheese, slow-cooked oatmeal with brown sugar, dried cranberries, and cinnamon, crepes filled with apricot jam or Nutella, sauteed chicken livers, and their favorites, Dutch Babies.
They were not born this way, of course. I managed to create a few monsters out of perfectly normal girls raised in the heartland of America. They could have been just like thousands of their peers who truly enjoy a visit to McDonald’s and always order from the children’s menu in a family restaurant. They would not have looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili when I mentioned Hamburger Helper or Rice-a-Roni. They would not have writen in their first grade class cookbook of favorite meals that they first unwrap the toy, then eat a few fries, and toss the burger away, as my oldest did (not the best literary piece, I know, but it made me smile with pride and stop feeling guilty for not taking her to fast food places more often).
They decided early on that they liked real food, because I fed them real food. I did not buy the jars of baby food. Instead, I mashed my own vegetables, strained soups, blended stews, and cut up everything really tiny, perfectly sized for an army of Liliputians, and they learned to eat everything we ate: spicy food, sauerkraut, prosciutto, moldy cheeses, and even offal.
When we were planning her sixth birthday, Zoe asked if she could have mussels instead of ubiquitous pizza. I dissed the idea as impractical as most of her schoolmates would not have touched the mollusks from a mile away. I compromised with make-your-own pizza party, which the girls loved. Anya’s favorite dish is bouillabaisse, and she dreams of a day she can enjoy it al fresco somewhere in Marseilles, as she describes every detail of that extraordinary culinary experience as if it were happening right now. Nina devoured every morsel of caviar they served on the Volga cruise Father took her to a few summers back, and now eagerly awaits her twenty-first birthday so that she can enjoy the caviar and champagne tasting they offer at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
My ex-husband was flabbergasted when Nina asked for a platter of steamed crab legs instead of a grilled cheese sandwich and fries, counting the bills in his pocket and calculating the difference. She was only five at the time. None of them would eat the lunch provided by school if they had a choice in the matter. They like the crusty, Tuscan-style bread and ciabbata rolls instead of plain, white, soft bread wrapped in plastic that endures for months on the shelf without changing one bit. (We named it duck bread because we used to feed the ducks with it when we lived in the house on the lake in Ohio.)
They have developed very refined tastes and even though it is hard for me when they whine if I offer Kraft’s Mac&Cheese for lunch (the stash is definitely Husband’s, along with many other extraneous and suspicious looking food products residing in boxes), and only halfheartedly accept a quesadilla when I refuse to whip up a gourmet sandwich much more to their liking, I cannot help but be proud.
My three girls will be able to survive on any continent, in any environment, and they will never have to be hungry because they are afraid to try something new. Their eye might sometimes wonder to the bag of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, but they know that they will enjoy more the tiny, crispy, flaky pastries or cheesy crackers I make for them occasionally.
To feed them this way costs much less and takes just a tiny bit more time out of my day, which is an investment I am not regretting. They have always been eager to help, and even though it drives me crazy when they take fifteen minutes to peel a potato or cut the onion, I invoke my inner mantra and meditate while they play with food, learning more and more every day.
I know that I am doing it the right way when I spend half an hour guiding my twenty-year-old through preparing Salmon En Papillote utilizing nothing but text messages on iPhone. She knows the elemental things of cooking and I supply the flourishes and details. Too much tomato, not enough lemon, and it really would have tasted better with cheese, she says. I smile, warmed by the sense of accomplishment. She knows what she likes, she is willing to experiment and change, she embraces creativity and refuses to conform. (I still would not add cheese to this dish, though).
I don’t know what I’ll come up with for tomorrow’s breakfast. But this morning they each ate a whole, big Dutch Baby, all golden and puffy, dusted with powdered sugar, soft and yielding, exquisite in its simplicity. They planted big, wet kisses on my cheek before they sauntered off to school, thanking me for the best breakfast ever. And that always gives me more energy and strength than an extra big serving of Turkish coffee that awaits me at the table.
I make one batch, divide it in two and bake one after the other, as I have only one cast iron skillet. If you have two (I envy you!) but you can bake them together.
- 1 cup of milk
- 4 eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- pinch of coarse salt
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 2 tsp butter
- powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 500F. Place an 8-inch cast iron skillet in the oven.
Mix together milk, eggs, vanilla, sugar, and salt until combined. Slowly add flour and mix until incorporated and no more lumps show.
Add 1 tsp of butter to the hot pan, pour half of the batter into the hot skillet and bake for 10-15 minutes until puffed-up and golden. Remove the pancake to the plate using a big, flat spatula and dust with powdered sugar.
Repeat the process one more time.
I have never taken February seriously. It was the month right after winter break when my legs still craved the tortuous curves of the moguls on the snow-covered mountain, feeling the weight of the boards and the bindings days after we said goodbye to our family winter haven.
It was short and unassuming, but crammed full of school work devoid of the promise of a holiday (there is no Presidents’ Day or MLK Day in Serbia). It was also the month before my birthday, which made it irrelevant and easily ignored. The only interesting fact that I could attach to this gray and drab part of the year was my Grandmother Babuljica’s birthday: when she died she was technically only 16 years old, as her birthday occurred every four years on February 29. That and the first blooms of the spring, the bright yellow blossoms of forsythia bushes that stood apart like beacons in the sea of gray.
Fat Tuesday holds little significance for me, even though I am tempted every year to go into the kitchen and emerge only after I produce a big bowl of krofne, which are very similar to Polish paczki or the beignets served at the Cafe du Monde. While my adventurous spirit always keeps alive a desire for losing myself in the throngs of scantily clad Brazilians inebriated by the seductive rhythm of samba, garishly costumed Southerners emptying innumerable hurricanes in N’awlins, or slender Italians hiding behind articulately decorated masks along the canals of Venice, I refuse to pretend that I am part of the celebrating crowd only by decorating the house in the appropriate colors and serving the delicacies meant to bring the tired carnival-goers necessary sustenance before they embark on forty days of Lent.
For Orthodox Christians, the last day before Lent is the Saturday that falls six weeks before Easter Sunday. Father diligently leaves me the calendar that marks the dates of all the religious holidays, but I still consult the almighty Internet whenever I need the information. This year, the two Easters are separated by only a week, which makes the next Saturday the last day before Lent for my fellow Serbs. There are no make-believe parades in my town, no colorful costumes, loud music, or traditional dishes that make the passage into Lent more bearable. Next Sunday, the believers will abstain from all red meat, dairy products, and eggs for six weeks, as the Christian Orthodox faith prescribes.
This February arrived incredibly fast. I have not caught my breath from moving to another city, the girls starting school just before the mid-terms, having to learn how to get around, where to find the best and most affordable produce, and where to enjoy the best burgers in town. The end of the month is approaching with geometric progression, and if we stayed in Midwest, I would be suffering the intoxicating effects of the incoming spring fever and be quite ready for the snow to finally melt. But in Southern California we are surrounded by eternal spring and bright forsythia flowers are not necessary to break winter depression.
When we were growing up, the six weeks before Easter were no different than any other week of the year as my parents were not religious. We will not embark on six weeks of abstinence either, and even though the geek in me has researched the traditions and observances of the Eastern Christians and come up with several dishes that mark the passage into Lent among Russians and Greeks, I will have to ignore the urges of the food anthropologist wannabe and refrain myself.
My oldest daughter, the College Kritter, left to head back to Berkeley this afternoon after spending four incredibly short days with us. As usual, we spent a big part of our time together cooking. It is easy to indulge her every whim as she is eager to tackle the most difficult kitchen tasks. We made much better tasting copycat Egg McMuffins, braised chicken enchiladas with black bean salsa, black-and-blue hamburgers with homemade buns, shrimp pesto, garlic and olive oil crostini, buttermilk biscuits with ham, eggs, and milk gravy, and chocolate fudge.
Some of the dishes came out beautifully, just like we envisioned, and some flopped. But neither one of us despaired over the failures, knowing that there is always the next time. Before she woke up this morning, I made blueberry muffins, intending to send her off enveloped in a big, fluffy cloud of comforting smells. She emerged from the bathroom wrapped in her soft white robe, her long hair damp and feet bare, reaching for the cup of coffee I had waiting for her at the counter.
This month is short and seemingly unassuming. There is no forsythia in the neighborhood, but my rosemary plant and hibiscus are thriving in front of our apartment door. We skipped Valentine’s Day and celebrated Mardi Gras with humble and easy blueberry muffins. Next year we might make gumbo, krofne, or beignets. Or even better, me might be off to Rio, New Orleans, or Venice, ready to tackle on the most demanding challenges of the carnivals, toasting each other with a caipirinha, a hurricane, or a negroni.
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for flouring the pan and coating the blueberries
- ½ tsp coarse salt
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
- ½ cup milk
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 ½ cups fresh blueberries
- 1-2 Tbsp granulated or turbinado sugar (I prefer turbinado sugar, as the crystals are bigger and shinier)
Preheat the oven to 375F. Lightly butter and flour a regular-size muffin pan (or place the muffin inserts to save this step; I would have done it, if I had not run out of the paper inserts).
Sift flour into a bowl (take out 1-2 teaspoons to coat the blueberries). Add salt and baking powder and stir to combine. In a separate bowl cream sugar and butter. Add oil, milk, eggs, and vanilla, and mix until combined. Stir in the flour and slowly add the blueberries using a wooden spoon.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, filling the holes to about ¾. Sprinkle the sugar on top evenly. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and done. (To check for doneness, insert a knife at the thickest part of the muffin and if it comes out dry, muffins are ready.)
Let the muffins cool in the pan for a minute or two, transfer them to a rack and let them cool for another 5 minutes. Serve immediately.
New Year’s Eve in the part of the world I grew up in was the biggest night of the year. Bigger than your birthday, bigger than Christmas, bigger than the Day of the Republic. It was the night when girls in jeans transformed into princesses and gawky boys became dapper gentlemen dressed in designer suits and ties. It was the night of stiletto heels daring the icy streets, while the pale arms twisted around their date’s cloth covered elbows for necessary support. It was the night when no one minded snowflakes dancing around in the halos of the streetlamps and when the excitement ran as high as before a debutante’s ball.
While everyone searched for their assigned seats in the restaurant, the band played easy listening music. The waiters in starched white shirts and black vests circled around offering aperitifs. The girls reached for them with shaky hands and the boys pretended to be suave and snatched them off the trays briskly. When the dining room filled up, the platters with appetizers were placed on the tables and the band switched to slow, ballroom music. The first couples on the dance floor braved the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes and gingerly followed the melody, locking eyes for encouragement.
In no time the dance floor was a sea of undulating bodies displaying every move learned at a dance class the previous Fall. When the entrees arrived, the music switched to rock, and the more familiar rhythm allowed everyone to loosen up and embrace the moves with abandon. An occasional reach for the wine glass, a stolen bite easily devoured, while the dance floor became ever more crowded.
As midnight approached, the ties were straightened, the hair was puffed up and the dresses pressed down, awaiting the inevitable celebratory photo shoots. The waiters passed the flutes filled with champagne, and the bubbles matched the sparkle in young, excited eyes. The countdown, the darkened room, the glint of glass, the anticipation of something monumental. When the hands on the clock met and marked the beginning of another year, the champagne glasses touched each other, the lips touched each other, the arms entwined, while the band eased into the first notes of the traditional Viennese waltz, The Blue Danube.
For several minutes, while the waltz lasted, every girl felt like a Cinderella embraced by her prince and whisked off into a fairy tale, and every boy saw himself as a prince, completely capable of winning a woman of his dreams. The first moments of the new year were indeed magical, bringing on its wings the promises of wishes fulfilled.
As the rigorous notes of Strauss ebbed, the band played slow tunes, allowing the couples to rest, but still stay together. As more food appeared and more alcohol was poured, laughter became bolder and touches more daring. With the renewed energy the music shifted to Serbian folk tunes and the dance floor again filled with young bodies holding hands, forming a chain that kept weaving around and around following an ever increasing beat. More music, more dancing, more wine, smiles plastered on faces by default, the palpable energy of the young, hour after hour, in an incessant flow, until the dawn, when the band gave up and called it a night.
The feet were sore in high heels, the mascara smudged, the ties askew and untied, but the eyes continued to sparkle while the batches of young people exited the restaurant and dared the freezing streets swarmed by lacy snowflakes. The early morning resonated in stifled giggles and hushed up laughter. The arms went unabashedly around the shoulders and waists, strengthened by the night left behind, buoyed by the hope of youth, still reeling from the wine and adrenaline brought on by the night of excitement.
But every night has its end. Deposited at the gate, the girls made shushing faces as they entered their homes, sending air kisses to the disheveled boys. Tomorrow morning they would awake, rubbing their tired eyes, just before noon, ready to jump up and scurry downstairs to listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir and watch beautiful dancers gliding effortlessly across the shiny floors of an imperial Viennese ball room, ushering in the New Year with more Strauss.
We did not have a traditional New Year’s Day breakfast meal when I was a teen in Serbia. The only thing I remember of January 1st was the Viennese concert at noon, and I made sure not to miss it, no matter how late I arrived home from my Cinderella night. But I know that the first breakfast of the year needs to be special, indulgent, and a bit sinful, a hint of days to come.
If you have a carton of eggnog in your fridge (and I cannot imagine anyone not having it in late December), use some of it to make the French toast for the New Year’s. It is just indulgent and rich enough to make me smile and imagine for a moment that I am eighteen again, luxuriating at the kitchen table, while rubbing my tired feet and humming a waltz.
Happy New Year!
EGGNOG FRENCH TOAST
- 4 eggs
- ½ eggnog
- 2 Tbsp bourbon
- a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp butter (optional)
- 8 pieces of stale French bread
- powder sugar
Whisk the eggs, eggnog, bourbon, and nutmeg until well blended. Heat the griddle on medium heat and add butter if it is not non-stick. Dip the bread into the mixture on both sides and place onto the griddle, four pieces at the time. When nicely brown, flip to the other side and let it brown.
Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar.
My hometown in Serbia is nestled snugly at the foot of the hills, protected from the harsh winds that blow from the Alps, lulled into a false sense of security. And any road you take out will lead you to more hills and more horizons interrupted by gentle green curves or sharp peaks piercing the clouds. Only when you travel far enough northeast and reach the beautiful spot where the river Sava submits to the mighty Danube, facing an old Turkish firmament at the capital city of Belgrade, will the plains open up, allowing you to watch the magnificent sun descend for a long, long time, finally falling asleep somewhere in the middle of fertile Pannonia.
I was a child conceived, born, and raised in the bosom of the hills and mountains, even though Mother longingly missed the long sunsets that teased the horizon and made golden promises of infinity to Vojvodina’s flat terrain. I possess the impulsiveness and raw passion of highlanders, aware that there will always be another peak to overcome, furtively suspicious of never-ending expanses of docile wheat undulating seductively while following the strong lead of the merciless northern winds. Our sunrises took us by surprise, changing the night into day instantaneously, jerking us into reality unrelenting, whipping us into shape within minutes with the sneering authority of a drill sergeant.
The end of the day arrived as quickly, unexpected, with the sun dipping into the cleavage of twin hills guarding the town from the west. It would inevitably try to spread its pink and purple around, wishing to caress every roof and touch every glade of grass, but the twin peaks would inexorably suck in its glow within minutes, leaving only the wounded hues of indigo to color the twilight. We adjusted and learned to live in the moment, fast on our feet, expecting a slap, a jab, a tickle from our whimsical and cruel surroundings. The shades of gray were temporary, coming and going with the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, leaving the scorching white and unfathomable black to fight for dominance.
An hour to the west lies mountain Zlatibor like a meek, voluptuous concubine showing its fertile valleys and knolls behind every lazy curve of the road, its silky green flanks flecked with flocks of sheep. It accepts travelers into its warm embrace promising comfort and denying danger, eager to spread and show off its unthreatening, innocent beauty. It offers welcome and necessary respite because somewhere beyond it, you are bound to face cold and ominous mountains with deep canyons, plunging cliffs, and unyielding rocks slashed open to let a stream through. Once you get there you know that some invisible hands will grip your throat and allow you only shallow breaths, enveloping you in air so crisp that you can barely stand upright, your whole body suddenly light and weightless.
But Zlatibor nurtures and caresses, unselfishly giving everything it possesses, eager to please and satisfy, smiling timidly with the smallest praise. Her air is fresh and fragrant with grasses that barely move in the breeze. It seduces you while bringing you strength and arming you with confidence. Its power does not hide behind intimidation. It is unassumingly spread before you in all its soft folds, dark thickets of slender pines, and gurgling springs that calm and entice at the same time.
My country is small with very few roads connecting the dots. Every time we traveled west to the Adriatic coast, we could not avoid the green haunches of Zlatibor. We always became ravenous a few miles before, letting our primal desires build, heads swimming with anticipation, oblivious to the landscape surrounding us. Father would park his bright orange Lada in front of an unassuming inn and we would pour out, stretching and jumping, breathing the cool mountain air with full lungs, feeling welcome and safe. We would sit at the table with wooden benches and Father would order for us without consulting us, the menu, or the waiter. Only in Zlatibor would he disregard our wishes because there was but one dish that all of us craved: komplet lepinja.
This is a simple fare, but unattainable anywhere else. Freshly baked small rounds of soft bread (lepinje) are sliced in half, slathered with aged, locally made golden kajmak*, brushed with a brightly orange, slightly beaten egg and suffused with richly flavored juices left over after roasting a lamb or a piglet. The two halves are placed in an oven and baked for a few minutes until the edges crisp up and become lightly blushed from the heat. We had no reason to speak when our hungry mouths reached this infused bread hot from the oven. With eyes glazed over, we took the first bite, sighing in contentment, knowing that it was worth waiting for.
After the last crumbs disappeared from our plates, we would reluctantly leave the inn and pile into the good, old Lada, basking in the afterglow of our experience. We felt that the mountain surrendered herself with abandon, satisfying our every need and bringing a satiated smile to our lips. While we rode her creases back to our town, we were grateful and happy, assured that one day soon we would return and accept her gift again and again.
*Kajmak is the specialty of Serbia. Fresh milk is slowly heated in big, shallow pots until it simmers. When it cools off, the fat that gathered on the top is collected, placed in a dish, and salted. Kajmak can be eaten immediately or it can be aged until it’s crumbly and strong.
(My sister took all of the beautiful photos above).
KOMPLET LEPINJA (ALL IN ONE BREAD)
To satisfy our cravings and to save the bread from going stale, Mother made a take on this dish, excluding the roasted meat juices as they were usually unavailable. She spoiled my girls by making them this baked bread for breakfast and now I am challenged to execute it in my Southern California kitchen. I am so glad I managed to bring kajmak home!
There is no need for a traditional recipe – photographs are enough.