Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slava 2008

Yesterday we had a bunch of people over for my Krsna Slava, the Serbian family holiday to celebrate the patron saint, a custom that stretches back into prehistory and pre-Christian times, when the Serbs had family gods. As the story goes, they were reluctant to leave their family patron gods, so each family got a saint designated instead. Because this happened in the ninth century, the saints are all really ancient ones, like Saint Nicholas. My family's is a pair of twins, Saints Cosmas and Damian (Sveti Kuzman i Damian), born in Asia Minor (or Mesopotamia) to Saint Theodota.

The icon here is the exact picture that hung on my wall when I was a kid growing up. It's the current top-of-article image on the Wikipedia entry about them. In past years, I've seen other icons on the Wikipedia page and other pages that my Internet searches turned up. So it was a surprise, and gave me an unexpected eerie feeling, to see this very picture after so long.

More about Slavas past here:

The custom in the Old Country is to have lots of people over all day, coming in and out, with lots of food. I never experienced that, because we didn't live in a place with a big Serb community, but it sounds like fun, so that's what I went for yesterday. Also a priest comes over and blesses the home, but of course we didn't do that, either. We did invite a Universalist Unitarian minister -- as a guest, not in an official capacity -- but he didn't show.

For many years, Don and I would just go out to dinner on my Krsna Slava, November 14. Somehow we always seemed to wind up at a Mexican place -- Pasqual's or Pedro's or Laredo's -- so that we started feeling like the Slava custom was to go out for Mexican food. Once we went to a wonderful Laotian place, Lao Laan Xang, with our friends Sigurd and Gloria -- that must have been 1999 or 2000, because it was the year I wrote about them for the Isthmus dining guide. I'm not sure what inspired me to start celebrating at home and experimenting with Serbian food instead. A few years back, we began inviting our friend Gigi, who's become our Serbian holiday co-celebrant. This year, for the first time, I decided to do something closer to the real thing and invite a whole bunch of people, as many as I dared invite to our small space and cook for all at once. It worked out great and gave me confidence to expand the guest list even more next time around. Sigurd and Gloria were there, the Dutch and Spanish mathematicians we befriended almost immediately after moving to Madison, as well as their kids, Nico (now 14) and Vicky (now 9). Also our neighbor Jayne, from across the street (we offered to give her a ride) and our friend Jennifer. Later my co-worker Jill came, along with her partner Mary. Finally my former co-worker Gil, from Israel, showed up. He was lost in the mobile home park, so I directed him over the phone, and went out into the street and waved him into a spot before running back into the house -- I was barefoot and chilly. Somehow he couldn't figure out which house was ours in the dark, though, and after we waited minutes for him, some folks went outdoors to find him, wandering around the street trying to find the house. Yeah, I know, I don't get it either. Sorry, Gil. (Unfortunately, Gigi, who loves sharing Slava with us, couldn't come at the last minute -- her father had to get emergency eye surgery. We're still waiting to hear how that turned out, and of course we hope for the best.)

Well, I must say I am proud of myself for pulling this thing off. I planned all week, stayed up late cooking and prepping Friday and got up early and got cooking Saturday. It turned out to be the most tactically succesful of all the fun food parties I've thrown over the years. By that I mean: when the first guests started showing up, I had already changed out of my pajamas. And showered. And had completed enough of the cooking that I was actually able to enjoy the party! Here's what we had.

Traditionally, whole fruit preserves, extremely sweet. Served in a jar, presented on a tray alongside several cups of cold water and a pile of dessert spoons. Each guest, on arrival, eats a single spoonful of slatko and chases it with water. The slatko I made for this occasion was apricot jam and honey. Someday I'll try to make my own from scratch. Maybe. Canning still intimidates me.

One of the central, sacred dishes that must be on every Slava table. This tall, round loaf can be regarded either as a tremendously rich, cake-like bread, or the breadiest, most un-sweet pound cake you've ever had. The word means "cake" in Serbian (and just about any other Slavic language, too). The recipe is passed matrilineally through the generations, just as the Slava saint is passed patrilinealy. I like the way that sort of balances things out. And the crisscrossing, continuous invigoration of the family tradition it makes for. My recipe comes from my mother (b. 1920), who had been Nada (Nadezhda) Jankovic. and from her mother (b. 1888), who had been Ljubitsa Stephanovic, and from her mother, who had been Radivojevic, and from her mother, who had been Bojic. So you see that it is a very old recipe, because this lineage is only the beginning. The recipe is posted here:

This year I incorporated the famous no-knead bread technique that swept the foodie blogosphere after Mark Bittman's 2006 New York Times column came out here:

and by gum if it didn't work just fine. In a big crockery bowl, I mixed up the usual Kolach ingredients on Friday night. They came out wet and sticky -- depending on the weather, you have to add milk or add flour to get the dough to the right consistency for kneading. In this case, I left if just as it was, and covered the bowl with clingfoil. In the morning, it had risen perfectly, with bubbles on top and all. I added a bit of flour and folded it over and over a few times. Then I put it in a well-buttered crockpot liner, covered it with its glass lid, and let it rest and rise for a couple of hours. After that I baked it in the oven as usual -- 400 uncovered for 10 minutes, then 350 covered with the crockpot lid for an hour. Perfect results, most of the work done overnight, and the oven freed up early on for all the other stuff that needed to go into it.

I sure wish I had two ovens. Or three.

Koljivo (Zito) (KOHL-yee-voh, ZHEE-toh)
This is another sacred dish, and one of the three elements de rigueur on a Slava table. (The third is a white candlestick ablaze.) (A fourth element needed in the room would be an icon of the saint or saints whose day it is.) It's made only for three occasions: Slava, Christmas, and for a funeral or requiem. My friend, an elderly Serbian woman in Madison I'll call Sophy S., tells me that only for the commemorating the dead is it decorated with slivered almonds arranged in the shape of a double cross. For Slava and Christmas (Bozic), it's decorated with slivered almonds stuck all over like a porcupine. However, searching for info about Koljivo on the Internets on Friday night, I came upon a picture of Slava Koljivo that was decorated with a cross.

So what is it? Essentially, boiled, then ground, wheat berries. The symbolism is powerful, especially when it's made for the dead, for what is death but the ultimate harvest? So saith the Reaperman. The wheat is mixed with ground nuts and powdered sugar. It's sweet and incredibly rich, so a tablespoon of this is a hearty serving. No kidding. Top it with whipped cream. You don't serve this for dessert; you eat it before the meal. Remember, just a tablespoon, or less. Save room for dinner.

Koljivo recipe in a separate post.

Gibanica (GHEE-bah-Neet-sah)
Call it Serbian cheese bread, call it savory cheese pie or strudel, call it flaky cheese casserole -- there's no ready American analog for this room-temp wedge of cheesy, flaky goodness, one of the most typical of all typically Serbian dishes. Read about it in this previous post:

The big discovery I made this year was to use only 3/4 of the package of filo, instead of the whole pound. For the first time, my giba was puffy on coming out of the oven, as recipes suggested it would be. Best yet, with the dough-to-cheese ratio more favorable, the result was way more cheeeesy. That's a good thing.

Djuvec (JEW-vech)
Ah, djuvec. That wonderful one-pot meal. Pork and/or beef with veg, cooked long and slow in a big pot with just enough rice to soak up the juices that exude from the eggplant, tomato, celery, parsely, onion and meat herein. I've written it up before:

This year I made it with equal parts pork shoulder and beef shoulder (I'm guessing that's another name for chuck, don't know why they called it that at the UW Provision Store where we buy in bulk to load up the standalone freezer we splurged on this summer); previously I'd used all pork. Also I upped the rice to 1/2 cup, but I think it could have taken more. The rice sort of disapperd amidst all the rest. Used a new (to me) rice this year, also: an organic variety grown by Lundberg but packaged and sold for Asian-American markets.

Pogaca (POH-gah-cha)
I made a "Farmer's Pogaca," a recipe adapted from the 1963 "Yugoslav Cookbook" printed by the state. Of course, in 1963, just about everything in Yugoslavia was done by the state, as it was a comprehensively socialist economy. Everything from the Zastava factory, where Yugos were made, to most larger restaurants were owned and run by the state. When I traveled there in 1989 I learned quickly to avoid those restaurants. They had the ambiance of, say, a DMV here in the states. Can you imagine the charm of ordering a meal from the person behind the counter at the Department of Motor Vehicles? Asking them the difference between the shopska salata and a Srpska salata listed on the salad page? That was pretty much the flavor of the interpersonal transactions at such places. Small, privately run inns and cafes were the place to go for a warm, southern Slav experience. And good food more redolent of tradition than of institution.

Pogaca is bread, and it can be as plain and dressed down as kolach is rich and resplendent. Usually it's a yeasted flatbread, round and meant to be broken, not cut. There are many versions, including bogota pogaca, meaning "rich pogaca," with extra special ingredients like buttermilk and egg yolks, that's flaky and folded, sort of like croissant.

This "farmer's flatbread," though, is just flour, water, yeast, salt and oil. Easy, quick, and a great side to a hearty meal. The recipe makes three 10-inch pogace.

Farmer's Pogaca recipe
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoon yeast
6-8 cups flour ( I used 2 cups whole wheat and the rest AP)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil or other fat
Beaten egg (for brushing over top)

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add remaining ingredients. Mix to a medium dough. Knead for 5 minutes. Let rest 15 minutes. Divide in thirds. Roll to size and shape of layer cake pans. Lightly grease the pans. Place dough inside. Brush dough with beaten egg. Dock (prick all over with a fork.) Bake 20–25 minutes at 425, or until golden brown and done. Serve hot, or whenever.

I forgot to dock and brush with egg yesterday. I learned from this that the docking keeps weird bubbles from misshaping these.

I used these for dipping the ajvar, which is the next speciality on the menu.

Ajvar (AYE-var)
Also known as eggplant caviar or sweet red pepper relish, this can be made with either or a combination of these as the main ingredient. The word is etymologically related to "caviar," so I'm supposing the eggplant version came first. However, on Serbian tables I've usually seen it as mostly or all pepper.

I've heard that it can be spicy hot or not, but I've only encountered it non-spicy in person.

Srpski Ayvar recipe
1-2 eggplants
1 red bell pepper
5-6 cloves garlic, still in their peels
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespooon paprika
fresh lemon juice to taste -- a teaspoon or two.

Place the eggplants, pepper and garlic on a shallow baking sheet -- for instance, a cookie sheet -- and roast at 350 for 1–2 hours, until the eggplants have totally collapsed. The bell pepper and the garlic will certainly be done and need to come out of the over after an hour; the eggplant might take an hour or so longer. Every fifteen or twenty minutes or so, turn everything over so that as much surface as possible spends some time in contact with the cookie sheet.

If you make this in the summer, you can grill instead of roast the veg, and get a wonderful smoky aroma in the bargain.

Remove from oven and let cool. Placing the veg in a brown paper bag will make the peeling go easier.

When your veg is cool, peel 'em all. Discard the seeds and core of the pepper as well as its peel.

Process all this in a food processor, adding the oil, salt and pepper. Add lemon to taste. Serve as a dip.

I just realized I forgot the paprika. So much for all that tactical success, I guess. Well, I suppose that means the paprika is optional, because that ajvar was pretty darn tasty.

Snezani Jabuke (SNE-zhah-nee JAH-boo-keh)
Literally, snowy apples. OK, the Yugoslav Cookbook (1963) just calls this "Baked Applesauce." But what's the fun of that?

Deep into the evening, I said I was going to make dessert. Don looked like he was going to fall over on hearing that -- everyone was pretty well stuffed by that point. However, I was determined. That Kolach uses egg yolks only, and I had noticed this recipe the night before -- it uses egg whites. Finally, something to do with all those egg whites I can't bear to throw out and therefore collect in a seal-top plastic bowl and keep in the refrigerator for several days until it goes bad and I throw it out later!

Vicky peeled and sliced the apples for this, using the Peel-Away gadget that I and all kids love so well. Ulysses calls it the Apple Robot. After we got this into the oven, Ulysses brought out another apple from the crisper and peeled and ate it right on the robot, one crank at a time.

Snezani Jabuke recipe
2 pounds apples (about 8 apples -- exactitude is not necessary here)
2 egg whites (or however many you have on hand)
1/4 cup sugar

Peel, core and slice apples. Place in a saucepan with a few tablespoons or so of water (just enough to keep from scorching) and cook at medium-low heat until soft.

Turn apples into a buttered pie plate or casserole dish.

Beat egg whites stiff, adding sugar partway through. Spread on top of apples, making pretty peaks with your spatula.

Bake at 400 about 20 minutes, until golden brown.

Spoon into custard cups or any little dessert dishes. Serve hot or cold.

You may notice this is not applesauce. The Yugoslav Cookbook had involved instructions for rubbing and grinding and grating the apples into applesauce before turning them into the dish. But I thought, what for? As it stands, this is sort of like a crustless apple meringue pie. And about as fast as a baked dessert can get -- especially if you have an Apple Robot on your side.

Srpska Kafa, Slivovitz (Serbian coffee, plum brandy)

These would have been great, but I forgot to bring 'em out. OK, I said most tactically successful so far. Not perfect!


  1. Sounds amazing! I hope to get an invite next year. ;-) In the meantime, I'll get busy making ajvar and that apple dessert.

  2. wow, any new serbian bride (or non-serb marrying a serb) who needed to know how to make a slava could follow these directions and make the perfect meal! how fantastic this all sounds and so familiar. the ajvar sounds especially appealing, one of my favorite dishes and i've never made it. we always had the eggplant and red pepper as you describe, i'll have to try it now! and gibanica is my #1 favorite serbian dish, i'll have to try and make yours because mama doesn't make it anymore and the tip on making it more cheeeesy sounds just right, i want some right now! love the snowy apples, will have to make that too, we also own and love an apple "robot", it is annie's favorite kitchen tool. thank you for putting this into an archive for us all to use for years/generations to come! love sanhead

  3. Thanks, Lee, we'd love to have ya.


    Thanks, Cuz! Can you get your mother's recipe for gibanica? I'd love to know how she made it.

  4. oh that all sounds so GOOD! I have a question I live near Madison where do you find a deli that sells any of the stuff like the phillo, slanina, cheese etc. Thanks