Posts

The Traveler and the Cook: The Land Beyond the Forest

Our Cooking Instructor, Eva Szigeti, takes us on a journey into The Land Beyond the Forest, where sheep roam, and their cheese is currency…

Food is part of our everyday life. Even when our primary travel goal is not the exploration of the cuisine of a certain region or county, culinary experience often finds us. While traveling, we are inevitably exposed to local food, and sometimes we stumble upon a great culinary experience almost by a chance.

That summer, we were traveling in a part of Romania known as Transylvania, The Land Beyond the Forest. Although in the Western world Transylvania is often associated with Dracula (thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel), the story of the vampire count doesn’t have a prominent place in the culture of the region. We were exploring a different side of the country: its historic towns, salt mines, dark pine forests, and beautiful wild meadows.

One day, we were hoping to buy some local sheep cheese in a small mountain village. A villager advised us to get the cheese directly from the shepherds. This seemed simple enough. We were given instructions of where to find them, and off we went, leaving the village and hiking up the hills to high-altitude meadows in search of the shepherds and their flock. The two-hour walk took us through rolling hills with green pastures and blooming wild flowers. This is where the shepherds and their sheep spend the whole summer. In early spring, villagers merge their animals, and a shepherd and his helpers herd the sheep and goats to pastures in the hills above the village. The sheep and goats graze on the mountain grass throughout the warm season. The men sustain themselves on a diet consisting mostly of milk, cheese, polenta, preserved meats, and gifts of the mountain: wild mushrooms, berries, and herbs. The shepherds and the animals spend the whole summer and early fall up on the high meadows, and they return to the valley along with the cold autumn winds.

Our walk seemed longer than what we had expected. Did we get lost? The first sign that we were heading in the right direction came in the form of loud, not-too-friendly shepherd dogs running toward us. The dogs are a much-needed help for the shepherds. They herd the animals and protect them in an environment where wolves and bears are a real threat. To them, we were intruders. We stopped to make sure the shepherd noticed us before the dogs could reach us.

The shepherd’s hut is a shabby one-room shack with no electricity or running water. It serves as a shelter and sleeping area for the men, as well as a work space where cheese is made. The role of the shepherd and the cheese maker merge here; the shepherd not only takes care of the animals—he also turns their milk into cheese. The inside of the hut is rudimentary and dark. There is no stainless steel equipment here; just beat-up pots, rustic wooden tools that could be part of a museum exhibition, and cheese hanging from the ceiling.  The tools and methods of cheese making are the same as they were 100, 200, perhaps even 500 years ago.

If a cheese from this hut sat on a shelf of a specialty cheese store in a big city, it would be described as an artisan organic cheese made from milk of pasture-raised animals. But the wheels from these pastures are not destined for a store, and they could never be sold in one. The shabby shepherds’ hut—without running water and refrigeration, milk heated above a wood fire, wooden tools with quite a bit of patina—hardly conforms to the regulations of the European Union. The cheese from the shepherd’s hut doesn’t enter any formal market. Except for a wheel or two sold to the occasional town-people wanting to taste the real stuff, this cheese feeds the locals. A self-sufficient lifestyle is still prevailing in the economy of small, remote mountain villages. The cheese is distributed among the villagers—the owners of the animals. Traditionally, making cheese was a way of preserving milk. Some of the cheese made in the summer is still saved for the winter months. For the most part, the cheese is consumed within the families. Any excess is bartered for produce or services.

While cheese can serve as a currency in these parts of the world, money may not buy us cheese on the high mountain pastures. Bills aren’t very useful up in the mountains. The shepherd prefers to trade his cheese for fresh vegetables, preserved meats, and bread. Luckily, we came prepared….

Carrying cheese, like a trophy, we walked back down to the village, tired but happy and amazed. We found and tasted a truly authentic Transylvanian cheese; a rustic, pure, strong, perhaps unpolished cheese, deeply rooted in the local land and the ancient tradition of cheese making on the high pastures of The Land Beyond the Forest.

 

Cheese Spread with Herbs

Making cheese at home is not a small task. Although this spread isn’t a true cheese spread (it is made from plain whole-milk yogurt), its preparation involves one of the steps present in cheese making (draining the whey out of the cheese). It is a great first project when introducing the concept of cheese-making to children.

Ingredients:

3 cups organic whole-milk plain yogurt

fresh herbs (such as parsley, dill, chives)

salt to taste

Line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth. Put the colander into a pot or large bowl. The whey draining from the yogurt will accumulate in this vessel. Measure out the yogurt and put it into the colander. Keep the draining yogurt in the fridge for a day or two. The longer it drains, the firmer the spread gets.

Take the spread out of the refrigerator and put it into a bowl. Add salt and finely chopped fresh herbs. (We used dill and chives.) Enjoy with bread or fresh vegetables.

The whey could be used for smoothies or shakes, as a cooking liquid for grains or potatoes, or in muffin and bread recipes.

 

The Traveler and the Cook: Visiting a Palace

Our Cooking Instructor, Eva Szigeti, tells about a palace adventure, ponders what it must have been like to live there, and provides a recipe for a lavish quark strudel…

Visiting a historic house, old cathedral, castle, or a town with rich history could feel a little bit like time travel. Stepping with half a foot into another era is not only fun. These trips into the past also unquestionably contribute to our children’s informal education, nurture their imagination, put their knowledge into context, encourage critical thinking about the past, and even put our own lifestyles into perspective. For our family, one of these exciting trips was a visit to Esteháza, an estate with a grandiose palace located in western Hungary.

As the large structure emerged in front of us (the front of the building is 100 meters long, the wings measure 46 meters), the kids first question was: Was this actually someone’s home? The answer to this question is yes, but it wasn’t the family’s primary residence. The 126-room palace was just a summer house in rural Hungary, far away from Vienna. The palace, built by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, is often referred to as the Hungarian Versailles, although perhaps it has more in common with the Viennese Schönbrunn Palace. The glory days of the estate lasted from 1766 (when the main part of the palace was finished) till 1790, with the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Because of the estate’s remote location, his successors didn’t deem it a desirable place to live.

Although today no one would consider the place to be far from Vienna (only 60 miles), it still feels remote and rural. We got off the train at the nearest train station, which was about 2 miles from the palace. As it turned out, the small town has no public transportation and not even a taxi service. So lots of walking was part of our day.

Inside of the palace, the children wanted to run up and down the wide staircase, touch the golden rococo floral decorations on the wall, and explore the rooms. They fantasized about how much fun it would be to play hide-and-seek, to explore the attic, or look for secret doors. Of course, none of these were an option. So instead they tried to listen to the guide and take it all in. We admired the enormous mirrors, the furniture, the frescoes and chandeliers on the ceiling, and the huge wood burning stoves that had been fed by the servants from the adjacent rooms. In the Banquet Room, my daughter was imagining balls that might have taken place there long ago. She saw hundreds of candles burning, women in beautiful dresses, heard the music and wished that she could be one of the dancers.

We learned from the guide that the estate hosted not only balls, but also large hunts and big feasts. The most likely foods served were veal, rabbit, lamb and mutton, poultry, wild birds, and fish; all accompanied with sauces flavored by spices and nuts. The guests probably also enjoyed pates and rice porridge with spices, prepared by the many cooks of the estate. Exotic fruits, like oranges and lemons, were served. Chocolate biscuits and marzipan, a popular dessert of the era, might had been offered to the guests.

The Price, patron of the arts, also hosted concerts, opera, and theater performances. The estate had its own Opera House (seating 400 people), Marionette Theater, and a Music House with apartments for the musicians, actors, and dancers employed by the prince. The orchestra was led by none other than the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn. Haydn lived on the estate from 1766 to 1790. The majority of his symphonies were written for the Prince’s orchestra, and they were most likely performed for the first time in Esterháza.

As we walked through the estate’s extensive park back to the train station, my daughter expressed her desire to live in a palace. Then we tried to imagine the everyday life in the Esterházy Palace 250 years ago. The lifestyle of 18th century aristocracy seemed lavish, but extremely wasteful; grand, but perhaps not very comfortable.  After all, they lived in times when 60 miles was a great distance.

Their luxurious palaces had no electricity, central heating, or plumbing. They wore fancy, but most likely uncomfortable clothing. My kids wondered if Prince Esterházy would have perhaps preferred to live in our heated house with a nice bathroom, wear a cotton T-shirt, and listen to music every day without having to provide food and accommodation for musicians of an orchestra.

Quark Strudel

Strudel is a typical Austro-Hungarian dessert. The layered pastry (with sweet or savory filling) became popular in the Habsburg

Empire in the 18th century.

Making the dough itself requires skill, time and patience. The dough is rolled out, then gently stretched by hand until it’s paper-thin. Then it is filled and rolled up. Popular fillings include apple, sour cherry, poppy seed, and quark.

Today not many home bakers take on the challenge of making the strudel dough. Most bakers rely on store-bought dough. Filo dough is a good substitute for dough made from scratch.

 

Makes two strudels

For the dough:

8 sheets of thawed filo dough

6 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

 

For the filling:

1 pound quark or unsalted farmer’s cheese

2 eggs, separated
¼ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt
½ cup of raisins, optional
4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling

 

Preheat the oven to 375 °F. Lightly brush a 13×9-inch baking dish with melted butter.

Prepare the filling. Put the quark/farmer’s cheese into a mixing bowl. Add egg yolks, sour cream, sugar, salt, vanilla extract, lemon zest, and raisin. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then gently fold them in the quark mixture. Cover your work surface with a clean kitchen towel. Place a sheet of filo on the towel (with the long side facing you) and gently brush it with the melted butter. Layer three more filo sheets, buttering each layer. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs in a 3-inch strip along the longer end of the dough, leaving an inch on the bottom and the sides without any crumbs. Gently spread half of the cheese mixture on top of the breadcrumbs then sprinkle with another tablespoon of breadcrumbs.  Fold the unfilled sides in and roll up like a jelly roll. Place the strudel seam side down on the baking sheet. Brush the pastry with melted butter. Repeat the process to make the second roll. Bake for 35 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. Place the baking sheet on a wire rack and let cool for 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, slice, and serve.

The Traveler and the Cook: Winter Vacation in the Rockies

OUR COOKING INSTRUCTOR, EVA SZIGETI, TELLS ABOUT HER FAMILY’S WINTER VACATION AND SHARES A DELICIOUS RECIPE THAT’S PERFECT FOR A WINTER BREAK STAY-CATION…

Planning a family vacation often starts with a discussion about the destination. For a winter trip, we might consider two very different types of travel destinations.

Some might want to embrace the season and opt for a ski trip. While those longing for a break from the cold and the darkness, might choose a trip to the sunny tropics.

As my family considered the idea of a family trip, our discussion wasn’t so much about the destination, but about participants. The two experienced snowboarders in the family have been planning to conquer some “real” slopes for a while. The question was whether my daughter (an inexperienced snowboarder) and I would join them on this trip.

I must disclose that winter is not my favorite season, and when it comes to mountains, my feelings are mixed. Growing up in an area where the landscape resembles the flat plains of the Midwest, the most memorable hill of my childhood (and the only hill around) was a small artificial sledding hill on the playground.

From a safe distance, I do like to admire the beauty of mountains, but when experiencing them close-up, my respect for them often borders on fear. As for my skiing skills, they are minimal. Because of the lack of opportunity, my hometown wasn’t exactly a town of ski enthusiasts either. Although I’ve tried skiing, I have never acquired skills beyond a beginner level.

The idea of a family ski/snowboarding trip made me more nervous than excited. For me, skiing and snowboarding come with too much hassle and worries (Does everyone have goggles? Where is my daughter’s left glove? Did we leave the helmets at home? Is the lift safe for the kids? Is the slope too icy?). My worries never seem to end…

After a few discussions, we came to a decision everyone was comfortable with: The boys would travel to Colorado and enjoy the mountains, while the girls would have a special “girl time” at home. The division of our family into two groups happened this time along the gender lines: it was time for some father – son, mother – daughter bonding!

My son and husband packed their bags (so much gear!) and embarked on their adventure. My daughter and I enjoyed our time together at home. We had been getting pictures and news from the boys every day. During our calls with them, the adventures of the day were usually summarized by my son into short sentences—exciting shouts from a high-altitude ski resort.

First day: “We gave up after two hours on the slope. We couldn’t breathe. There was no air! This place gets 11 feet of snow per year!”

Second day: “We went down a black diamond! The trail was more than two miles long! The Continental Divide runs through the top of the ridge!”

Third day: “We were really high up. More than 11,000 feet! Can you imagine? Above the tree line!”

Fourth day: “We went to a bar! Really, no kidding… Haha, an oxygen bar.”

Fifth day: “We are coming home tomorrow!”

 

I was glad to hear from them every time. For me, the most important piece of information was that they were well, because to me the majestic Rockies seem a little dangerous even from a great distance.

If being on vacation means, breaking away from the usual daily routines, then my daughter and I had a vacation too. We “camped”, along with our dog, in the guest room, watched movies (something we don’t do too often) during the snowstorm, we stayed up later than usual, enjoyed craft projects, and played lots of board games. I mostly neglected cooking, because this week after all was a departure from our everyday lives. We all had a good time, and we concluded that having a one-on-one parent – child ‘vacation’ experience can be as valuable as a trip involving all members of the family.

Through my son and husband’s experience, I had a taste of their snowboarding trip. It seemed great, but I still don’t long for a winter vacation in the mountains. Perhaps one day I might want to travel to the Rockies in the summertime. I am quite fascinated by the idea of standing in the rain on the imaginary line of the Continental Divide, knowing that the raindrops coming down on the Eastern side of the mountain might one day meet the waters of the Atlantic, while the precipitation trickling down the West slope is destined for the Pacific Ocean.

 

Mushroom Soup for a Winter Day

We eat mostly home-made food. That means lot of time spent in the kitchen. During our unusual vacation-at-home week, I gave myself a little break from cooking. We had mostly salads, sandwiches, and soups. Most soups are not labor intensive and can be made in large batches that last for few days. Many taste even better reheated than fresh.

3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound Portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus extra to garnish
½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
salt to taste
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 – 2  teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

In a large pot heat the butter and oil. On medium heat, sauté onions until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic, cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add mushrooms and thyme, cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle mushrooms with flour, mix well, and cook while gently mixing for 2 minutes. Add stock, mix and bring to boil. Reduce the heat to low. Add salt and pepper.

Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add cream and bring back to simmer (not boil). Adjust seasoning if necessary. Mix in parsley and lemon juice.

Garnish with parsley. Serve with toast or fresh bread.

 

 

The Traveler and the Cook: Christmas Market In Vienna

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about the nostalgia she feels around the holidays, particularly for the joys of the ‘holiday market’…

The holiday season is a time when we seem to be especially prone to nostalgia for childhood, for the magical time of hope and anticipation that brought light into the darkest part of the year. Nostalgia magnifies moments from childhood and leads to reminiscing about positive experiences. I miss the Christmas seasons of my childhood. No matter who hard I try to recreate the feeling of ‘Christmas’ every year, the holiday never seems to be the same as it was when I was a kid.Adults, do you remember snow globes? Those heavy glass (or plastic) spheres with a winter scene? When they are shaken, snow starts quietly coming down on the town or the landscape encased in the glass. Did you ever hold one as a child and feel mesmerized by the miniature world where snow was just one shake away? I always imagined myself being part of the scene. As the soft snow slowly came down inside of the glass-covered world, I was transported into the kingdom of imagination and dreams. How delightful! But seeing a snow globe as an adult, it seems more tacky than enchanting. I had to remember all the magic it brings, when my daughter asked for one few years ago.

As a child, I loved the Christmas market. I remember a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts warming my hands and the aroma of roasting chestnuts filling the town square. Enjoying the spirit of the holiday in a market is a nice way to spend a weekend day with children. For those who happened to be in Central Europe during the holiday season, Vienna is an excellent choice. Although I never went to a Christmas market in Vienna as a child, I had been to many others that provided a similar experience.

Vienna’s famous Christmas markets were likely the first place where snow globes were sold (and are still sold). Like many other inventions, the first snow globe was an unintended byproduct of a quest for something else – in this case, for a surgical lamp. The snow globe (Schneekugel) was patented at the end of the 19th century by Erwin Perzy, an Austrian surgical instruments mechanic. The hand-painted, manually assembled glass globes encasing a miniature St. Stephens Cathedral were a hit. The Perzy family continues to make a variety of snow globes to this day, and the family business still operates in the same house in Vienna.

Of course, there is no Christmas market without food and holiday treats. In a Christmas market in Vienna, this means stalls with grilled sausage, pretzels, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts and almonds, potato wedges, donut-like sweets (Krapfen), apples covered in red sugar glazing, cotton candy, and marzipan. Some stalls sell nothing but gingerbread decorated with colored frosting; hearts and stars with inscriptions of Christmas wishes.

For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I had to have a Schaumbecher which is an ice cream cone topped with marshmallow cream dipped in chocolate when I last visited a market. As children, we called them ‘winter ice cream’. It was nice to taste one again, although as a child, I had not been a big fan because they failed to deliver the taste of real ice cream.

Possibly more than by food, children at a market in Vienna will be enchanted by old-world wooden toys like pine cone animals, wooden birds, porcelain bells, and especially wooden figures that jump or fly (without batteries) when a string is pulled. And don’t expect to meet Santa in Vienna. In Austria and the Central European region, Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind (Christ-child or Little Jesus).

In Central Europe, there is no Christmas without what the Austrians call vanilla kipferl (vanilla crescents). We decided to make a batch with my daughter recently. As we were baking, suddenly the wise-woman-persona of my nine-year-old daughter came to life and spoke, “You know, it is the small things that matter in life, like baking cookies or being with your family.” After my initial shock, I had to acknowledge that she was perfectly right. I hope she feels the wonder of the holiday, and one day she will yearn for the magic of her childhood Christmases.

Vanilla Kipferl or Vanilla Crescents Recipe

These are typical Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookies. In Austria, they are usually made with almonds, whereas in Hungary, ground walnuts are preferred.

Vanilla sugar is available at European grocery stores, or you can made your own by burying a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about two weeks until the vanilla releases its flavor into the sugar. Nicely packaged home-made vanilla sugar also makes a good gift!

2 cups flour
1 cup finely ground almonds or walnuts
2 sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (for the dough)
1 egg yolk
½ vanilla sugar (to coat the bake cookies)

Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually work in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the egg yolk. Stir in the flour and the ground almond or nuts. Make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two parts and form two large rolls. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35 degrees F. To form the crescents, cut about two teaspoons of dough. Gently roll the dough to form a rope with tapered end. Form the rope into a crescent. Put the cookie on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough. This batch will make about 50 crescents. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the cookies are light golden around the edges. Cool the cookies on the sheet for about two minutes. Roll each cookie in the vanilla sugar to coat. Enjoy!