The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia took place 45 years ago today, on August 21, 1968. I remember it not so much because of its historical significance, but because of family stories told and embellished over the years. I decided to interviewed my Uncle Milan about it to get the real story, who was a young Canadian studying in Bratislava that summer.
M. “I was attending a Slovak language course at the University of Bratislava which is located in the center of the city, staying at the university dormitory.
The invasion took place during the night. Warsaw Pact tanks and soldiers came in from Hungary, just across the Danube River, as well as from Poland (several hundred miles to the North) as well as from the east (from the Ukraine, which was then part of Russia).”
T. Did the invasion take you and your friends by surprise?
M. “The invasion took everyone by surprise although Alexander Dubček, the Czechoslovak leader at that time, was making moves (talk of more democracy, etc.) that the Soviet leaders, such as Breznev, did not agree with and so there were signs in the air that some action would be taken by the soviet leadership to stop Dubček from going too far. So in that sense the invasion was not a surprise but when it actually happened, it was quite unexpected.”
T. What do you remember of Czechoslovakia’s First Secretary, Alexander Dubček?
M. “Dubček’s approach was very, very popular with the masses. His dream was for “socialism with a human face” and we called it the “Dubček Spring”; today it’s called the Prague Spring, and from the Soviet point of view it constituted a serious threat to their rule and control and so it had to be stopped.
I recall attending a football match the day or two before the invasion in the main stadium in Bratislava. Dubček attended and when he entered the stadium the spectators literally went nuts with applause and joy; he was the “peoples” hope for a better future.
I should point out the Dubček was a Slovak so this increased his popularity even more in the Slovak part of the country. The day of the invasion he was whisked off to Moscow and Husak, a real communist hard liner replaced him; Husak ruled the country for many years after that.”
T. What happened to Dubček?
M. “Dubček ended his life as a gardener in Bratislava. Oddly enough, the last Emperor of China also ended his life as a gardener, so seems to be a popular post-power occupation, something I keep in mind when I am in the garden.”
T. What happened when the Russians invaded Bratislava?
M. “I recall looking out of the window of my room in the dormitory as the sun came up and seeing all the streets full of Warsaw Pack tanks and troops. It was really scary, although not much, if any, shooting or other bad behavior by the occupying troops took place. In that sense it was a rather “peaceful” invasion. Street signs were painted over, and arrows were turned around, to confuse the tank drivers. Everyone was chanting ‘Dubček Svoboda’. In Prague, it was a totally different story, but I wasn’t there so cannot comment on that from a personal point of view and only rely on what I saw in the media afterwards.”
T. Did you go outside?
M. “After some other students and I settled down and took inventory of what was happening, we did venture out into the streets and mingled with the troops among the tanks. The troops by and large were very cheerful; I guess that they were just doing their duty and that they did not really like what they were asked to do. We did see one or two tanks attacked by the masses but this was the exception as the troops and folks both seemed to be on the same side. Nevertheless, it was an occupation, I was a foreigner and I was advised to leave the country as soon as possible.”
T. What do you remember of this picture of the invasion in Bratislava? Isn’t that Uncle Andy there, in the background? Did you take this picture and sell it to Time magazine?
M. “I did not take any pictures so I do not know where the story originated that I sold some pictures to Time.”
T. The family story I heard is that Uncle Andy helped you escape in the dark of night, by sneaking across the bridge unseen by the Russians.
M. “Uncle Andy did help me cross the bridge and took me to the border but it was all done the morning of the invasion, nothing “James Bondish” about it.”
T. How did you get out? Weren’t the borders shut down?
M. ”Somehow I meet up with Uncle Andy, I do not recall how that happened, I guess he came to the University to look after me. Anyway, we agreed that I should leave right away, so we packed up my red Austin 40 car and somehow managed to drive down to the main bridge in the center of the city which crosses the Danube. When we got there, there was a major check point and the bridge was occupied by a row of tanks so crossing was not possible without permission from the checkpoint commander. Uncle Andy talked to the checkpoint commander, explained that I was a Canadian student and that all I wanted was to cross the bridge and drive to the border (which was on the other side of the Danube only a few miles away). The commander agreed and we crossed the bridge (Uncle Andy, my cousin Michele and myself).
We assume that in the very first hours of the invasion, there were no clear instructions on who to let out of the country and who not to. I subsequently learned that the border was sealed to everybody later that day. When we got to the border, we had more good luck . It was still manned by Slovak agents who were very sympathetic to my situation and with the minimum of formalities let me cross the border into Austria; Uncle Andy and Michele got out of the car and stayed in Bratislava. I had a major sigh of relief when I passed through the “no man’s land” (a stretch of land about 1/2 mile wide) and crossed into Austria. That is the end of the story.
But it is an experience that I shall never forget.”
Have you ever wondered what makes a strudel so buttery, flaky, moist and tasty? Is it the ingredients, or the assembly process, or perhaps certain baking techniques? According to a Slovak grandma, it’s all of the above.
Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a Sunday afternoon with a Slovak neighbor, her mother, Eleanor, and her 11 year old granddaughter, and we learned the secrets of how to make mouth watering strudel. Eleanor’s strudel is so well loved by her friends that they once tried to convince her to sell it at Costco. After tasting it, I believe it.
I’ll go over the ingredients below, and next time I’ll describe the assembly process and Eleanor’s tips for baking and freezing the strudel.
****** The Ingredients *******
Pauline used to use homemade breadcrumbs mixed with sugar in her apple and walnut strudels, but Eleanor’s secret is to use crushed vanilla wafers. Eleanor explains that breadcrumbs are all that Slovaks had way back when, but now we have wafers, and they are much tastier than breadcrumbs and sugar. Eleanor mixes a box with about 1 1/2 sticks of melted butter. Don’t be shy with the butter. You’ll probably have lots of buttery crumbs left, and you can use the leftovers as the base for a cheesecake, as Eleanor did.
You’ve got to use firm apples, cored, peeled and sliced about 1/4 of an inch thick at most, or your strudel will be too lumpy.
When I was a kid, Pauline and I made the phyllo from scratch, as we did recently in Slovakia with a great aunt. Eleanor did too with her mom, but today she uses the store bought variety. She’s lucky enough to find it freshly made in Chicago at a local deli. But if you must buy it from a grocery store, avoid the grocery store labels, and look for a Greek brand, like Athens.
For an apple and walnut strudel, you’ll need 4 sheets. Keep them covered with a damp cloth as you work. For cheese or poppy seed, you’ll need three sheets. One box comes with about 18 sheets, so you can make 4 apple walnut strudels from that, or 6 cheese or poppy seed strudels.
Do you ever have problems with your phyllo being too hard and brittle, or difficult to separate the sheets? That’s because the store has allowed the shipment of phyllo to thaw before placing it in the freezer section of the grocery store. You can’t refreeze phyllo or this is what happens. Phyllo lasts about a year in the freezer, and to thaw it, you need to set it in your fridge overnight.
Don’t throw away the scraps! We’ll discuss how to use them in the next blog article about assembling the strudel.
To make cheese stuffed strudel, you’ll need about 32 ounces of ricotta cheese. Mix it with two eggs and some sugar, and a little cornstarch to give it lift and body while it bakes, otherwise the strudel will be as flat as a pancake.
And what do you place on the strudel layer with the cheese to give it sweetness and moisture? Eleanor uses about 1/3 of a cup of well squeezed chopped pineapple from a can! I would have never guessed it, but it really gives the strudel a subtle burst of flavor.
Again, you’ll have plenty of leftovers, most likely, and you can use that for the cheesecake.
Don’t be a wimp and buy the tiny bottles that masquerade as poppy seeds. Again, Eleanor’s Chicago sources provide her with access to freshly ground poppy seeds mixed with sugar. If you can’t find a fresh source, try the brand Solo, which I found online for the outrageous price of $34 online from Walmart. Solo comes already ground and mixed with sugar as well. I buy fresh poppy seeds in a bag from a spice store like Penzey’s Spices or from Rocky Peanut, a wholesale gourmet supply market in Detroit across the street from Eastern Market. Of course, you have to grind the seeds and add the sugar yourself. I’ve tried using coffee grinders for the job, and burned them both out. I suggest ordering a poppy seed grinder, which costs less than a can of Solo. There really is such a thing, such as this one that my dad uses, or this electronic Miracle one.
I asked Eleanor if her mother made cabbage strudel, and she replied that her family “didn’t need to”, meaning they were well enough off not to have to eat cabbage, which was a badge of honor back in the cold war days. Well, mine ate it both behind the iron curtain and on the farm in Ontario, and we loved it. Cabbage is one of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat, and besides that, it’s really delicious in strudel. Pauline used to braise the strudel on the stove, squeeze it dry with paper towel, and then mix in just a spoon or two of sugar. Braising it brings out the natural sweetness of the cabbage. I also add a grind or two of cracked pepper, as I love the sweet and peppery combination. Strangely, peppered cabbage makes a great dessert.
You need lots of butter for strudel making. Don’t think about it, just pull out about 2 boxes, or 8 sticks. You’ll be melting it all for crumbs and for brushing on the pastry. Eleanor keeps it in a small pot on the stove beside her as she assembles it, so that it’s always nearby and melted.
You’ll need about 1 cup of roughly chopped or whole walnuts per strudel.
This is one of Eleanor’s top secret ingredients for poppy seed strudel. She buys a large bag of them from Costco, and then macerates about 1/2 cup per strudel in her favorite liquor overnight. These plumped up cherries then get tossed into the poppy seed strudel, and provide the much needed moisture with the dry seeds. They also provide a succulent flavor, but they don’t taste like cherries in the strudel.
I’ll be back again soon to talk about how to lay out the strudel, how to roll it, tuck and butter it, and provide more tips from Eleanor on freezing and serving the strudel.
As a birthday present to myself, I dragged my less than enthusiastic family to Huerta Los Tamarindos yesterday for a day of cooking. Los Tamarindos is an organic farm, restaurant and cooking school in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. We spent the day on the farm touring the fields, learning about organic farming and cooking a Mexican meal with produce picked fresh that morning. I thought it was pretty special.
Los Tamarindos is run by couple Enrique and Lulu, who’ve lived and worked on the farm for over a dozen years. Last year they were featured on the Rick Bayless cooking show on PBS, Mexico- One Plate at a Time.
Enrique spent the day with our group of 18, starting off the morning lecturing about the farm and how the crops are grown, fertilized and sprayed frequently with all natural pesticides such as pepper oil. For the number of people who spend the day tending the garden, there was a surprising amount of weeds.
We spent the next few hours chopping garlic and herbs, slicing vegetables, and watching Enrique cook the meal in the outdoor kitchen. I could tell by their expressions that the kids were thrilled to be put to work. I discovered that my husband has a hidden talent for chopping; it will be put to good use from now on.
The weather was perfect, as is usual here in Los Cabos, and the food was flavored with subtle Mexican spices; when we finally sat down to eat 5 hours after arriving, we gobbled it right up. Our menu was simple:
- Roasted Cherry Tomato Soup
- Green Salad with Candy Cane Beets
- Roasted Vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, carrots, tomatoes)
- Rice and Chicken Mole
- Dulce De Calabaza
I’ll post the recipes for the chicken and dessert next week. The chicken is actually very similar to Chicken Paprikash.
Slovak plum dumplings are a fine late summer dessert made with those slender little Damson plums you sometimes find at the farmer’s market. Choux pastry is stuffed with the grape sized plums, boiled and then served with a dusting of sugary poppy seeds, toasted bread crumbs and melted butter. The dish takes less than 20 minutes to make, start to finish. In Slovakia you’ll find people may eat them as a meal instead of dessert.
- 12 small plums
- 1/4 cup black poppy seeds
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
- 2 tbsp melted butter
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tbsp butter
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 egg
Heat the milk and butter until hot, then sprinkle in the salt and flour, slowly mixing it in until a paste. Remove from heat, then beat in the egg until the dough pulls from the sides of the pot, and is shiny. When cool to the touch, roll out about 12 golf ball sized balls of dough.
Flatten a dough ball and place a plum in the middle of it, then pinch the dough around it and roll it in the palm of your hands to make it round again. You can pit the plums first if you like. Continue with the other plums and dough balls.
Boil a pot of water and place the dumplings in the water, plucking them out when they rise to the top of the pot, within 2-3 minutes.
Roll the dumplings in the melted butter, then in the sugar and bread crumbs. Serve them on a plate and sprinkle with ground poppy seeds (I toasted them first and then used a mortar and pestle to grind them). Slovaks use black poppy seeds, but this time I used white as that’s all I had on hand.
Jan was sound asleep in his bed when the ship he was sailing on began to vibrate violently, jolting him awake. He and the five other men in his berth awoke to find the ship fully lit, and a cold chill enveloping the room. Strangely, the heat was off and the ship was travelling faster than it ever had in the three days since it left port. His room was usually quiet but on this night he could hear a loud commotion in the boiler room. Urgent voices yelled back and forth a midst raucous clanging and banging.
Jan sprang to his feet and made his way to the deck where he joined dozens of other curious passengers and where the awful truth was soon made apparent. Another passenger ship had sunk in the frigid waters, and the Carpathia was hurriedly making its way to the rescue.
It was not unusual for Slovaks such as Jan Bohuš to travel back and forth from North America to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 1900’s. Nearly all of the 550 trans-Atlantic passengers on the Carpathia’s third class roster that night were “birds of passage,” more migrant workers than immigrants who had originally come from impoverished villages in Central Europe to find work in the United States, and who were traveling back home to visit family laden with a few goods and some hard earned cash. Most fully intended to eventually move back to their villages, and to settle down on land bought with money earned in the slave-like conditions of the mines and factories of the States. Most never did.
Crew members scurried around the ship, preparing rooms for survivors, collecting blankets, preparing soup and hot drinks, and turning the dining rooms into makeshift hospitals. Jan and the other passengers were moved together in a group, away from the hectic activities.
At 4am, the Carpathia’s engines were cut off, and a dead silence descended. Passengers on deck along with the crew strained to see something, anything, in the water around them. Finally a crew member saw a green glow coming from a flare in a lifeboat, and the ship carefully made its way towards the light. Ten minutes later Jan watched as the first survivor was hoisted onto the Carpathia; over the next four and a half hours, 711 more would be pulled aboard.
There wasn’t enough food on board for the Carpathia to continue on its way to Fiume, Hungary (now Rijeka, Croatia) with all the additional passengers, and so the ship turned around and four days later pulled back into the the Hudson River port in NYC.
Jan and the other third class passengers hung out on the ship for the next few days, enjoying three good meals a day in their own private dining room and freshly washed sheets each day; life was better on the ship than on land for most of these passengers. Finally the Carpathia set sail again, and enjoyed an uneventful voyage to Hungary.
Buried in Pauline’s book of cake recipes lies the famous Zacherova Torta, more popularly known as the Sacher Torte, named after its inventor. As with each of Pauline’s cakes, I approached this recipe by first carefully researching its origins.
As best I can tell, the cake originated in 1832 in the Austrian Empire. Prince Klemens Metternich was hosting a dinner for some very important guests. He was a stuffy, sullen old man, worried that his empire was about to collapse, and so in preparation for this elaborate affair the Prince demanded of his pastry chef, “Let there be no shame on me tonight!” As soon as he stated this, his pastry chef, quaking in his boots, fell ill, and promptly placed his 16 year old apprentice, Franz Sacher, in charge. Franz apparently rose to the occasion and whipped up a cake that was a smashing success.
Franz went on to bake for several more decades, constantly revising the cake, baking first in Bratislava, and then in Budapest. His son Eduard joined him and he too continued to work on improving the cake, first at Demel bakery and eventually at his own hotel in Vienna, the Hotel Sacher. His cigar smoking wife, Anna, said to be quite the hotelier, worked hard to promote the cake, making it famous throughout Europe. But by 1930, Anna was dead (lung cancer?) and a few years later the hotel fell into bankruptcy and changed hands. Eduard went back to Demel and began to sell the Sacher Torte from there.
The exact ingredients and cake assembly instructions have never been published. We do know that Demel’s version of the chocolate cake contains two layers of cake, each spread with apricot jam and iced with a chocolate ganache; the hotel’s version has only one layer. In 1938 a lawsuit ensued between the two places that went on for decades over the rights to the cake and its name.
It was around the time of Anna’s demise, however, that the super secret Sacher Torte recipe fell into Pauline’s hands. I was so excited, believing that I alone held the recipe that had been under lock and key in a guarded Viennese vault (I imagine) for more than a century.
Further research turned up another variation of the cake, the Sacher Masoch Torte, made with red current jelly and a marzipan coating. This cake was named after Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, the 19th century writer of the Austro Hungarian Empire who penned Venus in Furs, a novel based on his real life affair with Baroness Fanny Pistor. They travelled to Venice by train in 1869, she in first class, he in 3rd , Leopold as her willing slave who asked only that she wear furs while treating him very badly. The term “masochist” was later coined after him. (A little more digging turned up the fact that his great, great niece is Marianne Faithful, of Rolling Stones fame. Cake research turns up the most interesting stories).
I then went to YouTube and proceeded to watch the BBC’s master chef, the imitable Mary Berry, expertly whip up her version of the Sacher Torte. Mary explained that the base was a Genovese cake, filled with melted chocolate, whipped egg whites, beaten yolks and ground almonds. Her cake looked chocolatey, rich and mouth wateringly delicious. Mary warned us that this cake was difficult to make, however.
Armed with this information, I finally turned to Pauline’s recipe, ready to whip up the ultra secret Sacher Torte, intrigued to learn the mysterious ingredients and, I confess, to one up Miss Mary Berry.
Hmmm. I scanned the recipe and saw that most of the ingredients were the same as Mary’s. Except, there was no chocolate. And Pauline’s recipe had the egg whites whipped with flour and sugar and baked, like an angel food cake. The egg yolks were not folded into the batter but instead were to be cooked with sugar into a custard on the stove, and then spread inside and on top of the cake. She instructed slivered almonds to be sprinkled on top.
This must have been a very early version of the Sacher Torte, I thought, or perhaps it’s yet another variation, perhaps named after a lily white, virginal Slovak cousin of Franz Sacher’s.
Puzzled, I soldiered on with Pauline’s version of the Sacher Torte. I was kind of bummed; all this research on the deliciously dense chocolate cake had me excited. An egg white cake, not so much.
I separated the eggs and proceeded to whip the egg whites into a frenzy (Pauline’s words). As I carefully slid in the sugar and flour however, the egg whites quickly deflated and became a wet mess. Undaunted, I poured it down the drain and pulled out a carton of egg whites from the fridge and started over. This time, the egg whites wouldn’t whip at all. Down the drain these six egg whites went, and again I tried with 6 more, this time being super careful to make sure the bowl and attachment were clean and dry. Whipped again; same result. By now, I was a bit flustered. My egg whites always whipped up easily; what was wrong with me? The entire carton of egg whites was empty, so I turned to my remaining whole eggs. I was determined the egg whites wouldn’t beat me, and I was going to make this cake come hell or high water. Finally, my FOURTH batch of egg whites whipped up nicely, and I folded in the remaining ingredients and baked the damn cake.
I turned next to the egg yolks. Pauline said simply to beat them with fine sugar on the stove until thick, and then to spread it between the cake layers and on top. I figured that egg yolks would curdle easily, so I stirred and stirred the egg yolks on a double boiler. Minutes ticked by, and the eggs just remained there, bright yellow and now frothy, but not thick. One custard recipe said to make sure the temperature didn’t rise about 80 degrees Celsius, and so when it reach that temperature I took it off the stove. Still not thick. I cooled it in the fridge. Still watery. I put it back on the stove and stirred for 10 more minutes. Marginally thicker. Back in the fridge for ½ hr. No change. This time I boldly put the bloody egg yolks directly on the burner and cranked it up high. Finally, after surging past 100 degrees Celsius, the yolks began to thicken and I had custard.
By now, I had been baking for 5 laborious hours, been through 2 dozen eggs and I really didn’t care how the cake turned out. Besides, it wasn’t chocolate, and it certainly wasn’t worth keeping a secret over. Mary won.
Pauline’s Zacherova Torta Recipe:
Mix together well 6 egg-whites with 15 dg (3/4 cup) of sugar, 2 spoonfuls of cream, 15 dg (1 ¼ cups) of flour into a frenzy and bake at 350 degrees F for 35 minutes. Cook 6 egg-yolks with 15 dg ( ¾ cup) of fine sugar, until it thickens; split it in the middle, fill it and also smear it on top, and then sprinkle it with almonds that were cut it into long strips.
Pauline’s husband Jerry was an entrepreneur, always scheming up get rich quick ideas. Some worked; most didn’t. Jerry was tall and handsome with a deep, commanding voice that always intimidated me growing up. A Canadian immigrant from Yugoslavia, he spoke five languages, including English, Russian and his native Slovak, and was quite brilliant, if not completely dependable. He was a gifted engineer, often inventing machines and other gizmos; one year he invented a contraption that dried and seeded peppers to make paprika from (one of his successes), and another time he built commercial meat grinders from scratch. He sold several even though they never did quite work. Jerry was also an excellent salesman.
One December in the late 1940’s, Jerry had another one of his brilliant ideas. He said to his sons, “They celebrate Christmas in Florida, don’t they? Well, I bet they don’t have Christmas trees down there.” The next thing the family knew, Jerry had spent their last dollars purchasing trees from the nearby Kubinec farm, arranged for a train from Windsor, Ontario to Miami, Florida and loaded up three boxcars full of freshly cut Canadian evergreens.
His son Milan, no older than 8 or 9 at the time, and Jerry then jumped into the old Buick and raced down to Florida to meet the train. Along the way they stopped in Georgia at a roadside stand and bought a box of oranges and a pecan pie. Milan soon ate nearly every orange in the box until he could eat no more, and to this day he cannot stand the sight of an orange. (However, he says pecan pie is still his favorite).
Milan and Jerry greeted the train’s arrival a few days later, dollar signs dancing in their heads. With great anticipation they swung open the doors to the first boxcar. Inside were crisp, brown Christmas trees; Jerry had neglected to refrigerate the cars, and nearly all of the trees were now suited for not much more than kindle. Shoulders sunk, they dragged themselves back to the car, dejected.
After a few moments of gloomy silence, Jerry perked up and started the car. He drove around until he found an empty lot beside a seedy real estate office and negotiated a deal with the rather shady manager. Renting a truck, father and son soon hauled the crispy trees from train to lot, placing the driest trees in the middle, and the greenest evergreens around in front. And then Jerry left little Milan there alone to sell the trees, and off he went.
A little while later, Milan had to relieve himself and decided to go to the real estate office to find a toilet, leaving the trees unattended. He entered the building, and not seeing anyone in the office, timidly walked towards a door where a leather jacket hung, thinking it was the bathroom. Pushing the door open a bit, instead he found another office with a large desk, and upon the desk, the secretary. She was lying there, buck naked. Above her stood the sleazy manager, pants down, lust filling his eyes. Milan stared, motionless, and they both turned and stared back. No one moved for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, glaring, the manager hitched up his pants and took a step towards the door; Milan took a few steps back and then ran as fast as he could. It was a quick immersion in sex education.
Jerry finally returned a few hours later, and was chagrined to find that few trees had been sold. With their meager earnings in hand, they abandoned the trees, jumped in the car and drove off. The two soon arrived at the airport where they parked the car and Jerry strode purposely into the terminal, Milan following quickly behind, wondering what was going on.
Moments later they were boarding a helicopter and heading off to Cuba where they would spend the next two weeks. In typical form, Jerry had decided that since they were all the way down to Miami, they might as well make the best of the situation, and since he had always wanted to see Cuba, now seemed as good a time as any. On the first evening of their arrival in Cuba, Jerry headed out on the town for the evening (as he would do every night for the entire trip) leaving young Milan scared and alone in the dumpy hotel room, and saying, as his hand turned the knob on the door, that as long as Milan kept the door locked, he’d be safe.
Milan doesn’t remember much more of the trip except for how tasty the roasted, pulled pork sandwiches were. The rest of the family, stuck back home in Canada for the holidays, remembers a very cold Christmas with no presents and little money. But the story does get a good laugh today.