Cooking for the Pope – Traditional Czech Recipes
On a spectacular spring day this past June, Lily and I were picked up early in the morning by Petr, our own private taxi driver, and driven out into the countryside near Ptice, about 30km southeast of Prague. We were going to spend the day cooking with an award winning Czech chef from U Golema, a restaurant located in the former Jewish Ghetto section of Prague. I had wanted to learn how to make authentic Czech dishes and my former exchange student, Igor, had arranged for the chef Peter Vesely, a friend of a friend, to teach us.
Petr the driver drove us through one small village after another, past fields of glorious yellow rapeseed, and up and down hills and valleys. After an hour’s drive and a few wrong turns, we pulled into a long driveway, and up to a lovely house with a red clay tile roof perched up on a ridge, with a view of endless trees and mountains. The sprawling lawn was dotted with blooming gardens and lilac bushes, a working well and an inviting pool. I was tempted to dive right into the pool, but I knew we had work in the kitchen to do.
Peter has been cooking his whole life. He loves to cook traditional Czech food, and he had planned a full day of cooking and eating for us. The menu was extensive, and Lily and I worried momentarily about whether we could actually eat all of the food we were about to prepare.
- Bramborová Polévka – Potato Soup
- Sviečková na Smotane and Bramboráčky – Beef with Cream Sauce, served with Potato Pancakes
- Hovězí Guláš – Goulash, also served with a side of Potato Pancakes
- Kachna with Kyselé Kraut and Houskové Knedlíky – Duck with Kraut and Dumplings
- Palačinky – Pancakes with Blueberry Sauce and Cream
However, we quickly dismissed our concerns, loosened our belts, and decided we would endure the food for the pleasure of Pauline’s Cookbook readers. But first, we had a cup of coffee and a discussion of the day’s plan while sitting on the veranda by the pool, along with Blanka, Peter’s wife and chief bottle washer.
As we walked back into the kitchen, I noticed a picture on the wall of the Pope, and he was shaking the hand of our very own Peter. It turns out that Peter has cooked for Pope John Paul II on three separate occasions. We loosened our belts another notch, preparing ourselves for a very indulgent day of rich, tasty Czech food; if it was good enough for the Pope to want to come back for seconds and thirds, it was sure to be divine to us.
Peter started the day of the cooking extravaganza with the cream sauce for the beef. It quickly became apparent that the cooking lesson was going to be more of a day of observing Peter cooking; he isn’t a teacher, and he doesn’t speak a word of English. Not to worry; Lily speaks Slovak and translated with the help of Blanka while taking pictures of the master at work, and I scrambled to take notes and pictures as he moved around the kitchen at a brisk pace, chopping, stirring, braising and pouring.
The most difficult task for me was knowing what dish Peter was working on. At any given time there were four pots going on the stove, and he moved from pot to pot seamlessly, chopping onions and garlic for the goulash while he sautéed the vegetable mix for the beef sauce, seasoned the duck, or made a bouquet garni for another sauce. And when the clock passed noon and we switched from drinking coffee to wine, it became even trickier to follow.
Below are the recipes I captured as Peter the master chef whirled around the kitchen for over eight hours, with Blanka and Lily hovering inches behind him, the dog plopped smack in the middle of the tiny kitchen floor, oblivious to the activity around him, and me sitting at the kitchen table writing furiously trying to get all the recipes straight. The air was filled with music and aroma, as the radio blared nonstop hits from the ‘60’s, to the 80’s – the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, Relax by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Be My Baby by the Ronettes, and the kitchen smelled alternately of the fragrance of allspice, lemon, garlic and cumin. The red wine flowed and we all talked, cooked, drank, ate, sang and laughed our way through the day. And the food was indeed divine.
How many people do these recipes serve? It’s a hard question to answer, as it definitely served the four of us, and we had large quantities left over. I would guess that you could serve at least eight people easily with each of these dishes.
Sviečková na Smotane
Peter chopped a large rutabaga, a couple of parsnips and eight carrots, and dropped them into a pot with 1/3 cup of sunflower oil and a couple of large pieces of bacon skin. He made a bouquet garni of whole peppers, allspice and bay leaves, tied up in a piece of white cotton gauze with black string. He dropped it into the sizzling vegetables and continued to brown the vegetables, and then dropped in two large chunks of beef, pushing the vegetables to the side, and browned the meat on all sides. He added salt, about 3 cups of water, and then covered the pot with a lid. A little while later he added the zest of 3 lemons. After about an hour, he removed the meat, and then added 2 spoons of grainy mustard to the pot, the juice of 3 lemons, a roux of ½ c flour and 1/2c water, 2 pints of cream, and 1-2 heaping tbsp of sugar.
He served the beef with the cream sauce and potato pancake, and a dollop of blackberry relish.
Bramboráčky – “White Death”
Peter says these potato pancakes with bacon are called “White Death”, as they are decadent and not exactly heart healthy. Peter grated 4 raw potatoes along with several cloves of garlic, and drained it. He added 1/2 c of milk, an egg, a pinch of salt, a tsp of marjoram, and ¼ cup of flour (mouka hladka – smooth, all purpose flour). Optionally, you can add cooked, chopped bacon to the batter. Form the batter into pankcakes with your hands, and fry them in hot sunflower oil, about ½ inch in the frying pan. Brown on both sides.
To serve the beef, he sliced the meat into ¼ inch slices, then poured the sweet and sour sauce on top and to the side, served with the potato pancakes.
Peter sliced the parsnip into small ½ inch pieces, on an angle, and then chopped mushrooms and potatoes into small cubes as well. He grated 6 garlic cloves, and then put it all into a pot with about 6-8 cups of water (the pot was half full) and added in chopped bacon. Peter added 1tbsp of celery root spice and ¼ cup of dried mushrooms, chopped. After about 45 minutes, he added a roux of sunflower oil and flour whisked in (about 1/2 cup each), and then seasoned the soup further with marjoram – about ¼ cup, and salt and pepper. At some point he added another cup or so of water to the soup. He cooked the soup in total for about 1.5 hrs.
Before serving, he added chopped chives into the soup pot.
Hmmm… I don’t seem to have the complete recipe for this. I will work on getting this one from Peter. I must’ve been drinking too much wine at this point.
Peter took the innards out of the duck, and placed them on the bottom of the roasting pan. He then seasoned the duck inside and out with salt and pepper, and ½ package of cumin seeds on the outside of the duck. He added ½ inch of water in the roasting pan, placed the duck on top of the innards, and the top on the pan. He roasted it at 260 degrees C (500F) for about 30 minutes to 45 minutes, then at 200 degrees C (400F) for 1 to 1.5 hrs longer. After 45 minutes, he basted the duck with the juices, and he did this a couple of more times, and had a total cooking time of at least 2 hours.
Peter took a package of sauerkraut and drained it and then chopped it. He sautéed an onion that was chopped: about 1/3 of a cup. He added the kraut to the onion, sprinkled it with coarse flour (about 1/4 cup), then added 2-3 tbsp sugar, 1-2 tbsp cumin, some water (1/2 cup?), and over the course of stirring it, he added another 1-2 tbsp flour.
Knedliky is a starch used in place of bread and potatoes in a meal. It’s really boiled bread, and Peter used it in two different dishes, serving it with the duck and with the goulash.
Peter mixed 1/2 cube of fresh yeast (or 1 package dry yeast) with 1 cup of warm milk, then folded in ½ kilo of flour (mouka hladka) and an egg. He kneaded the mixture together about 10 times on a floured board, and then worked in 2 cups of bread cubes (dry and white). He kneaded the whole mixture together again for another 3-5 minutes. Peter then divided the whole thing into 3 equal pieces, and rolled each into large logs. He boiled them in a large pot of boiling water for ½ hr.
To serve the knedliky dumplings, he sliced it into ½ inch slices, and plated it, spooning the meat sauce partially on top.
To re-heat the dumplings, place sliced pieces in a small plastic bag and microwave closed for 1 minute.
Peter mixed 2 cups of milk with about 1 cup of all purpose flour, 2 packages of vanilla sugar, 1 cube of fresh yeast (or 1 package dry), and 1 egg. He heated the special pancake frying pan with sunflower oil, and fried the pancakes, 4 at a time.
To serve the palacinky, Peter whipped 2 cups of cream with ½ cup of icing sugar, to stiff peaks. He spooned generous amounts of the whipped cream with a dollop of blueberry jam, and the dessert was delicious. Even eating the pancakes the next day without garnishment was tasty.