With May 1st being Labor Day in Belgium, a national holiday, we had plans for an extended weekend trip that would have started on the picturesque Lake Bled in Slovenia and ended in Venice, Italy. A couple months ago we were looking forward to kicking off the trip in a new country before (hopefully) avoiding (some of) the tourist crowds in a canal-side Airbnb rental on the island of Giudecca. Instead of walking the shores of Lake Bled, I settled for a walk around the Sonian Forest in Brussels and ended up getting my fill of Venice by browsing the aisles of the Italian grocery store in our neighborhood. Guess that means it’s time for another edition of Quarantine Kitchen in Slovenia and Venice!
I wasn’t as familiar with traditional Slovenian cuisine, but with some research I learned that it is heavily influenced by its regional neighbors: Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary. Having recently cooked meals inspired by Hungary and Northern Italy, I saw this as another opportunity to practice what I had not yet perfected. While I was pleased with my most recent pastry endeavor, I knew my Casoncelli pasta shaping skills were not great, and my previous attempt at a layer cake, the Somlói Galuska, was far from successful.
For the main dish I wanted to incorporate buckwheat because this grain is a staple on Slovenian menus. Groats (žganci) are commonly consumed, but I decided that buckwheat dumplings filled with a mixture of cottage cheese and millet porridge, known as ajdovi krapi, sounded most appealing.
Even though I have never made as much dough in my life as I have over the past few weeks, it’s clear that I am still mastering the proper ratio of wet to dry ingredients. This ravioli recipe resulted in an excess of filling, so I actually ended up making two sets of dough on two different days so as not to waste anything. On my first attempt, the dough was way too sticky, and a few raviolis were sadly sacrificed to the garbage can before they could made it into the pot (see below). On my second attempt, I increased the ratio of buckwheat to white flour and ended up with dough that was more pliable and easier for me to manage.
These were far from the prettiest of ravioli I’ve ever seen, but they did taste good, even better with the mushroom cream sauce I added on top! Let’s call it a success so I can move on to the dessert.
The Prekmurska Gibanica is a multi-layer cake, originally from the Prekmurje region of Slovenia. Its layers have poppy seeds, walnuts, cottage cheese and apples, all sweetened with sugar of course. This cake was declared one of the fifty national “birthday cakes” for the European Union’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2007 and is apparently so popular that it’s on a Slovenian national stamp.
I was ready for another attempt at layered cake, and optimistic that this one would be significantly easier. Having learned from my previous mistake of selecting a recipe that was not so easy to follow, this time I watched step-by-step directions in a YouTube video hosted by a cheerful home chef. Bonus: it looks like that in addition to getting help with your Slovenian recipes, you can reference her other videos for instructions on crocheting just about anything, including your own sweater vest!
I appreciated that she encouraged the use of store-bought phyllo dough – much easier to ask where to find it in the grocery store than to make it on my own – and when she said rum raisins were optional, I added the rum raisins. Into the oven the cake went and out came a successful layered, and this time edible, work of art. Much improved over my last layered cake attempt!
When it came time to plan the menu for Venice later that week, I was ready to embrace both a simplified process of preparation and a lighter menu. Minimalist pasta and buttery cookies were ideal after some cumbersome assembly associated with the heartier cuisine we had consumed over the past few weeks.
To achieve a simplified, but no less exciting Venetian meal, I took some time to research options for a traditional main and dessert and was pleased with the resulting recipes! Pasta was included, but this time it was topped with something quite distinct – a sardine sauce. Bigoli in Salsa, as this dish is called, gets its name from the thick spaghetti noodle used and the general term for sauce – salsa.
In this dish, salsa refers to something very specific made from only three ingredients: white onions, water, and salted sardines or anchovies. Why sardines and anchovies? These fish are native to the Venetian lagoon – that’s called eating local. I should mention that I didn’t actually use bigoli because I couldn’t find the noodles in the Italian grocer or the larger chain store, but was assured by the recipe owner that normal spaghetti works just fine if that is all that is to be found.
While the onions stewed on the stove for an hour, I got to work on the cookies – traditional Venetian Bussolai cookies. “Busa” in the Venetian dialect actually means “hole.” These ring-shaped cookies are from the island of Burano in the lagoon of Venice. My favorite part is that they are made with minimal and simple ingredients and have a beautiful lemon scent and taste.
Supposedly these cookies were baked in large quantities by the wives of fishermen and sailors; they were popular because they kept well at sea over long periods. If it were me and these cookies on a boat, preservation for a long period of time would not be a prerequisite because I would eat them all very quickly. Nowadays you’ll find them on Burano being dipped into glasses of sweet wine after dinner, although the “S” shape cookie is better suited for that.
I truly don’t think I’ve encountered an easier cookie to make that tasted this good. Rolling out the dough and shaping into circles was quite fun, and although I did make my cookies a bit on the large side, that’s not really something I would consider to be a problem. The two of us completely consumed this batch within three days! Another fantastic and easy to follow recipe to have on hand as these are absolutely going to find their way into the regular rotation of household sweets.
When I received the (out-of-date) notification on my phone reminding me of our scheduled flights for this now defunct trip, my thoughts ventured to my last visit to Venice in February of 2011. I toured while studying abroad and remember the trip being defined by a flight cancellation (a weird coincidence now), crowds and cold. I had seen Venice once, didn’t find it charming, and didn’t need to see it again. It was my first and only visit to Italy until March 2019 when we went to Rome for the weekend – another city with a “love it or hate it” reputation. I loved Rome. With some fresh perspective going into our Lake Bled and Venice trip, I realized that it was time to give the city another chance. I may not have had the opportunity to do that in person, but Quarantine Kitchen has once again allowed me to better appreciate the culture, cuisine and history of new and old acquaintances.