Monday, December 27, 2010

What's for Christmas Eve Dinner, Christmas Morning Brunch?

We had members of our Fulbright Family join us for two days of celebrations and 5-star cuisine over the holidays.  Since Mark's family is half Swedish, they always have a big Christmas Eve dinner (Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, etc.).
In the Czech Republic, the dinner is on Christmas day. After hours of waiting (and usually not eating anything at all), the family might go for a walk in the late afternoon and watch for the first star to light the sky or, if it is cloudy weather, they might retreat to the forest and feed the wild animals before coming back inside for dinner.  The traditional Czech dinner, in fact throughout the entire former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and parts of Poland), consists of fried carp and/or perhaps carp soup along with potato salad. The carp of course, comes from the numerous historic fish ponds throughout the country and concentrated near Trebon (see earlier postings). Once caught, the fish are kept in very cold water for 2-4 weeks which removes the typical 'fishy' taste. We've tried some before in Trebon and it really tastes like Sea Bass!
This year, however, we chose to go with some twists on traditional meals (we'll have carp on New Year's Eve....prepared in a traditional Bohemian way--watch for that posting soon!). 
For Christmas Eve dinner, we (5 of us) started with appetizers such as garlic shrimp, foie gras (from France; purchased at the Trebon Christmas Market), pate with red peppers, caramelized onions and winter squash, special French cheese (Comte; goat cheese), French bread, paired with Italian Seco.
Then it was on to the salad course of buttery lettuce with ruby tones (green/red!), fresh pomegranate seeds, dried cranberries that had been soaked in Brusinka or cranberry liqeur (see earlier posting), fresh pears, roasted pecans, Roquefort cheese (thanks, France!) and a special French dressing (using the recipe in loving memory of Rose Ascher).
[Note:  all photos in this posting are courtesy of Sharon. Many thanks!].
After that it was time for the main course of Christmas goose (roasted with garlic, Shallots, white wine from Cyril's wine cellar in Moravia--Verten Green, thyme), a reduction made from the drippings, roasted butternut winter squash (that we were so happy to find at Tesco the other day), steamed fresh Scarlet Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus; popular European string beans due to their cold tolerance), paired of course with European wines (thanks to our Fulbright Sommeliers!).
And then....dessert of Quince Frangipani Tart (see earlier posting) with whipped cream of lemon zest and lemoncello.  Ahhhh.....bon appetit!

The rest of the evening was spent chatting up a storm, sipping Brusinka and Vajeci (on earlier posts) and eating the many delicious treats like Czech ginger bread, truffles, Marzipan, etc.

The next day, we all slept in and slowly drifted into the morning with coffee and fresh fruits (apricots from S. Africa, pears, pomegranates).  Then it was time to cook Christmas Morning Brunch. Someone had the inspiration for caramelized onion tart, so we quickly formulated one with fresh mushrooms, Comte cheese, fresh basil, roasted red pepper (I'm hearing red and green again), drenched with fresh eggs / Smetana (cream) and, yes.....caramelized butternut winter squash that had been cut into fun shapes for the holidays.
All one has to do is peel the butternut squash (with a peeler, not a knife!!). Then cut into 1/4" thick slices and then make the forms...
 Then put into an oiled pan (olive oil!), a bit of salt and pepper to taste, sear them quickly and then they're done.

Here it is ready to put into the oven:

 Along with this we had smoked Anglicky Slanina (English bacon), coupled with Vanocke (in front below, made by one of Neil's colleagues) and our Swedish Coffee braid (background) and topped with either butter or our plum jams. Also, some of our Fulbright Family had brought us some Dresden Stollen, direct from Germany (this one was more like Mohnkuechen--poppyseed cake). So tasty!
This meal held us for the rest of the day while we showed the town to our Fulbright guests (there's a funny story with this trip, but never mind...). Then Mark and Neil went off to Hluboka to see the Castle in snow (previous posting).

Veselé Vánoce!  The merriest of Christmases ever!

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

Greetings from Hluboká Castle or Chateaux, 25 Dec. 2010!

The Hluboká Castle or Chateaux was built in the 13th century by Bohemian Kings and has had many owners through time--including the Schwarzenbergs--and one who built the second-largest historic fish pond in S. Bohemia, Bezdrev, in the late 1400s. It has gone through numerous remodelings (Gothic, neo-Gothic to Renaissance) to reflect the times, passions, and preferences of the owners...with the last remodeling reflecting Windsor Castle.

Hluboká Castle is located right near us, approx. 10 km (6 m) away, just north of Ceske Budejovice. The Castle is a fortress (with a great surrounding wall) on a hill overlooking the town of Hluboká with astounding views of the surrounding area in the České Budějovice BasinThe last owner left before the Nazi invasion of the country. It is now owned by the State and administered by the National Institute of Historical Monument Care, Regional Specialist Office in České Budějovice. 

It was a snowy 25 December afternoon, so we decided to head out here and see the white castle (no pun intended, Minnesotans!) asleep in the snow. The Czech Castles are usually 'asleep' during the winter months, shuttered and closed, but people can walk around and enjoy the ambience of royal living and view the garden landscapes in winter dress. This castle actually has a few winter tours and the Art Gallery is also open during the wintertime.

Here the hedges and sculptured yew or Taxus highlight the snow that's falling today:
Frozen fruits of ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, hang as reminders of the past summer that was with hopes of a soon-dawning spring:
Let's walk around the castle grounds and see what delights we can see highlighted in the snows...
The main clock tower (a clock on each of four sides) overlooks the entire castle complex.
There are towers on each corner...
The Castle Chapel looks cold but aspiring (inside there is a library with 12,000 books!):
At this entrance, the multilevel porches are accessible with circular, wrought iron staircases...all with commanding views of the countryside of the České Budějovice Basin and to watch for invading marauders to our castle...
Imagine the fun garden parties we can host here next spring....come on in through this gorgeous door!
Notice the elaborate gargoyle drains from the porch roof:
The front doors of the Castle are massive wooden entrances, highlighted with numerous ornamentations
such as these door handles. Can anyone guess why there is a large bird pecking these guys' heads? It's a common theme in S. Bohemia (a statue of birds doing such things is in the courtyard of the Rzmberk Castle in Trebon).  You'll have to come visit and tour the Castle to find out!

To protect guests and family from the cold and snow, how about glass walkways to go from the castle to the glasshouse or 'Orangerie' and then to the Art Gallery?
The very heavy doors of the Orangerie were open, despite the cold, so we ventured inside to view the ornate greenhouse architecture and see what was being exhibited at the Art Gallery. While we didn't find a date for it, based on the glass type and glazing, we figure the Orangerie was built sometime in the mid-1800s or so, certainly after Lord & Burnham (U.K.) discovered embedding glass into putty (glazing).
Closeups of the overlapped glass panes and the ornate structural components of the sideposts:
 Inside the Organerie, are massive mature ivy specimens which survive, despite the cold (this is NOT heated!)
 Here's the bill posting the current exhibition
in the Art Gallery:

In the beauty and silence of our sleepy castle, the landscapes wait as the days lengthen, soon to burst forth.  Join us later in the spring when this becomes verdant Castle living again!
For further information on the Hluboká Castle or Chateaux, consult their website:

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Quince (kdoule) Frangipani Tart

As the quince, that we got from the Penzion in Lednice (see earlier postings), slowly ripened we had an idea that it would be grand if poached and then made into a Frangipani Tart. Usually we poach pears from our trees in St. Paul and make a Frangipani Tart from those, but the ruby-colored quince would be quite the thing for a festive holiday dessert!

Quince (kdoule) Frangipani Tart

So, we poached peeled 4 quince (coring comes later after they're poached....they're rock-hard inside) in 1liter of Bohemian Seco from Old Plzen, along with zest and juice from 1 lemon, two small stick of cinnamon, and 1 vanilla bean split open (and scraped to get the seed pod contents into the liquid. Poach these slowly for 3-4 hours until the quince are tender but not soft.  Drain and cool.

The liquid should be a lovely ruby color by now (remember that quince oxidize while cooking, turning the tannins into anthocyanins; see earlier posting!). Remove cinnamon stick and vanilla bean halves; slowly reduce the liquid until you have a nice thick reduction sauce. Save this for drizzling over the top of the tarts once they're baked.

Now it's time to make the frangipani portion, which is almond paste (or thin Marzipan) as a base.  Whir in your food processor either 500 g Marzipan or 2 cups roasted, blanched almonds, 1 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp. almond extract, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup Vajecny (Bohemian egg nog) or heavy cream. 
Have a sip of Vajecny while this is blending, if need be!

Then prepare your Pate Brisee (see earlier postings for recipe, if you need it) dough. Roll it out and put into small tart pans. We're making 4 tarts, for which you will only need 4 poached quince halves:
Pour the Frangipani mixture evenly into all of your tart pans, such that a layer ~0.5 - 1" thick layer is present at the bottom of each tart pan.

Next, cut the poached quince in half lengthwise. Scoop out the stem and ovaries/seeds as well as any hard sclerenchyma tissue (quince have these hard sclereids just like pears do....). You see how the quince turns ruby in color after cooking:
Take the quince and carefully slice it in very thin slices until the half is completely sliced. You'll need a very sharp knife to do this with. Then, gently lift the entire half section of sliced quince up
and place it into the tart shells. Fan the thin slices out and gently push them down into the Frangipani mixture but do not completely cover them.
Bake at 325-350F or ~150C for 1.5 hours or until browned and a toothpick inserted into the Frangipani comes out clean.  Cool.

 Then, warm the reduction that you have already made....such a lovely ruby color, eh?!
And drizzle it over the tops of the tarts.
Voila!  Quince Frangipani Tart....
Whip up some heavy cream with sugar and lemoncello liquer and serve on the side along with a slice of the tart.
Happy eating!

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Swedish Coffee Braid with Czech Twists

Neil's Mother always made Swedish Coffee Braid for Christmas morning, even though we aren't Swedish! Mark's Dad's family is Swedish, so it all comes full circle. At any rate, Neil loves to make this bread in loving memory of dear Mother, Beatrice.  Every year, though it seems, the recipe gets modified a bit to fit in with the current year's events or, for instance, where we're living!

So, we were pleased to learn about the traditional Czech bread, Vanocka (see earlier posting) which is also braided. Vanocka has a lot of history connected with it since the 16th century with all kinds of traditions that transcend just making a special bread. For more information, please read more about it at this link:

To celebrate where we are and transform a traditional bread with new, extended meanings here's this year's Swedish Coffee Braid with hats off to Beatrice, Czech cranberries, southern pecans (thanks, Judy!), and Marzipan (Austria, Germany, Czech)...

Roast 150 g of southern U.S. pecans (Carya illinoensis) in the oven at 100-125C (~300-325F) until toasted; quickly remove from oven before they burn. Set aside ~15 or so roasted nuts for topping later; the rest need to be ground fairly fine. Set aside.
Mix together 1.5 cups lukewarm milk, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cardamon (ground) and 1 tablespoon yeast. Let the yeast begin to work until it is foamy on the top. In a large mixing bowl, to this add 1/2 cup soft butter, zest and juice from 1 orange, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup rum, 1/2 tsp. salt, and the roasted nuts. Add in flour (fine) until the dough can be worked with your hands to knead without sticking (~3.75-4.0 cups or ~250-300 g).
Let rise in a warm, moist place for ~1-1.5 hours until doubled in size; punch it down and let it rise again.
Cut dough, on a floured surface, into two equal sized pieces. With each piece, divide into 3 equal parts. Roll each one with the palm of your hand until they are ~0.3 m in length (~1 foot). Braid these together and place onto a greased baking pan. Let rise another 0.5 hours...again, in a warm, humid place. Heat oven to 125C or ~325F. Brush a beaten egg with zest from 1 orange onto the outer surface of the braids. Bake in the oven until crunchy brown (they're done when the bottom of each braid is brown). Cool.

Meanwhile, take ~1 cup of dried Czech cranberries and soak them in 1/2 cup of cranberry liquer, Brusinka (made in Trebon....see earlier posting) until the cranberries have swelled in size.
Have a glass of Brusinka while they're soaking. Also make an icing from the juice of the orange you just zested for the egg wash (above); add enough powdered sugar (Cukr moucka) to this to make a fairly stiff icing (it will run a bit after putting it on the braids, so don't worry).

When the braids are cooled and you've consumed the Brusinka, spoon or brush the orange icing across the tops of the braids, particularly the edges so that it will drip and run down. Also, fill the valley in the middle when the braids come together. Now place in the roasted pecans as ornamentation, the Brusinka soaked cranberries, and add in a few choice Marzipan (see earlier posting) that you have made (we used the fruit ones). Sprinkle with snowy stars, if you like.
When they're completely cooled after a few hours and you recover from the Brusinka either place the braids on platters or, if you're giving these away as treats for someone special, then we make quick supports from cardboard
and covered with aluminum foil:
Here's our 6 loaves we made the other day for giving away to our dear hosts here in the Czech Republic.
Slice and eat with freshly churned butter (maslo) or add on some homemade jam to complement the savory sensations that will fuse your memories with the current sensory delights you will enjoy!
Dubro chut' or Bon Appetit!
Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.