Bosnia and Herzegovina
Astoria – my Queens, New York neighborhood – is blessed with a level of cultural diversity that would seem like an impossible fiction to many. I remember reading a statistic when I first moved here involving the number of different native tongues spoken in one of our public elementary schools: 52. The cultural soup in which we float here is both glorious and cacophonous, delicious and utterly chaotic. I bristle at my reality when faced with a subway car bursting with wildly disparate standards of etiquette, hygiene and personal space, and I grin like a fool when gobbling down a plate of merguez, kefta, kibbeh and rice, mere blocks from my apartment, at midnight, on a Wednesday.
One of the first jewels I discovered when I moved here about six years ago was ćevapi - little, cylindrical Balkan burgers, served on a fluffy pita and smothered with what I always thought was butter (hint: it wasn’t). Astoria has a well-developed and still-growing Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian community, evidenced by the multiple restaurants serving these Balkan specialties. My favorite is Ukus on 30th Avenue, largely for their somun bread, which is fluffy, substantial and full of steamy nooks and crannies.
Well. Now it’s my turn. How hard could it be to make a hamburger? Right, Bosnia? Eh??
Ever been to England? They have this stuff called clotted cream, which is basically just the fat and solids skimmed off the top of a batch of milk. It is shamefully rich, congealed and spreadable. The Brits enjoy this atherosclerosis-inducing condiment on scones and with tea.
Many other countries have a version of this – Indians have khoya and malai, Afghanis have qymaq, Persians have sarshir and, blessedly, the Balkans have kajmak. As you can see from the image above, it’s made from simmering whole milk and cream in a double boiler (or, in my case, a small pot floating inside a large pot, secured with tin foil…) and allowing the solids to rise to the surface. Then you cool it off, skim the dense cream from the top, and season with a little salt. You end up with a pile of heart-seizing sweetness, like this:
This isn’t hard to make but it does take a couple of days of waiting and resisting the urge to stir. It also involves leaving an uncovered pot of dairy sitting unrefrigerated on your stove for about 12 hours, so if that makes you squeamish… oh well. What can I tell you. The result is well worth the effort – sweet, fresh cream flavor with a texture like whipped butter.
With the kajmak done, it was time to prep the ćevapi, which involved taking ground meat and mixing it with things. Not so hard. One trick I learned from the dudes at Salt & Fat blog was to briefly soak my minced garlic in water before mixing it with the beef and lamb, which presumably reduces its raw sharpness and the risk of dragon-breath. Also crucial is the mixing method. You don’t want to just anger-fist-clench the mincemeat, which will make for a dense, spongy, over-worked meat cylinder. Ease off, bro! Instead, use only your finger tips and lightly toss the ingredients. The idea is to have a loose, coarse mix by the end, which will cook evenly and allow the fat to render readily.
While researching ćevapi recipes, I kept running into people adding either club soda or baking soda to their meat mix. This was curious to me, so I looked it up in my McGee. From what I can understand – which is minimal, as with most things in life – club soda is basically just water and sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda. What the hell is the role of baking soda here? When mixed with an acid, baking soda turns into carbon dioxide and water. I’m pretty sure that the carbon dioxide bubbles create little air pockets in the ćevapi (keeping them light and airy) and the water keeps them juicy. Also, (and this part comes from Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy) the sodium aspect of baking soda serves to tenderize the meat, breaking down the collagen sheath around the muscle fibers in a process similar to that of, well… decay. It is a dead animal, for crying out loud. This is a mini-version of what happens in aged steak, and you know how good that is.
Anyway, back to cooking – after the meat has rested overnight in the fridge, press it out into a sheet pan and slice it into stubby cylinders, like so:
Hey, check this out: take the word “ćevapi”. Now, start replacing the consonants with known linguistic antecedents; c = k, v = b, p = b… what do we end up with? “Kebab”. Huh. Was wondering where this little-pieces-of-meat-inside-of-bread idea came from.
OK, I’m starving now. The bread dough (oh yeah, I made bread dough) has risen twice, and twice have I punched it down. It was asking for it, trust me. Separating the blob into three portions, I rolled them out into thick rounds, let them rise another twenty minutes and then blasted them into the oven.
I should note that these somun breads were the most success I have ever had with breadmaking. I’m not very good at it, and things always go wrong. These were far from perfect, but I was pretty proud of myself.
So here’s what you do:
Split a pita. Throw on some kajmak. Add a bunch of ćevapi. Serve with raw onion. Some people like to also serve this with ajvar, a Balkan red-pepper spread, but the Bosnians keep it pretty simple and, honestly, I’m making ajvar when we get to Serbia anyway.
As I mentioned, the somun bread cooked a little too long and had a little bit of an overly-yeasty flavor, which means something went wrong with my dough. Big surprise there. But man… the ćevapi were outrageous – salty, juicy, crumbly and with just the right amount of seasoning. The kajmak melted on contact with the hot bread and steaming ćevapi, slipping into what nooks and crannies actually did form and lubricating each mouthful with buttery, fatty creaminess. Deadly.
Now you go:
adapted from The Best of Croatian Cooking by Liliana Pavicic
Makes 1 1/2 cups
4 cups (= 1 quart) whole milk
2 cups (= 1 pint) heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp salt
Fashion a double boiler from two concentric pots. Fill outer pot with water until it reaches about two-thirds the way up the inner pot. Add the milk to the inner pot. Bring the water in the outer pot to a simmer. Once at a simmer, add heavy cream and salt to inner pot. Stir once. Simmer two hours.
Turn off heat. Let stand 6 hours. DO NOT STIR.
Heat the outer pot to low again, simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Turn off heat and cool to room temp. NO STIRRING AGAIN.
Put in fridge for 24 hours.
Loosen solid cream with knife. Skim using a slotted spoon or fine-mesh, mash well with a fork and serve.
update: after 1 week in the fridge it actually tastes even better – cultured, sour and smooth.
adapted from Europeancuisines.com
3 cups bread flour
2 packets dry yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 cup lukewarm water
1/2 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
Mix yeast thoroughly with the water and add the sugar. Put aside to proof for 10 to 15 minutes or until a good number of bubbles start forming.
Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients, mix well and knead for about seven minutes.
Put the dough in a warmed bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled – at least an hour. When risen, punch down and cover again. Once again, put aside to rise until doubled, usually at least another hour.
Flour a work surface and turn out the dough. With floured hands, knead the dough again briefly, then divide into three portions. Form these pieces into balls, flour them lightly, and allow them to rest for five or ten minutes. Lightly flatten them using a rolling pin to about 2/3 inch thick. Place on an upside-down, floured baking sheet and allow to rise again for another twenty minutes.
Place baking stone in the oven an preheat to 425°F. When at temperature, gently slide the dough rounds onto the baking sheet. QUICKLY – you don’t want the temperature of the stove to drop too much. Bake for five minutes (they will puff up during this time) and then lower the heat to 300°F. Bake for another 7-8 minutes.
Remove from oven and place them on a plate. Cover with a dishtowel for ten minutes or so to soften the crust. Slice open and serve.
adapted from Choosy Beggars blog
1 lb coarsely ground beef
1 lb coarsely ground lamb
1/2 cup white onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced, then soaked in water for 15 minutes, then drained
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 tsp baking soda
salt and pepper to taste (start with 1 tsp of each)
additional sliced onion for serving
Add onion, soaked garlic and parsley to the meats in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Mix the baking soda with the hot tap water and pour that in with the meat. Gently combine – you’ll want to use a light touch and never smash the meat – think of it as tossing a salad. You’ll want the mixture to stay fairly loose and coarse.
Pour the mixture out onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Press down with another pan to spread out into a uniform layer. Make sure it’s even! Put the meat mixture back in the fridge and let sit overnight.
Using a knife or a pizza cutter, cut lines into the meat patty which will yield small sausages roughly 1-inch by two-inches. Press hard, to get through the fat and fibers. Heat your grill or grill pan to medium high. A few at a time, cook these little dudes for about 2-3 minutes per side, turning as needed, until they are at about medium doneness.
Serve immediately with somun and kajmak!