Monday, December 22, 2008

An elegant Christmas cookie with many names!

A cookie that is so elegant and delectable deserves a lot of attention and more than one name, right?

Venetians, Italian Flag Cookies, Seven-Layer Cookies and Rainbow Cookies. These are the names given to a jewel-like cookie that hails from Italy and is typically baked during the Christmas season.

They are sometimes called Venetians, because their colourful layers bring to mind the luminous stained glass of Venice and Murano. Tint the marzipan layers green and red (with one remaining white) and TaDah - you have the Italian flag, hence Italian Flag Cookies. Count the layers, including jam and chocolate, and you have seven layers. Rainbow Cookies - well that's too obvious! Personally, I like to call them Venetians, because they evoke the grandeur and wealth of Venice, a brilliant diamond on the Adriatic Sea.

The basis of this cookie is almond paste. It produces a dough that is thick and very moist. Although a little time consuming, you will be gifted with little gems that will steal the show in any cookie gift box or tray. Fortunately, it won't take you as long to make them as it would stained glass!

I found this recipe years ago in Gourmet magazine (December, 1999). I have made a couple of changes which simplifies the method a little. You will need three 13 x 9 inch metal baking pans, so I suggest you beg, borrow or steal from the neighbors' if you need to!


You will need:

7 ounces almond paste

1 cup sugar

3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 drops green food coloring (or more to reach desired color)

5 drops red food coloring (or more to reach desired color)

2-3 drops yellow food coloring (or you can leave the batter untinted)

1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam or smooth apricot jam (warm it then press through a sieve to remove lumps)

6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

This is how to make them:
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease 3 13x9 inch metal baking pans with spray oil. Place each pan on three pieces of waxed paper. Outline the bottom of the pans in pencil. Cut out the shapes and place waxed paper on the inside of the greased pans. Than, flip the waxed paper over in each pan, and voila, both sides of the waxed paper will be greased.

Break almond paste into small chunks and place in food processor. Add the sugar and process until no lumps remain. Transfer to your mixer bowl and add butter. Beat until light and fluffy for about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well, stopping every minute or so to scrape down sides of bowl. This will take about 5 minutes. On lowest speed, add almond extract, flour and salt. Don't beat too much at this point or you'll lose all the air that your beaters have incorporated into the batter.

Divide the batter into thirds (about 1 1/2 - 2 cups each). To each third add red, green and yellow coloring and carefully blend into each batter, scooping the batter up from the bottom and lifting it to the top. Do not beat the batters. Spread each batter separately into the three pans and even out the top with a spatula (I use a small offset spatula). The layers will be thin, so reach for the corners!

Bake layers individually in middle of oven until just set and the edges are beginning to brown, about 7 - 10 minutes. For each layer: let rest for 5 minutes on rack then invert onto another rack. Carefully remove wax paper and cool completely. You should assemble the layers on the same day as you bake them so that the layers bind properly.

Line a large tray or cutting board with wax paper (this will allow you to cut the cookies easily). Carefully slide green cookie layer onto it. Spread 1/4 cup of jam evenly on top. Scrape off any excess jam. You want a very thin layer of jam so that the cookie layers don't slide off each other when you cut the cookie shapes. Top it with the yellow layer and spread with the rest of the 1/4 cup jam. Scrape off excess jam. Top with red layer. Cover with plastic wrap and a hard-cover book to weight it down. Set aside for at least three hours and up to 3 days. The longer it is allowed to sit, the better the layers with stick to each other. There is no need to refrigerate it.

Pretty layers

A few hours before serving, melt chocolate chips in a double boiler or microwave. Stir gently until smooth. Remove weight and plastic from cookie layers and pour chocolate on top. Spread top with offset spatula. Let stand at room temperature until almost set. You will see parts of the chocolate drying. With a long, sharp knife, trim the edges and save for snacking.

Trim the edges and slice

To cut: Use a long, sharp knife. Clean and dry knife after every cut. Cut into small (1 x 1 inch) squares, rectangles or diamond shapes using a smooth downward motion - do not move knife up and down. To cut diamond shapes, cut at 1-inch intervals lengthwise and then at 1-inch intervals on the diagonal. Makes about 7 dozen.

Merry Christmas to all, and all of the best in the coming year!


Friday, December 19, 2008

My First Blog Post!

Sretna Slava!

It is fitting to me that my first blog is about the most important of Serbian traditions, Slava. Slava is unique to Serbian people. Instead of celebrating birthdays or name days, every Serbian family has a patron saint that they believe protects and guides them, and they in turn celebrate his life on his birthday. Slava came to being when our ancestors became Christians in the 9th Century. Tribes or families replaced the pagan gods with a Christian patron saint. The date of their baptism determined the patron saint. Historically, Slava gave hope and courage to the Serbian people during their long-suffering and turbulent history.

My family Slava is Saint Nicholas, or Sveti Nikola. Sveti Nikola is celebrated by many Serbs all over the world today, December 19. Sveti Nikola is well known for his many miracles and generosity, especially to children. The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas is a result of his, and the Three Wise Men's, benevolence. He is known in other parts of the world as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and San Nicola, to name a few.

Now some of you may argue that St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6 every year. That is correct, if your religious calendar is determined by the Gregorian Calendar (decreed by Pope Gregory in the 16th Century). The Eastern Orthodox Church's liturgical calendar follows the original Julian Calendar, approved by none other than Julius Caesar himself. The thirteen day lag affects the date of our Christmas as well, but we'll discuss that on January 7th!

It is a great time of excitement for us as Slava approaches. My family, with my parents as hosts, prepares a feast including zito (koljivo), a mixture of wheat berries, walnuts, sugar, vanilla and sometimes dried fruit and honey. Zito is symbolic of death and resurrection and is prepared at every commemorative event. The Slavski Kolac is a bread decorated with a wreath, the cross, wheat, grapes, the Serbian seal and a dove, symbolic of Jesus Christ, health, growth, harmony and prosperity. Traditionally, the priest comes to the home and leads the family and friends in a short ceremony. At one point, he cuts the underside of the bread in the shape of a cross and sprinkles it with wine, a symbol of Christ's precious blood. After the solemn portion of the evening comes the joy and merriment as we eat, drink and dance to variations of the Kolo.

Now, I understand that the average American has no reason to make this bread with all of its embellishments! Just ignore the decorative aspects and bake the dough in a couple of large bread pans or shape it in a round country-style loaf on a sheet pan. Your kitchen will be filled with the warmth of a village bakery! "No kneading", you say! The act of kneading dough, my friends, is very therapeutic (and cheap!). All it takes is a little practice. won't want to miss this bread fresh out of the oven with some rich salty butter. Irresistible!

Here is my version of the Slavski Kolac I baked yesterday. It is based on a recipe from From Our Mother's Kitchen, published by the St. Elijah Serbian Sisters Circle in Merrillville, Indiana.

Slavski Kolac (Slava Bread)

You will need:

3 envelopes dry active yeast (3/4 oz. total)
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups water
3 tablespoons margarine (never on my list of baking ingredients, but in this case, a necessity. Saint Nicholas Slava falls during the Nativity Fast, during which no animal products are to be consumed).
4 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons salt
8 - 9 cups all-purpose flour
Olive oil

This is how you make it:
Pour 1/2 cup water and 1 teaspoon sugar into a large bowl (preferably from a mixer). Sprinkle yeast on top and allow to proof (become active) for a few minutes.

The proofed yeast

In the meantime, mix 3 cups water, margarine, 4 tablespoons sugar and salt in a glass measuring cup. Microwave until margarine is melted and the mixture measures about 115F.

With the paddle attachment on the mixer on low speed (or by hand) add about half of the flour to yeast, then quickly add half of the water, more flour, the rest of the water, and end with the flour. Mix until all ingredients are combined and you have a sticky mass.

Dump the mass on a well-floured surface and knead for about 5-10 minutes, adding extra flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. The dough should stay soft and smooth and slightly sticky.

Knead me!

Grease a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl and flip it over so it is completely covered with oil. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and allow it to double in size in a warm area of your kitchen. This will take between one and two hours, depending on the yeast you used (it will rise faster with Rapid Rise Yeast).

When double in size, 'pour' the dough onto your well-floured surface and re-knead, adding more flour, a little at a time. It will be very soft, so knead it until it is no longer very sticky. Shape it in a round flattish ball and cut it into quarters. Grease a 9 or 10-inch baking pan with high sides (mine is 4 inches high) with olive oil. With greased hands, take one of the quarters of dough and shape it into a ball. Place it next to the side in the pan. Repeat with two more quarters and nestle them in with the first ball. You should have three balls, side by side. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel and allow it to rise until it almost reaches the top of the pan (about 30-40 minutes). Preheat the oven to 400F, with rack towards the bottom third.

Waiting for the wreath and other accoutrements.

In the meantime, make the embellishments for the top of the Slavski Kolac, with the remaining quarter of dough. You will make a braid for the wreath, a dove, a cluster of grapes, a cross, and the Serbian Seal. Add more flour to the dough to make it easier to shape and knead for a few minutes. Cut three pieces for the braid and roll each one in the palms of your hands until you get a long string, about 18 inches long. Place side by side on the counter and pinch the three ends together. Braid the dough to the ends. Even off the ends. Use remaining dough for the cross, etc.

When the dough has risen, carefully place the braid along the circumference of the dough/pan. The dough for the cross goes in the middle. Please refer to the photographs for the placement of the rest of the decorative elements. Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes. If the bread is well-browned at this point, cover it loosely with foil. Reduce the oven to 350F and continue to bake for about 35 - 45 minutes more. When done, place pan on rack to cool for 15 minutes. Remove bread from pan display proudly!

Crusty and delicious!

To my friends from the former Yugoslavia: I apologize for the absence of diacritic marks on some of the letters. I'll figure out how to include them soon so that my future posts are much easier to read!

And to my friends and family who encouraged me to start blogging, thanks for your patience while I figure out how to steer this beast!