My grandmother was from Serbia, part of the Yugoslavian union at the time she came to the US. She did not become a US citizen until I was 12 years old. She spoke the Rusyn dialect with her children, including my father who was born in the US, and her English was broken and strongly accented all her life. Grandma was a wonderful pastry baker. Her desserts were many, and some are recalled mainly as Christmas pastries.
In my mind, Nut Pita is one of the recipes always associated with Christmas. It is not a very sweet dessert, but is quite rich. My grandmothers Nut Pita is two layers of unsweetened pastry dough, with a ground walnut, egg and sugar filling. The fillings could also be meat fillings, cheese or fruit. Pita means pie in Serbian, and I understand that the pastry part of these pies is generally a puff pastry dough or fillo dough. Pie can be interpreted as anything made with a crust, usually on the bottom, and sometimes also on top of a filling. Fillings may be sweet or savory. In Grandmas Nut Pita, the filling was made with a dozen eggs, separated. The whites were whipped separately and folded into the yolks, sugar and ground nuts. The pastry she made was with yeast, though not puff pastry type dough. It was rolled to fit a 13 x 9 inch pan, the filling went in and this was topped with another layer of the pastry. After baking, it was always sliced into diamond shapes, brushed with vanilla and then sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Kifli, Kiflicke, Kiefele
I am not sure of the spelling of these little pastries. The pastry part of these is rich and flaky, but not sweet dough. It is rolled out to small squares or circles and a filling is placed in the center, opposite sides or corners are pulled together and they are baked. The fillings in the center that I most recall are Prune Lekvar, a smooth puree of cooked prunes, and Apricot filling. Either of these two fillings is simple to make. Simply take pitted dry fruits and a small amount of water with some lemon rind and simmer until all the water has boiled down. Puree in the food processor until smooth with sugar, to taste. It makes a wonderful filling, and even tastes great spread on toast. The dough is light and flaky and the fillings are delicious.
I have not had a strudel like my grandmas since the last time I saw her, a very long time ago. I have ordered strudel in restaurants, and since they are usually German restaurants, the pastry part was a thicker and more bread like dough. Grandma’s strudel was made by stretching her dough to cover the entire kitchen table, with an overhang of at least 12 inches. It was stretched so thin you could read a newspaper through the dough. She would sprinkle on one of various types of sweetened fillings, such as poppy seed, ground walnuts, apples, cheese, and even cabbage. It always seemed there would not be enough filling, as it was spread so thin, but the dough was also very thin, so it was always perfect. Grandmas strudel was not only for holidays, but was always present in her house.
Little dough balls, soaked with hot water and mixed with honey and ground poppy seeds. Unless one has grown up eating this dessert, it seems hard to enjoy. We of the family find these little balls totally irresistible. Grandmas version is sweet with all the honey, but I have seen savory versions out there also. It seems so many of the desserts I grew up with are also known in savory versions.
I am very lucky to have grown up in a family with such a rich heritage. Like most children it is easy to take for granted the culture and food traditions that become part of your life. Too many children today want to skip the traditional foods of their families and head to the local fast food restaurant. My Grandparents often said, “With age comes wisdom”. It took me many years to realize they are right and I am now trying to pass these traditions on to you.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it was informative and helped you along your own culinary journey.