Bryndzové Halušky, Slovakia’s National Dish

Posted by Florian in Meat, Recipes, Slovak Food, tagged with , , , ,

Bryndzové halušky can be called Slovakia’s national dish without too much debate. This dish of potato spaetzle/gnocchi topped with a sheep’s milk cheese sauce and fried bacon is available in every other Slovak restaurant, if not more. Halušky have their own songs (I’ll let you google them) and their very own festival, Halušky Fest in Turecká. The latter starts in a few days, and if you can’t make it to Slovakia in time, I recommend watching the video on the web site to get an idea of what you’re missing, including the Slovak and European Championship of Halušky Making and Eating, “an unforgettable cultural experience”. You may want to start planning (and training) for next year.

Looking at pictures of bryndzové halušky, though, one must observe that it often looks about as appetizing as dog food. Remember the Koliba debacle? Something must be done. So let’s start with how not to make halušky. For reference, see this video below. Cutting large pieces of a potato dough that looks like food glue is guaranteed to get results as inedible as Koliba’s. And can anybody explain to me what the boiled potato is for in this recipe?

You might think that this is how halušky are always made, that your grandmother made them that way just like her own grandmother before her, and that I’m just an urban food snob who has never experienced the joy of coming home to a hot plate of denser-than-concrete halušky after a hard day spent working in the high pastures of the Tatras or the factory in some forgotten communist industrial town or the IT sweatshop in the suburbs of Bratislava. And you would be wrong at least on the first count. I have irrefutable proof that real halušky can be made infinitely better than this. Just look at the following picture, taken at the Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar, a pub in the capital’s center. No big blobs of undercooked potato dough, no suspicious plaster-like white sauce, cute little chopped chives sprinkled on top… Times have changed! And for the record, I have actually worked in a factory in a forgotten communist industrial town, but never enjoyed a plate of potato glue for dinner afterwards.

Slovak Food - Bryndzové Halušky

The focus of my version of bryndzové halušky is precisely to make it less dense, while preserving its bold flavors, with the understanding that it will never be a light dish:

  • I want my halušky to be airy and taste like potato at the same time — two somewhat antagonistic constraints. Traditional recipes call only for grated potatoes, flour, and salt, the dough coarsely portioned by cutting it with a knife. Keeping the dumplings on the smaller side (like German spaetzle) helps make them lighter. So does the addition of eggs (again, just as with German spaetzle). But decrease the potato content, and the result doesn’t taste enough like potato. To solve the problem, I’m replacing some of the flour with some dehydrated potato flakes, and I’m using potato skins to flavor the water in which I boil the halušky.
  • The traditional cheese sauce is little more than brynza mixed with a little bit of cream. Compared to feta, brynza is a lot more rustic, and tastes stronger and saltier. I haven’t made Slovak brynza, but I do have a generic brynza recipe here that’s close enough. If you prefer not to make your own, Bulgarian feta is a reasonable substitute. You can also buy the real thing, imported straight from the motherland, here. My sauce is much creamier than in other recipes I’ve seen; by using agar-agar and a siphon, I get a light, almost foamy cream. I know it looks all deflated in my pictures, but this is because I spent too much time messing around with the set-up before taking the photos. I’ve also tweaked the ingredient proportions slightly since then.
  • For the fried bacon dice, I am once again cooking my own pork belly sous-vide. You could just as well buy a slab at your favorite store. Traditionally, the fattier the bacon, the better — in fact, pure pork fat is perfectly acceptable. I prefer something made of at least 50% meat. Another issue is smokiness. I don’t own a smoker, and even by curing my pork belly with smoked salt, it doesn’t get as smoked a taste as true smoked bacon. I mentioned liquid smoke in my recipe for ramp cream soup with wild boar ham, but that’s something with which I still need to play around more. In the meantime, to impart some extra smoke, I am summoning my favorite kitchen gadget from deep within the bowels of my kitchen cabinets, for its once-a-year appearance: the Smoking Gun. Invest in a cheese dome (the natural complement to the smoking gun, and about as useful), and you can wow your guests with a dramatic tableside presentation!

Slovak Food - Bryndzové Halušky

Bacon
Yields about 4 servings

400 g water
30 g smoked salt
4 g curing salt
16 g sugar
0.4 g ground black pepper
400 g pork belly (in one slab, or in 6 cm slices)

  • Place the water, smoked salt, curing salt, sugar, and black pepper in a blender, and process for a few seconds. Transfer to a bowl, add the pork belly, cover with plastic wrap, and marinate for about 12 hours.
  • Take the pork belly out of the brine, and vacuum-seal in a sous-vide pouch. Cook in a 55 C / 131 F water bath for 48 hours. Reserve.

Halušky
Yields 4 servings (about 620 g halušky)

about 420 g Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled
40 g dehydrated potato flakes
80 g eggs
120 g bread flour
3 g baking powder
4 g salt (plus some for the water)
1 pinch ground black pepper
1 pinch ground nutmeg
about 25 g butter

  • Peel the potatoes, but don’t discard the peels.
  • Place the potato peels in a pot of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the potato peels, leaving the water in the pot.
  • Finely grate the peeled potatoes, and measure 320 g.
  • In the bowl of an electric mixer fit with the paddle attachment, mix the grated potatoes and the potato flakes on medium speed. While mixing, add the eggs, then the flour, baking powder, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Continue mixing on low speed for 5 minutes to form a dough.
  • Return the pot of water to a boil, and add some salt (for the perfectionists, about 5 g salt per kg of water). Proceeding in small batches, scrape the dough through a spaetzle maker over the boiling water. Cook until tender, then use a skimmer to drain onto a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Toss with butter, and spread evenly on the sheet pan.
  • When done, cover with plastic wrap, and reserve. The halušky can be made one day ahead.

Brynza cream
Yields 4 servings

100 g Slovak brynza or Bulgarian feta
75 g crème fraîche
75 g heavy cream
1 g agar-agar

  • In a small saucepan, crumble the brynza, and add the crème fraîche and heavy cream. Bring to a simmer on medium heat, while stirring with a spatula.
  • Stir in the agar-agar, transfer to a blender, and process until smooth.
  • Pour the brynza cream into a 1 liter siphon, and charge with two cartridges of N2O. Shake several times, then reserve in a warm place until serving.

Assembly
Yields 4 servings

300 g bacon, medium dice
halušky
brynza cream
chives, finely chopped

  • In a pan over high heat, sauté the bacon until brown and crispy, then drain on paper towels and reserve.
  • If needed, reheat the halušky by cooking them another 30 seconds in boiling water, and draining in a colander.
  • Divide the halušky into your serving bowls. Siphon some brynza cream on top, then add the bacon dice, and sprinkle with chives.
  • For a smokier taste, cover each bowl with a cheese dome (or anything else you have on hand — plastic wrap works just fine). Fill the wood chamber of a Smoking Gun with some wood chips, light up, and fill each bowl with a small cloud of smoke. Don’t overdo it, a little goes a long way! Serve immediately.

Slovak Food - Bryndzové Halušky