I was surprised when I learned about the new twist in our annual neighborhood Fourth of July party.
Someone had proposed a pie baking contest, of all things. Not what you'd expect in Berkeley, California.
But then I had an idea: Maybe I could bring a Slovenian pastry.
I had been immersed in my Slovenian roots cooking project for six months. Little by little, I had started to share my cooking adventures outside the confines of my own home. But I was still cautious and strangely protective of an ethnic culture that was new to me. Even though I am of half-Slovenian descent and grew up in Cleveland, probably the center of the Slovenian American world, I had known little about my maternal heritage until relatively late in life.
At first, I couldn't think of anything that would qualify as a pie, at least in the American sense. Potica or strudel? That would be a stretch.
Then it came to me: Prekmurska gibanica. I had been waiting for an occasion to give it a try. And now I had one.
I had tasted this unusual but heavenly concoction just once, on my first (and only) visit to Slovenia, in the spring of 2006, on an Eastern European trip with my husband and my in-laws.
The four of us were spending a few nights in Lake Bled, a well known resort in the Slovenian Alps. The little town is built around a picture-perfect lake with a tiny island, complete with Romanesque church, right in the center. It the old days, Tito had a villa on the shores of the lake, where he used to entertain other communist dignitaries. Today, the villa is a high-end tourist hotel.
We were in the middle of the three-mile walk around the lake, when we decided to stop for coffee at an outdoor cafe.
I couldn't resist trying the featured dessert: Gibanica, an unfamiliar pastry, displayed in a little placard at each table. It looked liked a multi-layered baklava. When I ordered one for the table, the waiter corrected my mangled pronunciation. It should sound like “gee-bah-neetz-a.” (With a hard G, as in Good!)
When a generous serving appeared on the table, it resembled a Greek dessert, with a crisp layer of filo on top. But on the inside, it had the texture of a Jewish noodle kugel. Not too sweet, but with an intoxicating mix of fillings. I tasted cheese, poppy seeds, nuts, and fruit or preserves. Was this a pudding or pastry? Cake or pie? I couldn't quite decide, so I kept eating, savoring each bite.
We sampled so many memorable desserts and pastries on that trip. Our hotel served the famed Lake Bled Cream Slices, a local specialty that left me unimpressed. We tried potica from the open air market in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital. At the start of the journey, we enjoyed the original Sacher Torte in Vienna. At the end, the famed chocolate-filled palascinta at Gundel's Restaurant in Budapest. At every turn, delicious apple strudel was available.
But nothing was as memorable as gibanica, from a little-known Slavic country about the size of New Jersey.
Later on, I would learn the full name of this dish: Prekmurska gibanica. It was originally a regional speciality from Prekmurje, the part of Slovenia that borders Hungary. Today, it is one of a handful of Slovenian dishes that are recognized by the European Union, with both the name and the recipe protected.
The essence of the dish is this: Layers of farmer cheese, walnut, poppyseed, and apple filling alternate with thin strudel or filo dough. Sometimes there is a thick shortcrust layer on the bottom. A topping of cream or sour cream, sometimes mixed with eggs, is poured over the top before baking.
Did I mention that this is a complicated dish? No wonder there was no mention of it in my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks!
I did find recipes online. These were all from Slovenian sources, with metric measures and varying degrees of clarity. I also found a recipe in the newest addition to my vintage cookbook library: an English language version of a volume called the The Yugoslav Cookbook, published in Slovenia in 1985, a few years before it became an independent country. The author, a Slovenian woman, had been Tito's head chef.
These recipes all had slightly different approaches to the four fillings. For the pastry, some went the traditional route of mixing and stretching by hand, while others (even that European cookbook from the mid-80s) used prepared filo.
By mixing and matching, I came up with the most streamlined version possible. Packaged filo from the market. Uncooked apple and walnut fillings. I even took the liberty of using canned poppy seed filling.
I did add the optional thick layer of shortcrust pastry on the bottom, traditionally used for “added stability.” My goal was to make the gibanica more pie-like. But I shouldn't have worried. One of the recipes suggested a good English name for the dish: Slovenian Strudel Pie. That's exactly what it was.
On July 4th, I spent the early part of the day baking. It was a complicated ordeal. You can read the details, along with the recipe itself, on my Slovenian Roots Quest blog, here.
That afternoon, I showed up at the neighborhood gathering and threw my hat into the ring. Boldly, I put my gibanica on the table, right alongside the apple pies and other American standards.
My neighbors were curious. Interested. Complimentary, as they took a cautious taste.
“What is that?” they asked.
And when I explained, only one person said: “ Oh, Slovenia. Is that, um, like Slovakia?”
(I do live in a sophisticated university town!)
The voting process got a little tense. There was some heated discussion about procedures. Did each person get one vote, or two? So we took a poll. Could you vote for yourself? Yes, of course.
After the votes were tallied, my Slovenian Prekmurska Gibanica took third place. It even beat out a couple of all-American apple pies.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to concede that there were only seven entries. First place went to a fresh rhubarb pie, made by the host and her daughter. Second place: a key lime pie. A rich chocolate pie came in third. But pies #2 and #3 were both made by the same man, who felt a little sheepish. After all, we had never discussed how many entries per person were allowed.
So, being a magnanimous sort, he decided to let me, currently in fourth place, move up to third.
I gratefully accepted my prize, a modest gift certificate donated by our local organic produce market.
Meanwhile, at an even bigger venue about twenty miles away, Slovenian pastry had just scored another victory.
Potica, the rich filled yeast bread that is probably Slovenia's most famous dish, had just won third prize at the Alameda County fair!
And then there was the ultimate tester: My mother, always so dismissive of her ethnic roots. She has started to come around. But she doesn't mince words when I create something she doesn't like. So I offer her samples with a certain amount of trepidation.
I wasn't surprised that she had no childhood memories of ever tasting prekmurje gibanica. It was a far too elaborate dish for working class families in the 1920s and 1930s, I am sure.
But even she liked it!
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders