What to cook when you need time to read “Przekrój” or to stare through the window at the snow outside?
What makes itself? What cooks in the oven like the seed of an idea? Flatbreads and potatoes are baked over embers, the Jewish stew cholent cooks in the oven overnight before the Sabbath, while leftovers from a party become a casserole.
Take three measures of flour
Cooking without effort, nonchalantly. I leave it. Let it make itself.
I go to bed. When I get up, it will be ready. Energy conservation was the basis of cookery in the past. The wood-burning oven that belongs to Zosia Kucharczyk, a folk singer from Gałki Rusinowskie, is a multi-purpose machine that heats the house, warms the soup and boils the water for pierogi (dumplings), at its edges keeps the dishes warm, leavens the starter for the dough, and allows you to warm your bones on the oven bench. Of course, one could say sentimentally that an oven like this was the heart of the home and that the act of loading it with firewood helped maintain family ties. Is there no home without an oven?
According to The Old Polish Dictionary, a flatbread is a thin bread normally baked in the embers. The first short recipe for flatbread has survived in mediaeval manuscripts from 1471: “make redy att once thre peckes of fyne meale kneade it and make cakes.” (Tynedale Bible 1534, Genesis 18:6). In other words: “take three measures of flour and, mixing together, make a flatbread.” The Encyclopedia of Old Polish written by Zygmunt Gloger, gives two alternative Polish names for flatbread, wychłopień or wychopieniek. To Polish ears, these sound like the name of a naughty dwarf with a tendency toward excess.
In September 2019, I was doing a project called “Taste of the Sea, Taste of the North” in a stunning Norwegian location, right on the sea, by the name of Oslofjordmuseet. We were on an ethno-botanical walk, gathering mushrooms with Pål Karlsen, an outstanding expert, fanatical about mushrooms and wild plants, and author of the book The Porcino: Born to be Wild. Later we roasted potatoes wrapped in seaweed over the fire, fried the mushrooms we had collected and baked flatbreads, ecumenically from three different sourdoughs. The Danish sourdough was made from wheat and taken from Mirabelle, a hipster bakery in Copenhagen. The Norwegian one was also from wheat, originating in the Kraftwerk bakery in Oslo. The Polish sourdough was made from rye at the Chlebodawca bakery, owned by Arek Andrzejewski, who bakes just outside Warsaw. The Danish sourdough was not very acidic, had a distinct smell and did not react quickly to the addition of rye flour and water, only coming to life the following morning. It was a similar story with the Norwegian one, which had a strong, acidic smell. The Polish sourdough smelt intensely of honey. It started to act quickly, with air bubbles appearing after only 30 minutes. Its foreign cousins only caught up with it later. Sourdough is life. It works all by itself in the right conditions. That is the magic of sourdough starter.
We added flour and salt to the mature sourdoughs, and kneaded the doughs. We baked the rolled-out flatbreads on the fire, or on a heated baking sheet, until their crusts were crunchy. I remember making breads like these, in my childhood in the countryside, from leftover dough in an oven that had already gone out. They baked in the belly of the ancient oven as it gave up the last of its energy. Nothing could go to waste.
Under a lid, in a bag
Although it has rather pejorative connotations in Poland (calling someone a słoik – ‘jar’ –implies that they are provincial and thrifty), the jar is a very good metaphor. It evokes home cooking, taken back to the city after the holidays or weekends. A little piece of history locked under a lid: leftovers from the family meal, flavourful soups, thick jams, or aromatic steamed vegetables. A micro-home. Just twist off the lid.
Jars are a very ecological way to store meals, in contrast to plastic bags. The latter however are the basis for the sous-vide technique, used increasingly widely and on an industrial scale. This magic art relies on maintaining the product at a precise temperature for a long time, thanks to which it develops exceptional flavours and nutritional value.
The sous-vide method – also known as vacuum cooking and first described by Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, in 1799 – was rediscovered by American and French engineers in the 1960s as a method for the industrial preservation of food. In 1974, it was used by Georges Pralus at the Troisgros restaurant (owned by Pierre and Michel Troisgros) in Roanne, France. Pralus discovered that, thanks to this technique, dishes retain their original appearance, don’t lose too much fat and have better consistency. Another pioneer of sous-vide is Bruno Goussault, whose achievements focused on the effects of selecting different temperatures depending on the dish. Goussalt also became famous for popularizing and teaching the sous-vide method to the best chefs. As chief scientist at Cuisine Solutions (Alexandria, Virginia), Goussault developed defined parameters for cooking times and temperatures for different dishes.
An important aspect of sous-vide is the use of significantly lower temperatures than in traditional cooking. Thanks to this, the dishes remain more succulent. At lower temperatures the cell walls do not burst. The sous-vide method is used in many ‘high-end’ restaurants, is also popular on cookery programmes, and has been used to produce rapidly large amounts of food for the displaced – the victims of hurricanes, for example. Sous-vide cooking times vary, but one way or the other, nothing needs doing. When the kitchen chemistry is working, you just need to set the dial to the right temperature and time.
Into a communal oven
Several years ago, during Polish Cookery Week, Lior Hargil, owner of The Minzar, a bar in Tel Aviv, created a menu inspired by two cookery books by Piotr Bikont. One of them, Jewish Cooking According to Balbina Przepiórko, is one of the few items ever published on the subject of Jewish influence on Polish cuisine. Bikont discovered the best cholent in the world; a goulash baked for a long time in a bread oven, and I had the pleasure of attending the tasting.
Cholent is “not a specific dish, rather a particular type of dish and, as such, extremely original,” wrote Bikont. It is a one pot meat or vegetarian dish, traditionally cooked very slowly in a low oven. The meat or veg is cooked with barley groats, buckwheat groats, split peas, chickpeas, different types of beans, potatoes or even rice, and normally several of these ingredients together. The ingredients are either layered or mixed together. Back in the day, housewives used to prepare cholent on Friday before sunset and then the pot would rest until lunch on Saturday. There is a famous way of cooking groats that entails leaving partially cooked groats in the pot, covered in newspapers and a blanket and placed under an eiderdown. I still do this today, from time to time.
“Often the pot was taken to a communal oven, or to the baker, who would put it in the bread oven once he had finished baking bread. In order not to break the rules of the Sabbath rest, the pot would be brought back on Saturday by a special courier, known as the Scholent-jungen (cholent-boy). In the countryside, cholent was cooked under a feather eiderdown,” explained Bikont.
“The first written record of cholent comes from Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna (1180–1250), who described how he ate this dish at his mentor’s home in France. The dish comes from Languedoc and is a variation on the local cassoulet. The name is said to derive from the Old French chauld (hot) and lent (slow). In 1394, the Jews from Languedoc were forced to emigrate to Germany and so began the expansion of cholent via the Jewish community across Central Europe.
“Similar stews are also common in the cuisine of Sephardic Jews and in every corner of the planet, although they differ in their ingredients and names: in Morocco skhina, in Tunisia bekaila, in Iraq t'bit and in India hamin. The point about this dish is not just that it is prepared one day (on Friday) and eaten only on the next, (Saturday). It is also the communal dimension of the entire traditional process by which all the cholents from the neighbourhood meet in one bread oven,” wrote Bikont in summary. Sadly, before his death in 2017, he never managed to organize the Cholent Festival and the procession of pots in the old Jewish district of Kazimierz in Kraków.
I don’t have a bread oven in my Warsaw home, but there are cats, children and warm beds. In tender remembrance of tender cholent and Bikont, I am putting all my hopes and dreams into my oven for the night. Let them bake until they are golden.
Recipe from Jewish Cooking According to Balbina Przepiórko, Piotr Bikont (2011)
250g white beans
8 large potatoes
2 large onions
1 knob of garlic
½ tsp pepper
500ml vegetable stock, salted
Balbina cuts her potatoes into quarters, her onions into slices, and the garlic cloves in half. She places layers of beans and chickpeas (both soaked overnight), onion and garlic, and lastly the potatoes into an ovenproof dish. She pours over the stock and brings it to the boil. Once boiled, she covers it tightly and places in the oven, (at 100–120°C), for six hours or more.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska