From potica to strudel to rouladen. Minnesotans Mary Vuk and Maria Hazin prepare sumptuous Slovenian feast
I had been invited to lunch. I arrived to see a long white table with nothing on it. Mary Vuk and Maria Hazin had said they'd tell me about the foods of their Minnesota-Slovenia heritage, the things they regularly serve to their families. The long white table, come to find out, was standard equipment for making the authentic strudel we would have for lunch. They would also show me how they make rouladen, a rolled meat dish from Yugoslavia. And eventually we would sit down to a delicious lunch, complete with Yugoslavian music - but first, the strudelmaking.
It is only natural that the Minnesota Slovene people know how to make strudel so well. In Slovenia, which belonged to Austria until 1918, the influence of Vienna, famous for its strudelmakers, is unmistakable. One finds many Austrian specialties. Similarities are especially noticeable in pastries using this paper thin dough, and also in stuffed vegetables and other dishes.
Mary Vuk, together with her husband, John, owns and manages the nearby Slovene Motel. She's a family cook, she says, and her strudel is for her family and special friends only - it's not a commercial venture.
Watching women make strudel is fascinating, like seeing an age-old ritual. There is a harmony and oneness between the cook and dough as she coaxes and teases and pulls it into a long, thin rectangle.
In Europe, even in luxurious places, restaurants often seek out a farm girl from the provinces to make this world-famous specialty.
Here in northern Minnesota, ``all Slovene women can make strudel,'' says Mary as she sprinkles a generous handful of flour over the table and pours from her mixing bowl a large lump of pastry dough she had kneaded.
``This will make a double batch of real strudel,'' she says, patting and pulling it into a larger piece. Working with her hands from underneath, she stretches it the full length of the table until it hangs over the the edges. By this time, it is so thin and light it could almost float in the air - as thin as onion-skin.
``My mother always said the strudel dough is completely pulled when it's so thin you can read a newspaper through it,'' she explains as she moves around the table, stretching and pulling dough with amazing dexterity.
Using the backs of her hands and wrists under the dough, she continues to work until this huge piece of dough is as thin as tissue paper. There are no breaks, no holes, not even a wrinkle in the huge, long sheet of pastry. This is the moment of tension. One wrong move and the dough will tear or split.
I was spellbound. So were several members of her family, standing around watching a procedure they'd surely seen many times before.
``I don't think it needs to be quite so thin that you can see through it,'' confesses Mary as she uses a wide brush to paint the complete sheet with melted butter.
Next, she evenly spreads a mixture of three cheeses on about three feet of the dough and an apple filling on the other half. Now this 10-foot long jellyroll must be finished off.
Sister-in-law Maria Hazin helps in the next step.
Both women lift the white tablecloth to gently roll the already stuffed double strudel into its many layers.
Finally, Mary takes an ordinary dinner plate to use as a knife, cutting the strudel to fit the baking pan. It will now go into the oven.
They say that from the high hills of Yugoslavia to the plains of Hungary, every housewife has her own way of making strudel. There are many kinds, Mrs. Vuk explains. The classic fillings are apple, sour cherry, cheese, poppy seed, cabbage, and nuts.
Good Slovene home cooks also know how to make the thin dough for Yugoslavian potica.
This dough is different from strudel dough in that it is made with yeast and it takes five or six hours to make.
This is best done in winter, Mary says, for ``everything must be warm - the room, the bowl, and the dough.''
Yes, we did sit down to eat with the family after Maria took us to the kitchen to make another traditional dish, rouladen. She made it look very simple.
``Rouladen is one of the typical and favorite family dishes, and it's not on the menu at the restaurant,'' Maria says.
With her husband, Kaz, and his partner, Tony Zadarnika, Maria owns and manages the Rustic Rock Restaurant, which serves mostly American food with special ethnic foods for parties.
The rouladen is made with steak that had been pounded, lightly floured, then cooked with mushrooms.
``Yugoslavians like lots of mushrooms, and lots of paprika, too,'' she says, explaining that the dish could also be made with veal instead of beef.
``We always start the meal with soup,'' Mary says, and the children's favorite is fresh sweet pea soup with dumplings made from egg and sometimes garden carrots and paprika.
At the table, the whole family joined to talk about other Slovene dishes.
Kristina Hazin, 14, who is obviously enjoying the rouladen and fresh salad her mother has prepared, was making strudel when she was only eight years old. Daniel Hazin, who will be 6 in October, can also cook and has made strudel. But he couldn't be coaxed into talking about it.
Mashed potato is served with the rouladen, though noodles are also a good match. Fruit, such as grapes, are used as a garnish to the meat.
The children squirm in their chairs but can't leave the table until permission is given after the mealtime prayer.
Kristina has several chores to do. Both Hazin children are given the responsibility of working and the chance to earn a little money. They also enjoy camping and fishing and being outdoors on school vacations.
The products of all that stretching and pulling on the long white table is mouth-watering and delicious. The strudels are served warm and fresh from cooking - as they should be, because once the butter in the pastry has hardened the poetry is gone. Nobody could decide which was the better - the cheese or the apple - so everyone was obliged to try one of each.
Maria praises Mary's strudel, and Mary says the cakes and Christmas cookies Maria makes are fantastic. We all praise the luncheon, and soon old friends Julie and Paul Sasha start the music. Rouladen, Slovenian Style 2 pounds round steak, 1/2 inch thick Salt and pepper, to taste 8 strips bacon, cut in half 1 medium onion, sliced l medium can mushrooms 1 cup water 2 tablespoons flour 1 tablespoon paprika, mild
Trim fat from steak. Pound meat until 1/4-inch thick and cut into 6 pieces. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook bacon until brown, then remove.
Saut'e onions in bacon fat until soft. Remove onions and save bacon fat in pan.
On floured cutting board, place one slice beef, and on one end of meat place 1 strip bacon, 2 slices onion, a few pieces of mushroom. Roll and secure with toothpick. Repeat with other meat slices. Brown rolls in bacon fat, place in glass baking dish.
Stir flour into bacon grease in pan and cook to brown, stirring constantly, about 1/2 minute. Add paprika and water, blend well and pour over beef rolls.
Bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees F. (Veal may be substituted for beef.)