Last night was Erev Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year’s Eve), so there was a need to bake something suitable for a Jewish occasion, so what could be better than cheesecake? What I think of as “Jewish cheesecake”, which is broadly similar to what Americans call “New York Cheesecake”, actually hails from Poland, where it’s not particularly Jewish and is called Sernik.
Dozens of countries have versions of curd cheese: paneer in India, Quark in Germany, túró in Hungary, labneh in the Middle East and many more. The Polish version is called twaróg: just about all the Sernik recipes I’ve found use this. It’s readily available in England; otherwise use any other curd cheese: farmer’s cheese, ricotta, etc.
There are many different variations of Sernik, regional or otherwise, which use different toppings and/or pastry bases; some even dispense with the pastry altogether. I’ve chosen the version from Kraków, Sernik krakowski, largely because it looks pretty and I’ve actually been to Kraków. The pastry is a fairly standard shortcrust, except that it includes baking powder, thus ending up somewhere between a pastry and a cake. The Kraków-specific bit is to top the cheesecake with a lattice made of the same pastry. I’ve included raisins (definitely part of the cheesecakes of my childhood) and separated my eggs, making a meringue with the whites: this makes the finished product lighter.
280g plain flour (OO if you have it)
5g baking powder
140g butter (start from cold)
2 large eggs
50g soured cream
In the bowl of a food processor, mix flour, baking powder and salt
Cut the butter into cubes, add into the food processor and process for 20 seconds or so until you get to the consistency of fine breadcrumbs
Add the eggs, sugar and soured cream, process for a few seconds until thoroughly blended
Form the dough into a ball, put into a covered bowl and refrigerate for 30 minutes
Preheat your oven to 180℃ fan
Grease a cake tin around 28cm diameter
Take about ⅔ of the pastry and roll out on a generously floured surface
Line the base and sides of the tin, pressing the pastry firmly into the corners. Prick the base with a fork. Add any offcuts to the rest of your pastry and set aside
Line with baking paper and fill with baking beads. Bake for 15 minutes
When you’ve taken out the pastry, reduce the oven temperature to 150℃
The cheese filling
100g butter, soft
500g twaróg or other curd cheese
25 g flour
vanilla extract to taste
125 g raisins
Separate the eggs.
Beat the butter until smooth.
Add the twaróg and mix thoroughly
Add the egg yolks, flour, and vanilla and mix
Beat the egg whites until soft, add the sugar and mix until stiff
Fold the two mixtures and the raisins together
Roll out the remaining pastry and cut into 1cm wide strips
If you haven’t already, remove the baking beads and paper from your blind-baked pastry case.
Fill the pastry case with the cheese filling
Form a lattice over the top of your cheesecake with the strips of pastry (if you don’t know how to do this, YouTube is your friend)
Bake for around 50 minutes until the pastry lattice is nicely brown
Everyone agrees that Armenia’s national bread is baked in a tandoor-type oven and is called Lavash. Beyond that, however, it gets confusing: there’s yeasted or unleavened Lavash, there’s thick, puffy Lavash or wafer-thin crispbread Lavash. I’ve gone for a thin, yeasted version, soft enough to use as a wrap bread.
The Wikipedia article on Lavash has a fabulous short video of two Armenian women making the bread: they toss the sheets of dough and fold them over forearms before one of them stretches it impossibly thin then places it on a rounded wooden board just suited for slapping it into the oven such that it sticks to the inside. You can’t really come close to replicating that in a Western kitchen, both because a domestic oven doesn’t behave remotely like the large wood-fired Middle Eastern version and because of the years of skill required to stretch the dough the way they do. Still, my approximation wasn’t bad, using wooden boards, a large rectangular pizza stone and a fan oven turned up to maximum.
As with most baking, you can rely on the quantities shown here but you can’t rely on the timings: they’re all far too dependent on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen, the exact characteristics of your oven and on how thin you dare stretch the dough. Lavash should be pretty tolerant of a half hour or more either way on the rise times, but where you really need to watch it is on the baking time. At three minutes, my first one turned to crispbread: delicious, but with no possibility of using it for wrapping. Two minutes was a bit on the doughy side; two and a half was just about perfect.
350ml warm water (around 40℃)
8g dried yeast
500g strong white flour, plus plenty more for rolling
sunflower or olive oil for coating
The usual start for bread: mix the water, yeast and sugar and wait for it to go foamy.
Mix the flour and salt.
Blend your wet and dry mixes to form a dough, then knead in a stand mixer for around 10 minutes.
Brush some oil over the inside of a large bowl. Form your dough into a ball and put it in the bowl, then brush more oil to coat the top of the ball also.
Cover and leave to rise for around 90 minutes at room temperature, until the dough is large and nicely stretchy.
When the dough has nearly risen, put your pizza stone into the oven and preheat to its highest temperature (mine was 250℃ fan)
Punch the dough back, divide the dough into eight pieces and put each piece back into the bowl, coating it with oil as you go.
Cover and leave to rise for another 30 minutes
Once the dough is rising, get everything ready for rolling and baking: once you start putting things in the oven, you’re going to want to work quickly. Choose a board that you’re going to roll the bread onto and flour it generously. Have your flour jar, a spoon, a rolling pin and a scraper ready. And have a basket ready for the finished Lavash, lined with a tea towel and with a second towel next to it ready to be used as a cover.
Take a ball of dough and roll it flat: make sure there’s plenty of flour on the board, on your rolling pin and on both sides of your ball of dough, or it will stick. When you’ve rolled it as flat as possible, if you dare, throw it back and forth over your forearm a few times to stretch it further.
Now the tricky part: working quickly, open your oven, pull the stone out, lay the sheet of dough onto the stone, push it back into the oven and close the door. Set a timer for 2½ minutes.
While the first Lavash is baking, roll out and stretch the next one.
Open the oven, take out the Lavash and put it in your basket, lay out the second sheet on the stone, close the oven and reset your timer. Cover the bread with the second tea towel to keep it warm.
Repeat until you’ve done all eight balls.
Our wrap filling, created by my daughter, was a layer of yoghurt and dill, shredded roast spiced chicken, and a salad of finely diced tomato and baby cucumber. The resulting meal was simple, outstandingly full of flavour and worth way more than the sum of its parts.
After taking on a bake with a serious degree of difficulty with make-your-own-strudel-pastry last week, it was time for something at the opposite end of the scale: a simple, unpretentious cookie that takes minimal effort and skill to prepare but delivers lovely flavour and texture. In short, Azerbaijan’s butter cookies called Shaker churek (to my shame, I have no idea how to pronounce the name).
This recipe comes from a splendid Dutch blog called the cookie companion. It’s the simplest version I found: there are other recipes that use yeast.
100g icing sugar
vanilla essence to taste
In a bowl, weigh out the icing sugar
Melt the butter, not letting it get too hot, and add it to the icing sugar: mix until smooth
Add the flour and mix thoroughly – you will get a dough that’s far too dry, which is fine at this stage
Separate the egg; keep half the yolk aside and add the other half yolk and all the white to your mix.
Add the vanilla essence, and mix thoroughly until you have a smooth, slightly damp dough
Cover and leave in the refrigerator for around an hour
Preheat oven to 180℃
Line a baking tray with a silicone sheet or baking paper
Divide the dough into eight equal parts (they should be just over 60g each). For each part into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on your baking sheet. Warning here: the cookies spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space around them.
With the end of a finger or some other implement (like the end of a rolling pin, if you have that kind of rolling pin), make a small depression in the middle of each cookie. Fill the depression with the reserved egg yolk.
Bake for around 15 minutes
Like most cookies, shaker churek are really, really good straight out of the oven: but leave them to cool for a few minutes so that they don’t actually burn your mouth!
When I visit Budapest, which used to be pretty much a yearly occurrence before Covid-19, my first culinary port of call is the Első Pesti Rétesház – the First Strudel House of Pest. There’s a dizzying array of mouth-watering strudels with many different fillings, both sweet and savoury, made on the premises in front of your eyes.
Strudel (rétes in Hungarian) came into the former Austro-Hungarian empire from Turkey – it’s the child of Turkish baklava – and I could have assigned it to any of dozen countries in the empire. But having already visited Vienna for Sachertorte, I’ll give the honour to Budapest: and anyway, it’s further east, so the Turks probably got there first.
My favourite strudel fillings at the Rétesház are meggyes (sour cherries) and túró (curd cheese made from soured milk), but I didn’t have access to the right ingredients for either of these when baking for this post, so I’ve gone for the classic apple filling as found both in Budapest and at Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna.
This is not a straightforward bake. Stretching strudel dough is a tricky business: the best tutorial I’ve found comes from the Lil Vienna website. This is my first attempt and as you’ll see from the photos, I got the dough pretty thin, but nowhere near the targeted perfect transparent rectangle big enough to fit all the filling. So I’ve suggested using about a third more dough than the quantities in the tutorial: you can probably reduce this as your strudel skills improve. (The Schönbrunn recipe, by the way, uses an egg in the dough, which I didn’t).
Making the strudel dough
20g sunflower oil, plus more for coating the dough
4g lemon juice or vinegar
200g strong white flour, plus plenty more for flouring surfaces
Combine salt and flour
Combine water, oil and lemon juice or vinegar and mix
Combine the wet and dry mixes and mix until you have a smooth dough. If the dough is too sticky, add a modest amount more flour and work it in thoroughly, but don’t overdo it: you want the dough to be moist.
Knead the dough for around 10 minutes (if by hand) or around 7 minutes (if using the dough hook on a stand mixer). Form the dough into a ball
Put a bit of oil into a bowl; roll the dough to coat it completely with oil, cover the bowl and leave it for an hour at room temperature
The apple filling
20g rum (optional)
10g ground cinnamon
Around 900-1000g tart apples (I used Granny Smiths, American recipes tend to use MacIntosh)
20g lemon juice (around half a lemon)
Mix the rum and raisins and leave to soak
Mix the sugar and cinnamon and set aside
Melt butter in a pan, add the breadcrumbs and cook over a medium flame, stirring frequently, until the breadcrumbs are golden brown but not burning. Set aside.
Peel and core your apples, then slice each apple quarter into 4-5 slices.
Mix the apples, raisins and cinnamon sugar (but NOT the breadcrumbs) in a large bowl.
Stretching the dough and putting it all together
50g butter, melted
1-2 tsp icing sugar
Preheat oven to 190℃ fan. Identify a large, flat baking tray: typical would be around 40cm x 30cm. Either cut a piece of baking parchment to approximately the same size or identify a silicone baking mat of that size.
Find a clear space of around 40cm x 100cm on a table or counter top and spread a tablecloth over it (or use an improvised alternative like a sheet); lightly spread flour over the tablecloth.
Spread flour somewhat more generously over the board onto which you will roll your pastry: you’ll need a space of around 30cm x 30cm.
Put your ball of dough in the middle of the board, and using a rolling pin, roll it out into as even and large a rectangle as you can manage.
With both hands at one end, pick up the rectangle of dough and allow gravity to stretch it downwards. Working quickly, pass the dough around so that you’re holding a different edge all the time and the dough is stretching evenly across its whole area.
Once you’ve stretched it as much as you dare without it tearing, spread the dough out on your floured tablecloth.
Pull the dough from opposite sides to stretch it. Each time you put it down on the sheet, it will shrink back, but you should gradually be increasing its overall size. You know you’re done when the dough is nearly transparent: traditionally, the test was that you should be able to read a newspaper headline through it, which did not achieve (although I came close). You’re aiming for a length of around 100cm and a width slightly larger than the width of your baking tray.
Spread melted butter over your dough.
Spread the breadcrumb mixture over around one third of the rectangle of dough, around 2-3cm from one end and the sides. Spread the apple mixture on top.
Fold three edges over in an attempt to stop the filling leaking out.
Roll the strudel from the filled end, either by lifting the tablecloth as you roll or using your fingers.
Finish by rolling the completed strudel onto your baking mat or parchment sheet; transfer this onto your baking tray. Brush the whole lot with more melted butter.
Bake until golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes. Beware the photos: mine was slightly overbaked.
Cool, dust generously with icing sugar and transfer to the dish or board that you will serve the strudel from.
Cut into slices to serve, either on its own or accompanied by any of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, chantilly cream or crème fraiche. And, of course, coffee.
The whole “stretching strudel to paper thickness” process doesn’t actually take that long, but it’s fairly scary when you’re not used to it and it does generate laundry. But my result was palpably more authentic and had better texture and taste than using store-bought phyllo pastry, even though my first attempt had many imperfections: the stretched dough wasn’t thin enough, wasn’t an even rectangle and had several small tears. I’m sure that practice will make perfect and I’m not planning on going back to supermarket phyllo any time soon.