Making Krofna – A Serbian Tradition Carried On

As Hubby and I get older, our priorities, what we deem important, and our desires are changing.  Perhaps it’s the fear of our own mortality, but even more so at this point, the mortality of our parents.  For Hubby, the mortality of his parents is hinged closely to the fading of his heritage.

He came to the US when he was a young boy and quickly assimilated into American ways and customs.  His parents however clung to their heritage and never quite assimilated.  They picked and chose the American customs and traditions they liked, and dismissed all others as not as good as the “Serbian” way. This selective assimilation has been a hindrance in many ways, but most prominently in preventing them from forming any type of bond with Zeb, Grace, or myself.  We tried for years to include them in the American traditions that Hubby and I carried on from my background once we were married, but they made it clear they were not interested in participating in anything “American” unless they could somehow try to out-do it in a “Serbian” way.

The best example of this would be in birthday celebrations.  According to Hubby, his parents never had a birthday party for him.  There was one small party when he was very little and still living in Serbia, but since coming to the US, they hadn’t had a party, bought him gifts, or even made him a cake.

The first year we dated, when Hubby’s birthday came around, I made a huge deal about it.  I made a romantic dinner for the two or us, made him his favorite cake, had presents for him, and even got us tickets to a sporting event to attend on his birthday.  Every year since we met, I have made sure that his birthday has had a celebration.

After we got married, it was only natural I invite my parents, my brother’s family as well as Hubby’s parents over to share in the celebration. This is how my family celebrated birthdays — with family.  From the first time his parents came over for their son’s birthday though, it caused problems.  My mother-in-law is tremendously competitive and after coming to our home to celebrate her son’s birthday, she immediately had to invite us over to her house to have a birthday celebration for her son “the Serbian way.”  Those were her exact words, “the Serbian way.”

Well, this didn’t sit well with Hubby, because to him “the Serbian way” meant no celebration at all.  Suddenly after 25 years of never so much as a Happy Birthday, it was imperative his parents somehow prove to everyone what great parents they were by having a “Serbian” birthday party.  And don’t think that they didn’t understand about birthday parties, gifts, and cakes because many of their friends in the Serbian community they were a part of had parties and celebrations every year.  In fact, his parents had even thrown surprise parties for some of their friends, but never for their son.

This instance is only one example of many that pushed Hubby to the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to carrying on “Serbian” traditions.  Although we did participate in Serbian traditions that his parents continued to carry on year after year, he made it clear to me that most, if not all, of these would die with his parents.

As my in-laws got older, Hubby mellowed and began bringing up some of the traditions he really did enjoy that his parents were getting too old to carry on.  I offered to carry these traditions on, in fact researched many of them in-depth on the internet, but his parents were resistant. Hubby was open to the idea of me taking over the traditions and “Serbian” ways, but understood how hard it was for his parents to let go of running things.  So when they were no longer able to host holidays or parties alone, we ‘lent a hand’ as much as we could.

For a few years this worked out, but when it became clear that all the work would have to be done by us and his parents were only “hosts” in name, they decided it was better to let the traditions die rather than allow us to take them over.  They were less than supportive of any efforts we made to carry on the traditions that were part of their heritage.  We invited them for Serbian Easter, Serbian Christmas, and Krsna Slava (our family Holy day) but they refused to come. They shut the door on all of it.

Hubby insists he’s fine with it, but I have my doubts.  He puts up a good front, but with his parents in their 80’s and with the limited time he has left with them, I know he realizes that the traditions of his heritage will die with them if they haven’t already.  This presents a challenge to me.  How can I somehow, even if only in small ways, help Hubby hold onto his heritage which when you think about it is actually holding onto the memory of his parents?  We are defined by what people remember about us when we are gone, be it the traditions we pass on, the memories we instill, the love we’ve shared that causes hearts to break when we die, or even something so small as food we made that became a reflection of home.

For the past couple of years I have been trying to duplicate some of the foods that were part of Hubby’s heritage, not everything, just those that he really loves and will miss when his parent’s are no longer here to share with him. Some are traditional Serbian dishes that are only served on certain holidays or occasions, but others are foods that his mother just made because she knew her son liked them.

This morning after I made my first batch of yeast doughnuts I began thinking about a doughnut-type bread that Hubby’s mother has been making for many years — krofna.  This is a bread traditionally served before Lent begins, but Hubby’s mother makes it several times throughout the year.  The traditional recipe is more of a sweet roll, but my mother-in-law prepares it less sweet and stuffs it with cheese.  When I tasted the dough of the yeast doughnuts this morning, I was surprised how similar the texture and taste was to my mother-in-laws.  So, you know what I did this afternoon?  Yep, I tweaked my recipe for yeast doughnuts and made Hubby a batch of krofna.

Krofna – Cheese Stuffed Doughnuts

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3/4 Cups Milk

2 Tbsp. Sugar

2 tsp. Salt

2 1/4 tsp. Active Dry Yeast

1/4 Cup Warm Water

4 Cups Flour

1/3 Cup Melted Butter

2 Eggs

Shredded Cheese – mozzarella, cheddar, or whatever you like

Oil for Deep Frying

  • Heat milk to near boiling.  Combine hot milk, sugar, and salt in medium Set aside for 5 minutes.
  • Add 2 cups flour to milk mixture and beat until blended.
  • In small bowl dissolve yeast in warm water.  Add to milk mixture along with eggs and melted butter.
  • Mix in the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough forms.  Knead with dough hooks in mixer for 3-4 minutes.
  • Place dough in oiled bowl and allowed to double in size (about 40 minutes).
  • Separate dough into 8 to 12 sections.  Roll each section into a ball and then flatten with a rolling-pin on lightly floured surface.  Place approximately 1/4 to 1/3 cup shredded cheese in the center of dough.  Pull sides up and seal the cheese inside, forming a circle.  Let rest 15 – 20 minutes.
  • Heat 1 inch of oil to 375 in frying pan.  Fry krofna until golden brown on both sizes.  Drain on paper towel.

The minute the first krofna came out of the frying pan, Hubby was there with a fork and knife to cut into it.  It was perfect.

Family politics are tricky no matter what, but throw ethnic traditions and customs into the mix and things quickly complicate beyond reason.  I would never claim to be a good daughter-in-law or even come close to it, but I am a good wife.  This recipe for krofna will ensure that at least while I’m alive, Hubby will be able to enjoy this bread that has been something he has loved for many years from his mother.  I am not trying to replace her, just provide Hubby with a tangible reminder of the good memories they shared.

I probably won’t make these again for quite some time, as Hubby’s mother does still make these on occasion for him. The recipe will be in my cookbook for when I need it which is good enough for now, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

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Crackling Biscuits – Using Lard Byproducts

One of the goals I have set for myself is to not throw anything out that might possibly have a use, and yet not keep things around that are unnecessary.  This might sound contradictory and in some ways it is, but when it comes to food, it serves me very well.

Not wanting to waste any part of the foods we buy or grow, I have been able to come up with new recipes and uses for many things that would have otherwise been thrown out.  It gives me a great sense of comfort knowing that I am making the most of what we have.

The other day, while I was making lard, I knew that once all the lard had been melted out of the pork fat there would be crispy pork fat left over.  For years I have been making cracklings from pork that has a fairly high fat content but still enough meat to make them tasty and enjoyed the lard by-product I was left with once the cracklings were done. When faced, however, with a pork fat byproduct after rendering lard I wasn’t sure what could be done with it.  This by-product was practically all fat.  What could I possibly do with crispy fat?

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Marrying someone with a different ethnic background than myself has opened many doors when it comes to culinary experiences.  I am basically a mutt of ethnic lines — English/Irish, German, Russian-Polish, French, and there is even a rumor there could be some American Indian in the mix.  Hubby, however, is Serbian through and through, born there and not coming here until he was a young boy.  Albeit he is American at heart and to see or talk to him you’d never know he wasn’t born here, he still enjoys many of the customs and tastes of his homeland.

When Hubby learned that I was struggling to find a use for the crispy pork fat leftover from the lard rendering, he immediately suggested I make some crackling biscuits.  He told me that his mother made these whenever she made cracklings and had some that were all or practically all fat.  Intrigued I told him I’d give it a try.

Not sure exactly what an Internet search would produce, I spent over an hour going through page after page of recipes for crackling biscuits. It’s amazing how many are out there.  Some of the recipes were from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, and yes, Serbia.  I printed off five recipes that were all very similar, from different areas, and spent time comparing them.  Finally, after discussing the ingredients with Hubby, I decided to combine several of the recipes into one quick and easy one.  Starting off easy and then working my way up to something more difficult, if need be, seemed like the thing to do.

It was interesting that Hubby didn’t want me to go with the Serbian recipe I had found.  When I told him that the Serbian one included wine though he laughed.  He told me that there was no way his mother would have had wine to put in the biscuits when she learned how to do it.  They didn’t have anything, let alone wine for cooking.  Flour, salt, and cracklings were hard enough to scrape together.

The biscuits came together very quickly and seeing as Hubby didn’t want me to use yeast, as it would have made them light and fluffy, something you’d never accuse his mother’s biscuits of being, they were in the oven in less than 30 minutes.  I set the timer for 25 minutes and we waited.  The moment they came out of the oven, Hubby was standing at the counter.  He took one off the tray, burned his fingers, but still continued to break it in half.  His first comment was that it wasn’t cooked inside.  I told him that he needed to let them cool on the cookie sheet. Reluctantly he put it back.  A minute later he picked it up again and popped half of the biscuit into his mouth.  You see, patience isn’t one of Hubby’s virtues.

I watched as he swished the biscuit from one side of his mouth to the other, prolonging my torture.  Finally, after just a moment longer he smiled and said, “Perfect.”  He proceeded to eat four more biscuits and with each one told me something else he liked about it:  The texture, the amount of cracklings, the heaviness, the taste.  Then, as he was eating his sixth he confessed that he never liked his mother’s biscuits warm.  He always waited until they were cold and then would eat them sparingly.  Not so with mine.  By the time they were cool, nearly half the biscuits were gone. That spoke volumes.

Crackling Biscuits

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  • 2 1/2 Cups Flour
  • 1 Tbsp. Salt
  • 1/2 Cup. Milk
  • 1 1/2 Cup Pork Fat Cracklings (shredded)
  • 1 Egg
  • 2 Tbsp. Pork Fat Lard

Combine the flour, salt, and shredded cracklings in a large bowl with a pastry blender until crumbly.  Make a well in the center of the crackling mixture and add remaining ingredients.  Stir until well combined.  Knead lightly with hands until mixture forms a dough.

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and pat to 1/2″ to 1″ thickness.  With biscuit cutter, cut biscuits and place on parchment lined cookie sheet.

Bake biscuits at 400 for 25 minutes.  Cool completely on cookie sheet.  Store in sealed container.

Nothing is better than pleasing Hubby’s pallet, except of course topping one of my mother-in-law’s recipes, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.

A Taste Of Home – Lamb Paprikash

When Hubby and I began dating, I was not the least bit adventurous when it came to trying new foods.  Being that he was from a different ethnic background – Serbian, I learned rather quickly that I had to learn to at least be somewhat open to trying things beyond my comfort zone.  This was difficult for me, as I was a hamburger and hot dog kinda girl.  Yogurt, cottage cheese, even polish sausage were not things I would consider eating.  I’d have to say I was rather boring and unsophisticated.

Growing up my mother had around 20 different meals that she made using beef, pork roast, and chicken breasts. She never made Chinese food; of Italian dishes she only made spaghetti; Mexican she only made tacos; and the remaining dishes were either grilled or what I consider “American” food – hamburgers, meatloaf, beef stew, roast beef, pork roast, very rarely roast chicken, and ribs.  Very limited, although what she did make was good.

After a few months of dating Hubby, going out to dinner or lunch got old, so I began to experiment a bit in the kitchen.  My mother taught me very little about cooking.  I had a home economics class in junior high, but about the only thing I remember making there was zucchini muffins, which I refused to eat (zucchini, YUK! right?).  So everything I learned about cooking was a hands-on learning experience.  Some meals turned out pretty good, some were inedible, and others needed improvement.

The more I cooked, the more I wanted to try new ingredients and recipes. This has continued through the years and now, although I might not eat some of the recipes I make, I am more than willing to try making practically anything. Hubby is a more than willing guinea pig and even the kids have enjoyed some of my culinary experiments.

When Hubby and I got married I asked him what meals from his heritage he wanted me to make.  He told me flatly, “None!”  His mother was not a bad cook, but growing up in Serbia she had little opportunity to experiment with different ingredients.  Having food to eat was the objective.  Pigeon soup, biscuits with scraps of bacon fat, and smoked meat with bread were some of the highlights.

Still, whenever we went over to his parents house for dinner, his mother always put out a very nice spread showcasing many things she’d enjoyed making since arriving in America some 40+ years ago and Hubby ate it. Some of them were her take on American dishes and others were meals that she had learned to make from her mother, but had little opportunity to make because of not having the ingredients.

If there is one thing I am good at, it is observing.  This is what I have done for the past 20+ years of being with Hubby.  I have watched him eat his mother’s cooking and enjoy it.  Not everything, but there are definitely some things he truly loves, although I’m not sure he’d admit it.  One of the meals that he always enjoys when we are over there is lamb paprikash, which is a traditional Christmas meal for them.  I have never been crazy about lamb, but this is one method of preparation that I do enjoy.

Now that Hubby’s mother is no longer able to have holiday dinners, I decided this year I would give making lamb paprikash a shot.  I had no recipe, as my mother-in-law has nothing written down, no measurements for ingredients, and speaks broken English.  I decided to go on taste and memory for this one.  Basically I figured making lamb paprikash had to be similar to beef stew and took it from there.  The results were a success.  Hubby told me it was better than his mother’s.  But let’s keep that between us — his mother and I don’t get along that well already, this would certainly not help matters in that department.

Lamb Paprikash

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  • 1 Semi-Boneless Leg of Lamb
  • 1 Large Onion, diced
  • 2 Tbsp. Butter
  • 5 Tbsp. Bacon Grease
  • 6 Tbsp. Flour
  • Salt to taste

For me the most important characteristic of any meat that I serve is that it be tender.  To attain this in a stew, I cook it all day.

The first step was to sear the leg of lamb in the pot and brown it on all sides, salting as I turned it.  Once brown, I filled the pot with water, covering the lamb completely.  Bring the pot to a boil.  Cover and simmer anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.

When the lamb falls away from the bone, remove from the pot and cut into chunks.  Some of mine turned out to be shreds, which is fine too.

Return the lamb to the pot and bring to a slow boil.

In a small fry pan, melt butter and cook onion until tender.  Add to pot.

To thicken paprikash, melt bacon grease in fry pan, add flour and use broth from the paprikash to make a rue. Slowly mix the rue into the paprikash and cook for 45 to 60 minutes longer.

The only difference I would make in this recipe next time is to add the sautéed onion earlier so it’s flavor incorporates more into the gravy.

Giving Hubby a taste of home is important to me.  Family recipes are a treasure to pass down through generations and now I have one from Hubby’s mother for books, and for this I am — Simply Grateful.