RACHEL'S KITCHEN

Halušky: Like gnocchi only smaller and tastier

WHEN describing their national dish, halušky, Slovaks often say it is like gnocchi, the small Italian dumplings made out of flour and potato. In flavour, halušky is very similar to its Mediterranean cousin, but there are fundamental differences in the way the two dishes are made and served that give the Slovak dish its unique pizzazz.
For example, gnocchi dough is usually made out of cooked potatoes mixed with flour, while halušky dough is a runnier affair, created with liquidised raw potatoes. The shell-shaped gnocchi are cut off a roll of dough, but halušky are pushed into boiling water through round holes in a pan specially designed for the purpose. They come out like fat little asymmetric worms, and are traditionally eaten smothered in the local sheep's cheese bryndza and sprinkled with fried bacon bits.
Vegetarians can substitute the bacon for fried onions, scrambled eggs, cooked cabbage or sauerkraut.


Halušky
photo: Brian Jones

WHEN describing their national dish, halušky, Slovaks often say it is like gnocchi, the small Italian dumplings made out of flour and potato. In flavour, halušky is very similar to its Mediterranean cousin, but there are fundamental differences in the way the two dishes are made and served that give the Slovak dish its unique pizzazz.

For example, gnocchi dough is usually made out of cooked potatoes mixed with flour, while halušky dough is a runnier affair, created with liquidised raw potatoes. The shell-shaped gnocchi are cut off a roll of dough, but halušky are pushed into boiling water through round holes in a pan specially designed for the purpose. They come out like fat little asymmetric worms, and are traditionally eaten smothered in the local sheep's cheese bryndza and sprinkled with fried bacon bits.

Vegetarians can substitute the bacon for fried onions, scrambled eggs, cooked cabbage or sauerkraut.

The method

The first step is to prepare the potatoes. Once peeled, chop them up and put them piece by piece into an electric mixer, if you have one, blitzing them until they turn into a yellow liquid, which you should put in a large bowl. If you don't have a mixer, you will have to grate the potatoes by hand on the star surface of a cheese grater, which is a laborious and tiresome task.

Before you add the eggs and flour to the potatoes, you need to get the bacon frying and the water boiling. The bacon should be smoked and come in a block, not in strips. The oravská slanina type from the Orava region is a good choice if you're able to buy your ingredients in Slovakia; most supermarkets stock it.

Once released from its package, the bacon block should be stripped of its rind and cut into tiny cubes. Put these to fry in a pan over a low heat. Alongside, place a large pan full of water on the stove - as if for pasta - throw in a tablespoon of salt and bring the water to the boil.

Go back to your bowl of liquid potato and break in two eggs. Mix well. Now it's time to add the flour, and you may be surprised by how much the runny potato-and-egg mush absorbs. For 10 medium-sized potatoes you should expect to use up to half a kilo of fine wheat flour (hladká múka). Don't bother to measure it all out - just pour the flour in from the bag, stirring from time to time, until the dough is thick and resistant. It should stick to your wooden spoon when you hold it up.

The next step needs a special instrument: a metal halušky pan, with a handle and holes through which the dough is pushed. It should sit nicely on top of your pot of salty water, now boiling vigorously.

Put the dough in the halušky pan, a few spoonfuls at a time, and push it through the holes with your spoon. If you can't get hold of a halušky pan, cut little bits off a lump of dough placed on a wooden board and drop them into the water.

The halušky will fall into the water and sink to the bottom of the pot. Give them a gentle stir. When they are ready, they will rise to the surface a different colour; that process should take between 5 and 10 minutes.

If the pot gets full before you have finished all the dough, take out the cooked halušky with a slotted spoon and put them in a big bowl. You may want to boil a fresh pot of water before cooking the rest.

Meanwhile, put your bryndza in a bowl and add a tablespoon or two of the viscous water from the cooking pot. The amount of cheese you use will depend on how much you like its dense sour flavour: 250 grams will create a mild dish, 500 grams will pack a punch. Mash the cheese and the water together until they make a thick sauce.

If you're too far away to get authentic fresh bryndza, you can use any crumbly white sheep's or goat's cheese instead.

When all the halušky are done, drain them, put them in a big bowl, and add the bryndza sauce. Mix it all together well, then spoon the cheesy halušky onto plates. By this time your bacon bits should be fairly crispy, so scatter them generously on top then drizzle the bacon fat over everything.

A local yoghurt drink called kefir is often drunk as an accompaniment, although a crisp sauvignon blanc will elevate the dish from peasant fare to a dinner-party treat.

Ingredients

Serves four to six people

10 medium-sized potatoes
250-500 grams fresh bryndza
400-500 grams fine wheat flour
1 tablespoon salt
200-300 grams smoked bacon (in a block)
2 eggs

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