Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hrstule: Don't Get Married Without Them

As we enter peak wedding season, I keep a hopeful eye on the mailbox. I love weddings. Not just for the romance and free booze, but because, if I get invited to the right wedding, I'll be able to gorge myself on hrstule. Believe me, it's well worth springing for that stem of Waterford.

Hrstule, or bow ties as they are commonly called here, are one of the more well-known Croatian pastries. Dough flavored with whiskey and anise oil or essence of anise, is rolled thin, cut in strips, tied in loose knots, fried and dusted with powdered sugar. They are commonly served at weddings, but also at Christmas. Hands-down, they are my favorite of all the Croatian pastries, even more beloved by me than pusharates.

Yet, sadly, they are the one delicacy from my childhood that I have failed to master. And God knows I have tried. My dough is always too sticky, too dry, too thin, not thin enough, with too much anise, or not enough anise flavor. Etc., etc., etc.

I even tried making them in the presence of my mother, who made excellent hrstule, in the hopes that her skill would transfer to me by osmosis. Didn't quite work out that way. What started out as a heartwarming mother-daughter-making-memories-in-the-kitchen episode turned into another classic mother-daughter moment. The kind that starts out with gentle suggestions and winds up in slammed doors and dough in the trash.

It's not that I don't have a good recipe. I do. The best - my nona's - which countless generations of Kovacevic, Rosetti and Soljan women have used successfully.

It's not that I'm not "book smart" about the process. I know for instance:

The dough has to be really, really thin ( like 1/16 of an inch) in order to crisp properly.

To get the proper anise flavor you need real oil or essence of anise, not extract. You used to be able to get this from your friendly neighborhood pharmacist, but except for a few old-time drug stores that's getting hard to find. I bought my last bottle at the Mediterranean Bakery in Alexandria, Va.

Bow ties will keep for AGES if stored in an airtight can. And the flavor does improve with age.

If making bow ties with other pastries, store separately from the others, especially those with fillings as these will cause the bow ties to lose their crispness.

So there you have it. If you have better success with them than I do, don't call to gloat, just send me a tin of them.

And if you plan on getting married any time soon, be sure to invite me. You don't have to toss me the bouquet. Just throw me the bow ties.

Hrstule (Bow Ties)

Cream well:

4 eggs
4 stirring spoons (not measuring spoons) sugar (approximately 1 cup)


1 stick of butter, melted and cooled.
2 Tbsp. whiskey or brandy
1 Tbsp. lemon extract
1 Tbsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp essence of anise

Blend well, then add:

4 cups plain all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder

Knead well. May take a little more flour, amount depends on the size of eggs and the amount of flavorings used. Vary flavorings to suit taste. After kneading, roll out thin and cut into strips about 3/4 inch wide and 8 inches long. tie strips into loose bow knots. Let bow knots dry out by placing them on waxed paper. Spread on the table. Fry in deep oil at 375 degrees. These cook fast so watch and keep them from browning. Turn one time and remove from hot oil. They take on color while draining. Cool and dust with powdered sugar.

Photo: Mike and Mary on their wedding day, 1925.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Shine 'Til It Sings

For several years, my mom, Toni, worked at the Keesler Air Force base exchange. Lucky her. She got first dibs at all the good merchandise.

Like all the Soljan girls, my mother was "blessed" with fine, thin hair. Glad I got those genes.

The exchange got in a new shampoo that promised not only bountiful tresses, but “hair so shiny it sings.” Who could resist that? Apparently, not her baby brother Michael, then about five. In search of shiny, singing hair, he used up the ENTIRE bottle.

And the damned stuff never squeaked out so much as an E-flat.

I am my mother’s daughter. My hair care arsenal includes sprays, mousses and super-duper volumizing shampoo. None of this stuff exactly warbles, but my hair will squeak if I towel-dry it just right.

But who cares about that? Not only do I have Toni’s fine hair, I have her fabulous Coke salad recipe. It’s so good it makes my taste buds sing .

I’ll take those over singing hair any day of the week.

Before you write this off as just another one of those congealed salad recipes that were so popular in the 1960s and 70s, give it a try. I'm not an aspic fan myself - stuff suspended in Jello just doesn't do it for me as a rule. However, this one is a cut above the rest.

My mom made this a lot for holidays and Sunday dinners, often using it as an accompaniment to roast beef, broccoli casserole and cheesy potatoes.

It is my cousin Joey's favorite of all my mom's recipes. Although this is a salad, he usually saved his piece for dessert.

Coke Salad (4 cup mold)

1 3-oz. package of cherry Jello
1 small can crushed pineapple (drain and reserve juice)
1 cup chopped pecans
1 3 oz. package of cream cheese, cubed
1 can of Coca Cola or other cola drink

Combine pineapple juice, cola and enough water to make 2 cups. Boil. Dissolve Jello in hot liquid. Fold in pineapple, nuts and cream cheese. Chill until set in 4-cup mold or equivalent pan.

Photo: My mom, Toni, and her brother Michael, circa 1949.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged, Part II: Hvar, Croatia

After eating everything I could in Split, I took the hour-long ferry ride to the island of Hvar, the Soljans’ ancestral home.

Hvar looks like a post-card: clear azure blue seas and hilly terrain with red-tile roofed villas. Vineyards, olive groves, and lavender fields grow everywhere as does rosemary, sage, thyme, and bay trees.

In the main city, Hvar Town, a medieval fortress still stands guard against a Turkish invasion. It may have kept the Turks out, but not the Italian upper crust which have made Hvar their own posh playground.

My evening agenda in Hvar Town was to hang out at a café, sip pivo (beer) – Karlovacko and Osjecko are the local favorites - and eyeball the yachts in the harbor. After a leisurely dinner, I strolled the square with a cone of gelato listening to the techno music spill out from the happening night spots around the harbor.

Ahead of me a pair of very thin, very tan blondes stumbled from boats to clubs, scruffing their Louboutins on the polished cobblestones, in search of a party. A dog, rock in mouth, came up to me, tail wagging hopefully, in search of a game of fetch. All of them found what they were looking for.

Daylight was for visiting other parts of the island. There are only two main highways, both very twisty, with hair pin curves and very few guard rails. The bus ride to Stari Grad, my grandpa’s hometown, was a white knuckle excursion made even more so by the driver’s choice of music, a repetitive beat I can only describe as Croatian Cajun.

Stari Grad (literally Old Town) with its peaceful bay, art galleries and bohemian atmosphere, evokes Bay St. Louis where I lived before the storm.

First stop was St. Stephen’s church to give thanks for deliverance from that crazy bus ride, followed by a stroll through the cemetery to meet the family. Soljans and Kovacevics are as common here as Favres and Ladners are on the Mississippi Coast. It was the quietest family reunion I’ve ever attended.

Except for cars, some modern stores and locals sporting iPods and cell phones, Stari Grad probably hasn’t changed much in 80 years. Elderly nonas in black dresses, aprons and head scarves gossiped in the squares. Church bells tolled the hour. Dogs napped in the shade. I caught a whiff of something familiar and lemony. I followed the scent trail to a giant Southern magnolia – at least 50 years old– covered with waxy white flowers. Not a common sight in Hvar. I thought of all the people from Stari Grad who went to Biloxi -- and I wondered if a little bit of Biloxi may have made its way back here.

A wing in the local museum is named after the artist Juraj Plancic who was married to Grandpa’s sister. His style reminds me of our favorite local son, Walter Anderson. I leafed through a book in their collection and found a photo of Aunt Tonica. She looked just like my mother.

The food on Hvar is homey and traditional– spaghetti, grilled meat, polenta, seafood stews. For dessert, thin pancakes filled with melon and Nutella (love me some Nutella), and apple or fig strudel. Gelato stands and pizzerias abound.

At family-run konobas I didn't bother looking at menus – everything is market driven. The servers told me what to order, then post-dinner brought around the house grappa. A word of warning if you go: After a few shots, suddenly you'll be able to speak Croatian – or something that sounds like it. Don't make any plans for the next morning. You won’t be up to them.

Other highlights of the trip: a tour of an abandoned village where time stands still after 50 years. Climbing to the highest point of Hvar. Watching school children in local costume folk dancing in the square. Drinking tea made from sage gathered by the road. And learning to pronounce Do vidjanja -- good-bye.

Not that I liked having to say it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Get Back to Where You Once Belonged, Part I: Split, Croatia

When I was 11, my nona’s cousin Frances took her niece on a visit to the “Old Country." When they got back, it seemed like every "-ich" on the Point squeezed into my Nona’s darkened living room to see their vacation slides.

After that, I always had a nagging desire to experience my roots for myself. The desire became an imperative after Hurricane Katrina wiped away our local history. I finally made the pilgrimage to the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia last May.

You know that American Express commercial where the father and son go to Sweden in search of their heritage and then find out they’re actually Norwegian? Well, my family really is from Croatia so, I didn’t have to shell out for any more plane tickets. But there were some surprises in store.

First surprise was how long it took to get there. Thirty hours from Hattiesburg including layovers. I think my grandfather had the right idea when he just jumped ship and swam to America’s shores – probably would’ve been quicker.

In Split, the capital of Dalmatia, upscale boutiques are housed in crumbling Venetian buildings that sprang up over the centuries around Diocletian’s retirement palace. Roman ruins are everywhere -- even the viaducts which still provide the city’s water supply.

Outside the decayed beauty of old town, it’s mostly proletarian apartment buildings with laundry hanging out the windows, remnants of the country’s not too distant Communist past.

Since travel for me is all about the food, I hung out at Split’s huge open air markets and snacked on pag cheese, fresh baked bread, prsut (cured Dalmatian ham like prosciutto but smokier) and produce (OMG, the most incredible cherries and strawberries). The fish market reminded me of the old Point Cadet.

With the recommendations of my Aussie innkeeper in hand, I prowled the back alleys in search of homestyle Dalmatian cuisine at mom and pop cafes known as konobas. One such place offered simple platters of seafood rizot (risotto) and pasta. What hooked me though was their perfect cucumber salad.

This deceptively simple salad is nothing but cucumber slices in a white vinaigrette (no fancy balsamic here) but you’d be surprised how hard this is to get right. When my mom made it, which was often, she salted the peeled cucumber slices to rid them of their inherent bitterness, then briefly soaked them in an ice water bath to remove the salt and also to keep the cukes crisp. Then she dressed the slices in a very simple vinaigrette of white vinegar and vegetable oil with salt and pepper.

Sometimes she’d add in a radish or two sliced very thinly or a few slivers of white onion, but that’s basically it. Don’t ask me why it tastes so different when I do it, it just does. Maybe my Croat genes are too diluted by the Heinz 57 that is my father’s bloodline.

But in this tiny restaurant an ocean away from Mississippi, I ate something that reminded me as much of my mother and grandmother as anything I've eaten in Biloxi lately. And I felt right at home.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Come In If You're Good Looking!

Back in the 40’s and 50's, people actually visited each other rather than texting, tweeting or poking each other on Facebook.

According to my mom, a knock on any door on the Point back then was likely to be greeted with shouts of "Come in if you're good looking." Most everyone knew everyone else in the neighborhood, so people rarely locked their doors or expected too many strangers.

One evening, Grandpa was off on the boats, Nona was at a Ladies’ Auxiliary meeting and the kids – then mostly in their teens - were all camped out in the living room after supper, shooting the breeze, playing cards or whatever people did before TV, the Internet and Wii.

There came a knock at the door. Assuming it was Miss Nettie or Miss Isabel from next door or perhaps Aunt Frances from around the corner, they all shouted out in unison, “Come in if you’re good looking.”

The door opened to reveal the biggest, burliest, baldest, meanest looking guy any of them had ever seen. He had tattoos up and down his arms and his nose looked like it had been broken. Several times. He stared at them. They stared at him. Before anyone could say anything, he ran through the living room, dining room and kitchen, out the back door and disappeared into the night.

To this day, no one knows who he was, where he came from, who or what he was looking for or who the hell lied and told him he was good looking.

Maybe he just wanted a piece of my Nona's jelly roll. You don't hear about these too much anymore, but this used to be one of her go-to weekday desserts. It's an old-fashioned sponge cake rolled up around a jelly center.

Jelly Roll

3 eggs
1 cup of sugar
3 Tbsp. water or milk
1 tsp of vanilla
1 cup of flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch, salt
powdered sugar
2/3 cups jelly or jam (your choice but Nona usually made with strawberry preserves).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a jelly-roll pan (15 1/2" x 10 1/2" x 1") with greased wax paper, aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Add sugar, water ad vanilla and cream well. Stir in vanilla.

In separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Mix gradually into wet ingredients.

Pour into prepared pan, spreading to the edges. Bake 10-12 minutes, until cakes bounces back when touched or toothpick comes out clean.

Spread towel on clean surface and sprinkle liberally with powdered sugar. Turn cake onto towel. Carefully remove paper and trim off any crispy brown edges from the cake.

While the cake is still hot, working from the narrow end carefully roll up the towel with the cake. so that the towel is inside the cake. Cool on a wire rack about 10-15 minutes. (Note: some people like to wrap a damp cloth around the dry cloth).

Unroll the cake. Spread with jam (beat with a fork to make more spreadable). Re-roll the cake (without the towel). Sprinkle with more sifted powdered sugar. Slice and serve.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Monkey Business

I often monkey around in the kitchen. My nona did, too, but then she had a real spider monkey to hang out with. His name was Hoy and he actually belonged to my father while he was still a swinging single (Daddy, not the monkey). Hoy didn’t work out so well in his rented bachelor pad so Daddy “temporarily” dumped him on his fiancée (my mother) and her parents.

Hoy moved in and never left. And why would he want to? Nona brewed him milk coffee every morning, baked his favorite cakes on weekends and even sewed him a little clown costume for Mardi Gras. He slept in a little house Grandpa built for him.

The only bummer was during the day, they would chain him to a cinder block near his little house so he wouldn’t get into trouble. Yeah right.

One nice spring day, Nona left a cake cooling on the kitchen table. Hoy smelled it and got tired of waiting to be offered a piece so he took matters into his own hands – literally. He picked up the cinder block (those little fingers are strong) and marched chain, brick and all up the back steps, opened the screen door and made off with the cake.

History does not record what type of cake it was, but it may have been a pound cake. My family was fond of those. As Hoy knew well, it is delicious with a cup of milk coffee.


1 1/2 cups butter, softened
1 8-oz. package of cream cheese, softened
3 cups of granulated sugar
6 large eggs
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. of almond, lemon or orange extract (optional but oh so good)

Beat butter and cream cheese at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add sugar and beat well. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until the yellow disappears.

Combine flour and salt; gradually add to butter mixture, beating a low speed until blended after each addition. Stir in vanilla and other flavorings if desired. Spoon batter into a greased and floured 10-inch Bundt or tube pan.

Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 35 minutes (my oven actually takes about 5 minutes longer, especially if I use extra large eggs) or until a long wooden pick comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on rack.


Brew coffee to your liking. * In a small pot pour one cup of milk (on the boats they used evaporated milk which would make it BOAT COFFEE). Heat milk until it just comes to boil. Do not let it boil completely. Add a good spoon (regular spoon, not measuring spoon) of sugar to the milk. Pour in one cup of coffee. Stir.

* If you want to be truly authentic with this recipe, brew your coffee the Point way -- in a sack. First you have to make the sack out of a piece of muslin or handkerchief. You want about a 4-inch deep sack. My grandmother's cousin Frances, stitched her sack to the frame of an old hand-held soup strainer with the mesh removed. You can also make the frame yourself, using an old wire hanger. Boil one cup of water in a small pot. Just before it comes to a boil, add 1 spoon full of ground coffee to the water. Remove the pot from the heat after it comes to a boil. Set the sack into an empty coffee pot. Pour the coffee/water mixture into the sack and let it drip through. The sack will serve as a coffee filter.

Photo: My nona, Mary, with Hoy, late 1950's.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Mama's Favorite Pasta

Croats, whether on Point Cadet or back in the Old Country, eat pasta just about every day.

Nona usually put the big macaroni in her dishes. The kind that can get rubbery when reheated. The kind that seems to grow larger in little mouths the longer it is chewed.

When my mom was a little girl, every night she used to pray fervently that the macaroni factory would burn down.

Eventually, she got over her disdain for pasta, although her preferences always tended toward the skinny kinds like vermicelli or thin spaghetti rather than the thick and tubular types. She made great daube, killer lasagna and a fancy chicken and pecan fettuccine.

But my all-time favorite was the sausage and pepper spaghetti she made for company (and for my sister and me if we were really good). The original recipe came from Bon Appetit magazine, but she changed it in her own inimitable way. My sister makes this for special occasions like Christmas; she likes the festiveness of the red and green peppers. I make it as comfort food.

You can use Italian or smoked sausage. Mama preferred smoked beef sausage. Hillshire Farms markets something that’s a blend of Italian and smoked that I like. Using a mixture of green, red and yellow bell peppers makes the prettiest presentation, but taste-wise, it really doesn't matter.

Any kind of pasta works in this dish. Mama, of course, preferred thin spaghetti, but I don’t have a problem putting it over penne.

The biggest area where I differ from Mama in the way I make the dish is in the amount of tomato sauce used. Mama didn’t like her sauce too tomato-y so she crushed up only three tomatoes out of an entire can. I prefer my sauce a little juicier so I use more or- just use a can of crushed tomatoes from the get-go.

Mama always served this with homemade garlic bread, a green salad and orange sherbet for dessert.

Pepper Sausage Spaghetti

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp salad oil
3/4 lb of smoked sausage, sliced thin or Italian sausage, crumbled
3 chopped tomatoes with juice (canned tomatoes) NOTE: I use 1 can of crushed tomatoes with juice
1 cup chopped parsley
2 cloves minced garlic
2 peppers sliced (1 red, 1 green or yellow)
1 tsp. oregano
2 dashes hot sauce

In a large skillet, saute sausage in oils 8-10 minutes. Discard most of the oil and add the rest of the ingredients and simmer 10 minutes. Boil and drain 3/4 lbs. of pasta of thin spaghetti (or pasta of your choice) and add to sauce and toss well with 1/4 cup chopped parsley and 3-4 Tablespoons Parmesan cheese, grated (Mama always used Kraft out of the can, but I prefer to grate my own from a wedge). Serve from skillet.

Photo: My mom, Toni, in Biloxi, circa 1954.