It’s only fitting that the first One Moveable Feast post pays tribute to my Croatian grandmother, Anna. She inspired me through her cooking to explore our Croatian roots, and had she been alive during my undergraduate years, I would have been able to converse with her in the language—albeit with a limited vocabulary and poor grammar!
My first published essay, “Paprenjak,” appeared in Connecticut Review in spring 2007. It was dedicated to my grandmother:
I was fortunate enough to be allowed to watch her cook, although she usually kept us all out of the kitchen and refused any help. I remember peeking around the corner and watching her plump body sway back and forth against the countertop as she rolled the dough for homemade noodles, the squeaking rolling pin and her sharp exhales forming a rhythmic melody as she worked. The kneading looked like the most fun, and I yearned to try it. I would watch in awe as her strong, pudgy fingers worked the dough into submission, squeezing out the last air bubbles and flour lumps until the consistency was smooth. Once, she saw me and invited me in. She showed me how to knead the dough so that it would roll out nicely. I remember her firm, able hands clasp around my spindly little fingers when I poked through the dough. “Softer,” she said.
The noodles were mixed into tomato or chicken soup, which was usually served with other dishes for dinner, or as a stand-alone for lunch. Sometimes, she substituted knedles for noodles. Knedles are made by dropping large blobs of plain dough into boiling water. I loved fishing through the soup for the knedles after they were cooked, marveling at their irregular shapes and sizes. Cooking and eating were adventures in my grandmother’s kitchen. While my parents discouraged me from playing with my food, my grandmother smiled when I stacked the knedles on the edge of the large soup bowl like displaced islands from a red sea. I think she liked seeing so much joy come from one bowl of soup.
For breakfast, she would make Croatian palačinke. Thicker than French crepes, these pancakes were slicked in butter and lined with jam. I loved her strawberry jam, full of sugar and calories, not like my mother’s low-sugar preserves. My mother asked her for the recipe, but my grandmother never measured ingredients. She estimated, she tasted, she tested. It never failed to come out just right. My mother, always exacting, needed the measurements down to the last grain of salt and prodded my grandmother to convert her estimates into quantitative amounts. Furthermore, my mother’s measured version also called for substitutions. Her recipe substituted margarine for butter, wheat flour for white, Eggbeaters for eggs, and Smucker’s low-sugar spread for real jam.
Read the entire essay here.
Our family recipe for Croatian palačinke.
Photos courtesy of Kathy Vuković.