Saturday, 5 July 2014

HFF #3: This Day in History - T.G. Masaryk's breakfast and supper

Americans have independence, and so do Czechs.

Of course, our actual Independence Days are January 1st (for the Czech Republic, and no one really celebrates it because of the historical circumstances and the fact that everyone celebrates the night before), and October 28th (for Czechoslovakia, and the Independence Day we still respect more, and it is celebrated much less and by much less people than the American Independence Day. That's Czechs for you.)

But as I looked into July events in Czech history, I came across the fact that July 4th 1915 was the day T.G. Masaryk made public his concept of Czechoslovakia and breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I thought it was a funny Independence-related coincidence, what with the Americans in the Historical Food Fortnightly mentioning Fourth of July foods. And then I remembered that Masaryk had told Karel Čapek about his eating habits for Hovory. So there it was, waiting to happen!

(Of course, there are some important July historical events that actually rate for national holidays tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. But I'll be busy and away from home and it would require lots of research that I have no idea where to start with. So while it could be interesting, it would defeat me and my personal purpose in doing this, which is simply to broaden my cooking skills.)

* * *

Masaryk's eating habits (Karel Čapek: Hovory s T.G. Masarykem, Československý spisovatel, Praha 1969, p. 159):

"Above all, then, temperance; to eat and to drink much less than people usually eat and drink. If you want to know, I eat three times a day: for breakfast, first some fruit, a bit of butter and jam on a toast, sometimes a piece of fried bacon and about half a cup (or mug) of unsweetened tea; I used to eat a soft-boiled egg sometimes, but I am told it is not very healthy. For lunch (/dinner), several spoons of white soup, a small piece of meat, more vegetables, a piece of dessert, fruit and black coffee. For supper I am used to having a small plate of porridge or a piece of buchta*, with milk coloured with a drop of coffee. That's enough. ... Between those three meals, I don't take anything else, except maybe some plain tea around five o'clock if there is company."
* that is, something cake-like, most likely

So having that to go by, I thought for a moment, hey, I can do the whole day like that. But I didn't in the end, because
a) while I don't eat so much myself, I drink a lot, and in the summer heat, I don't think I could switch to almost no drink (and all caffeine / theine at that!) all of a sudden without repercussions;
b) I'd probably spend most of the day cooking and looking up recipes and buying the things I did not have at home (meat for the soup and... meat, and vegetables other than potatoes and onion...) - and I wanted to sew and do other things.

So I went for the very, very simple and basic things: toast with jam and semolina porridge (because semolina is what I had at hand). Which feels a little bit like cheating the purpose of the Historical Food Fortnightly. But it's actually not, because while it's very, very simple things I can make even without a recipe, I usually make them utilising some more modern tools, like a toaster and a special double-boiler. I wanted to see how they would have been made in Masaryk's time.

And then there was fruit, of course, and this is a good time of year for that.

For the toast and porridge, I opened Anuše Kejřová's cookbook again. It's spot on for the era.

The only recipe for bread toast she has is for toast with garlic (and I'm actually pleasantly surprised that she has a recipe for toast at all); but since all I wanted to know was how the toast itself would be prepared, it was all right.

"Bread toast with garlic: We cut thin slices of bread, let them bake until pink on both sides on a cooking plate. Then we smear each slice on both sides with garlic, then spread with goose or pork lard and finally sprinkle with salt. They are tasty and healthy."

Well... I'm not so sure about the healthy part, but no objections to tasty on my side. I like garlic toast, and I like bread with lard and salt. But this was no time for garlic and lard toast.
And I did not want to put the bread on a cooking plate because, I'm ashamed to say, our cooking plates are old and dirty and rusty (because of all the liquids that got onto them from the pots and from trying to clean away some of the dirt). So what I did was properly heat up a small pan, without any grease, and bake the toast in that. I consider the pan simply an extension of the cooking plate in this case.

I could not help but feel that heating up the stove just for one slice of bread was a waste, so I put two in the pan. I reasoned that since I did not have bacon, it would balance out... The unevennes of my cutting made the toast almost burn in some spots, so I tried to turn them several times to let each side cool a bit and prevent it from burning. But otherwise it was a good and quick method. I'm definitely doing this again.

A bit of butter...

And jam. I had two toast, so I used two jams: a purchased blueberry one, because BLUEBERRIES, and a homemade plum (?) one from last Autumn, because I guess it's more likely to be similar to what was available then... Both were equally good. :D A big part of the success is, of course, having good bread to begin with. As I've mentioned before in my somewhat ranty post, my hometown is very lucky in that respect.
I tried to follow Masaryk's example and only put on a little of the butter and jam, as Czechs sometimes say "to fill the holes". It was quite enough.

Taking all these photos of nothing but toast feels like navel gazing. But it's for research! :D

* * *

Semolina porridge is something we ate a lot of when we were children. Children us liked it with cocoa and sugar. Lots of cocoa and sugar. A furcoat of cocoa and sugar (that's what we called it, honest to goodness!)

Semolina porridge: We pour semolina (about a cup) into a boiling litre of milk, stirring constantly, salt a bit and let boil for about fifteen minutes. If the porridge is too thick, we add some milk. On a bowl, we make dimples in the porridge with a spoon, pour hot butter over it and top with cinnamon and sugar. We can also pour honey on top and sprinkle it with grated gingerbread. For children, we pour warm raspberry or other jam on the porridge, they like it better that way.
No, we liked it better with a furcoat of cocoa. I've graduated to cinnamon since then, though. And Masaryk was definitely an adult.

I made one quarter of the original recipe for myself. Brought about 250 ml of milk to boil - just simmering softly was quite enough for a skin to appear already. This is why the double-boiler comes handy normally. But it was okay.

And then I added about a quarter of a 250 ml cup of semolina and a pinch of salt. Stirring all the fifteen minutes - it likes to make lumps. It thickened after about five minutes already, probably because there was less of it so it evaporated more quickly. So I did end up adding milk. There was rather more than a small plate of porridge in the end. I'm not sure if that's because I had to add milk or because it was a larger portion to begin with.
(Oh, and of course, you lower the heat after it starts boiling and you add the semolina. You don't want it on the highest degree all fifteen minutes!)

EDIT: Seriously, just simmering is much better than full-on boil. It lumps much less. Tested. Full-on boil (forgot about it for a moment and it boiled over) resulted in lots of lumps.

It actually looked really pretty after I poured it onto the plate. It made these nice soft ridges, and had a lovely creamy colour.

And then I ruined it with an attempt to make dimples with a spoon. I'm not sure if it's supposed to look nicer or not. But the real purpose of that curious, previously unknown to me step, I think, is to help it cool down more evenly - semolina porridge is infamous for cooling on the outside and staying hot inside! This plate didn't.

Poured butter and sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on top. I was very generous with the butter, mostly because I wasn't sure how much I needed when I heated it up - it was a fairly thin slice, but still more than enough.

Pair with coffee milk. (Completely ahistorical, because the only coffee I have is instant Nescafé.)

Say your graces, and proceed to your heart's content.

My mother used to tell me not to mix together my food in case I ended up not eating it all in one sitting. Well...

* * *

It was a very successful experiment. I don't mean just because these are simple tasty meals with very few ingredients, easy and quick to prepare, even though that's a big part of it - and actually, I think, part of the point Masaryk was making.
It's also that it went much better than the celery sauce I attempted for the previous challenge and never got around to posting about. That one, while quite tasty in the end, did not seem to have achieved the proper saucy texture and left me feeling somewhat uncertain about the exact purpose of that meal and the correct process.
I think it was because the recipe for that sauce is rather confusing (my sister could not make head or tails of it and I only did after several readings - and maybe still didn't); while these are not only simple, but even contain, in the case of the semolina porridge, advice on what to do if it does not behave as expected, just as it happened to me.

The Challenge: #3 This Day in History
The Recipe: see above
The Date/Year and Region: approx. 1920s-1930s in Czechoslovakia
How Did You Make It: a not so brief synopsis above
Time to Complete: Both are very quick - the semolina porridge takes, all in all, maybe 25 minutes (depending on how quickly your milk comes to boil). The toast are even quicker - it depends on how long you heat up the plate, but the toasting itself is maybe three minutes.
Total Cost: Um... negligible? I think it could come below 20 CZK for one person, like I did it. The priciest part would definitely be the dairy products.
How Successful Was It?: Very, very much. :D
How Accurate Is It?: As mentioned, I used a pan for the toast instead of just using the cooking plate, and I made two. And then my ingredients and pots may not be perfectly historical (like homogenised milk - but I used the high fat content variety); and I am, of course, using an electrical stove instead of one with a fire. But other than that, because it's so simple, there wasn't really much room for deviations.


  1. Okay, Hana, a very interesting post. I'll have to look up this Historical Food Fortnightly that you speak of.
    Your semolina porridge looks very pretty in that dish, but anything with lots of milk doesn't appeal to me, so............ but your toast is another subject! Did they say to toast it till it's pink? Does bread turn pink when toasted? (no) :D Anyway, I had to laugh at your remark about navel gazing. It looks very tasty, anyway.
    I always want to celebrate all holidays, in some way; it's important, I think. To stop and 1. take a break from the usual routine, and 2. to keep a connection with the past. But today we couldn't have a cookout (I have a sudden memory of maybe a year ago, another blog post and another mention of cookouts or barbecues - it's coming back to me), because it was rainy, but we still had a friend over. We ate hot dogs, salad and I made my salmon and pea pasta salad (recipe on my blog). And homemade slightly-chocolate black raspberry ice cream. Right before dinner, I suddenly thought we should find a picture of John Adams or Thomas Jefferson and put it out somewhere, so my brother came up with a biography of Adams with his image on the cover so put on a nearby shelf. In the morning, I prayed for our country before getting up. There! That was my Independence Day.
    I'm glad you found a connection between our countries for this day!

    1. Oh, such a pity that the semolina porridge does not appeal to you, because... because it's one of the best things I know. :D
      I think "pink" is halfway between "golden" (which the bread, being baked to begin with, theoretically already is) and "brown"; the next step, to be avoided, is "cinder". :D
      I had a nice fourth of July during my time in the USA (and it was raining, too!), when my host family had friends and family over, the house was full, we had fun and I got to try some interesting new-to-me foods; so while I'm definitely not American, I was glad to find a connection, too. :-) But it just so happened that I was home alone on that day...

  2. I did a semolina too but it's a pudding! Your posts are always so interesting as I am not familiar with the foodways in the Czech Republic.

  3. Hani, krupicovou kaši mám dodnes ráda, nejraději půlku posypanou skořicí s cukrem a půlku s nastrouhanou hořkou čokoládou a troškou másla. Od dětství ji jím kolem dokola, od vnějšího okraje ubírám jakoby po obvodu spirály, tak stačí kaše po okrajích pořád vychládat a nespálím se o horký střed. :-) Dobrou chuť k topinkám i jiným pokrmům, kuchařku Anuše Kejřové měla má maminka. Pa

    1. Však já si ji taky občas vařívám, i bez historického vaření. ;-) My to tak taky vždycky jedli, kolem dokola, ale zaujalo mě, že Kejřová na to má vlastní trik. My máme vydání z Paseky z devadesátých let - tuším, že to někdo z rodiny nejspíš taky měl a rodiče si koupili to nové vydání, aby měli svou. :-) Má třeba bezvadný recept na buchty - dělaly jsme je se sestrou poprvé v životě a hned na poprvé byly naprosto perfektní.

  4. I found your post full of fascinating information. Americans don't learn much about your country. Your recipe doesn't sound that bad.