Once in a while a time comes to pay tribute to your roots. Ever since I’ve started blogging, I have been more than absorbed in the world of Mediterranean cuisine and have paid close zero attention to the cuisine I have actually grown up with.
For those who do not know, I was born and spent most of my life in the beautiful Lithuania and have been very fortunate to eat food cooked by mother and grandmother for the years I’ve lived there. Food, which was mostly grown in the back garden, or sought from sustainable farmers and under no circumstances anything pre-processed.
Lithuanian cuisine in rather different from the foods I usually cook, as having spent quite some on the Mediterranean coast I’ve fell madly in love with olive oil and got absorbed by the diverse flavours of Mediterranean and for quite a few years never looked back. However, every time I come back home to Lithuania, I tend to indulge in absolutely every traditional dish I can possibly get my hands on, from rye bread to the famous potato dumplings.
Having received more than a few comments from friends that I have discriminated the national cuisine I was raised in, I’ve decided to dedicate a whole series of posts to traditional Lithuanian dishes, some tweaked with a few ideas of mine. To do so, I’ve dug deep in the family recipe notes, some that were used even by my great grandmother and spent the last few months working on them.
(in the photo: Trakai castle, set in the middle of the lake. Photo from internet, no copyright infringement intended)
So, what is Lithuanian cuisine all about? In the country where the temperatures can reach the same highs as lows (think +30 and -30…) the food tends to be lighter in summer months and get richer once the temperatures start going down. Dairy products such as cottage cheese, sour cream, and potatoes, cabbage and mushrooms, and meats of which pork is the most popular are quintessential to the national cuisine. Despite the ingredients, most of the dishes have one thing particularly in common, they are deeply comforting, warming and all about home cooking.
When selecting the dishes to share here, I must say I have been rather picky… You see, I do not particularly admire pork and I don’t eat much things with sour cream, so I have made tweaks and lighter versions where appropriate, however, there are dishes that are embedded almost to my bone marrows, that I dared not put any modern spins on them. After all, there are reasons why classics are classics.
To start the editorial, I’ve chosen a dark loaf of bread. Humble as it may be, this black rye bread is the cornerstone of Lithuanian cuisine, a dish not only known to every person, but also deeply embedded in the culture. Such bread with salt is frequently used for greeting people on occasions or newlyweds on the wedding day coming back from church. Many expatriates from Lithuania often say that this bread is the thing they miss most, and I for sure am one of them.
This black bread is quite like nothing you would find in any supermarket, even with the label of rye bread. This one, in it’s true form is made from sourdough starter (no yeast), includes rye malt, which gives it a special toasted flavour and overall results in a very dense, peculiar bread, that can stay fresh for up to two weeks. It has a much stronger flavour, than other breads, but combined with rich and complex aroma there is nothing that reminds Lithuania more that this.
I’ve always had a notion that bread baking was a fairly complex matter doing everything the traditional way and since I don’t fancy bread making machines, I never really tried it until last summer, when I was highly recommended to cut out the products with yeast out of my menu.
The alternative to yeast is using a sourdough starter. The thing is, once you have it, then bread baking becomes very very easy, basically just mixing, rising and baking. It’s so easy that I bake bread twice a week, mixing it in the evening then getting up at 5.30, so I could have it ready by 7 am. I know, I’m crazy…
The more complicated thing is acquiring the sourdough starter. I’ve got mine for a different kind of bread from my mother and have been using it ever since, but since I was aiming to bake here a traditional bread, I thought I might as well nail a process on how to make your own sourdough and explain it here. If I’d only known what I was getting myself into…
It took me more than a month and about 5 failed attempts of making sourdough to get it right, and understand what works and does not work.
There’s no big science behind it actually, all you need is rye flour, water and plenty of warmth for the fermentation to happen. I’ve kept mine in the oven set at 25-30C for most of the time and it worked. The best thing is that once you have your starter, it can hold for many years (yes, years) in the fridge or you can even dry some, and keep as powder.
400 g rye flour (preferably coarsely ground)
450 ml water
Mix 100 grams of rye flour with 150 ml of warm water (about 37C) and pour into a glass bowl or an empty glass jar. Cover with a clean damp cloth and place somewhere warm. I found that I the beginning, warmth is especially important, so the best is to heat the oven to about 25 C and place it in there, reheating when needed.
The sourdough should have started showing some signs of life (fermentation like slightly bubbling and increased in mass). Yes, this thing is alive and like most living things it needs something to eat. Hence mix in another 100 grams of rye flour and another 100 ml of water. Be sure the water is not very warm here, or you may just “kill” your sourdough. Then cover with damp towel and set in the warm place for another 24 hours.
Take out 3-4 tablespoons of the sourdough and just throw it away (to save the space) and then mix in another 100grams of rye flour and 100 ml of warm water. Again cover and set in the warm place for 24 hours.
Mix in another 100 grams of flour and 100 ml of water, then cover and back in the warm place again. I cannot emphasize the importance of warmth enough. If it’s not warn the fermentation will simply not happen. After every feeding the sourdough should start bubbling and increase in mass and the inside should have air pockets such as these.
Your sourdough starter is ready; it should have the smell reminding of apple vinegar or something like that. You can bake the bread directly or place the sourdough starter in a airtight container in the fridge. The cold of the fridge will slow down the fermentation and as long as you “feed” it once every 2 weeks, this sourdough can hold for many years. In fact, it gets better as it ages, so the bread will be of much better quality after you’ll make it let say the 4th-5th time, since your sourdough will be more mature.
To feed the sourdough from the fridge and to start baking again, simply take the jar out of the fridge take of the cover and place on a clean cloth and let it warm till it starts bubbling again. The mix in 100 grams of rye flour and 100 ml of warm flour and let it ferment for 4-6 hours in a warm place. It will double in size and will haven plenty of air pockets.
Then take out the needed quantity for the bread and place the remaining one into the fridge (airtight container).
Note: the bread in photo was actually bought in Lithuania and brought over to me for a photo, as at that time after a few weeks of playing with sourdough starters I was sure if I’ll manage to bake one like it, so just to have a photo to show and since I’ve nailed the recipe we didn’t have time to re-shoot it, so next time I’ll post how one of mine looks (which is very similar just different shape)
- 200ml boiling water
- 35 g (about 4 tablespoons) malt powder (optional)
- 380 g rye flour (preferably coarsely ground)
- 150 grams sourdough starter
- 100 ml warm water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 10 g salt
- 50 grams wheat flour
- sunflower oil
- Pour 200ml boiling water over malt and let it cool down to about 37C, then stir in about 150 grams of rye flour, sourdough starter, mix everything and put in a warm place for up to 12 hours (or overnight) to rise.
- The next day melt the sugar, honey and salt in 100 ml of warm water, the stir in the water in the risen dough together with remaining 230 g rye flour and 50 g wheat flour.
- Mix everything very well together (you will end up with a sticky dough).
- Oil the deep baking dish with sunflower oil and pour the bread dough into it. Cover with a clean towel and place in a warm place for 3 hours to rise.
- The put the bread into cold oven and set the temperature at 230C. Once the temperature is reached, let it bake for another 15 minutes (to form the crust), then reduce the temperature to 190-200C and let it bake for another 30 minutes.
- Once out of the over cover the bread with a damp towel for at least 20 minutes. This will make the crust softer and easier to remove it from the baking dish. Enjoy!