Acquiring an original Czech recipe
After writing about traditional Czech cooking, I thought I’d better put my pen down and actually get my hands dirty in the kitchen (with something other than Czech sweets). My own curiosity, coupled with requests from readers for an authentic recipe for svíčková, prompted me to talk to Radek’s děda. Svíčková is one of the heartier Czech dishes, it seemed a perfect one to try to make during the current winter months, when my taste for salads and greens is replaced with a desire for meats, gravy, and bread dumplings. Had I known that acquiring the recipe would become a comedic experience, fitting for an episode in the notoriously wacky Homolkovi family film series, I would have asked Radek to videotape it.
During a recent Sunday afternoon visit at Radek’s grandparents, děda was puttering around the kitchen preparing chlebíček (open-faced sandwiches) and it seemed like a good opportunity to get his recipe for svíčková. I know enough about the way Czechs cook to not expect Radek’s family to have their recipe written down. I figured it would be best to get Radek to record the recipe while I listened. Little could I have anticipated an afternoon of heated discussion as děda argued with both his wife and daughter over the “true” recipe. There was so much dissension, yet each of them assured me that making svíčková wasn’t a bit hard, just time-consuming.
Radek’s reluctance at being named the scribe soon translated to genuine interest when the older generations began to debate the recipe particulars. I found the demonstration of family dynamics almost as engrossing as the recipe. Despite often chiding me for not preparing Czech food for our children, both babička and prababička seemed puzzled that I’d want to make svíčková. Initially they offered to prepare it for me so as to save me the trouble of making it at home. When I explained I wanted the recipe for my column they seemed pleased, if a bit confused why I’d want to pass on děda‘s recipe, since they figured that even my non-Czech readers had some Czech family or friends they could turn to for their own, tailored svíčková recipe.
The first hint of a difference in tastes occurred when Radek asked his grandfather what kind of beef should be purchased. Initially, I assumed that I should purchase the cut called pravá svíčková (beef tenderloin), a filet mignon cut. Radek had often told me that svíčková was prepared from the best part of the beef, but děda insisted that “proper” svíčková is typically made from hovězí zadní (literally “back beef”). He shook his head with disbelief at the mention of pravá svíčková, saying it was way too expensive to use in a regular meal. Even though Radek had told me that the name svíčková originally came from the cut of beef used, when I talked to other Czech friends, they concurred with děda that no one would buy pravá svíčková for a regular occasion.
Radek’s mom added her own twist, saying that we could use falešná svíčková, but she couldn’t explain the difference between that cut and zadní, except that falešná (fake) means the opposite of pravá (true). Mistakenly, I jumped to the conclusion that falešná svíčková might not be beef at all. When I asked another Czech friend to confirm, she called her babi who said that falešná svíčková is actually the best part of zadní, which includes meat from the kýta (rump), as it is a rolled muscle, more like tenderloin, without any tough membrane or sinews. Radek’s grandmother also chimed in that, if we wanted, we could also use roštěnec, which seems to translate to roast, but děda held his ground and insisted that plain zadní was best.
By this time, my head was swimming with all the different cuts of beef that I’d previously never bothered knowing much about, in English or in Czech. While Radek’s family amicably disagreed about the particulars of the beef, I decided that I’d visit the butcher’s in our neighboring village and just tell them that I wanted beef for svíčková and see what I’d be given. In general the butcher shop is one of my least favorite places to practice Czech, owing in large part to my ignorance of the vast assortment of Czech meat products. Additionally, since I’m still fumbling my way through the metric system, I’m never sure of the appropriate prefix (deci, deka or kilo) that matches the quantity I’ll need. I knew that I’d feel accomplished once I made a successful purchase.
After settling the beef discussion, děda explained that the most important part of the recipe involves stuffing cubes of slanina (bacon fat) or špek (lard) into the cleaned, sliced beef. Although some of my more health-conscious Czech contemporaries claim to leave this part out, děda insisted it was essential for the proper flavor. Although děda tried to skip over the whole vegetable-sauce phase, babička and prababička quickly chided him into remembering to give us all the details. Once the meat is prepared, it’s placed in a baking dish along with a marinade of spices, vinegar and whole vegetables (carrot, celery root and parsley), which are cooked for a few minutes before the meat is added.
Děda couldn’t give us the exact proportions for the spices or the vegetables, and insisted that these must be prepared podle chuti (according to personal taste). Once in the dish, the entire mixture is marinated overnight and then cooked for approximately two hours, at which point the meat and whole spices are extracted and the vegetables are pureed to form the sauce. During the final stage, cream the sauce is thickened with a flour/milk mixture and finally cream is added. Each of Radek’s family members used a different type of cream, ranging from sour cream to sweetened condensed milk or whipping cream. Everyone professed to alter the amounts of cream according to taste each time. Although děda didn’t mention the standard svíčkovágarnish of lemon and cranberry sauce, I knew he included it when he prepared it.
Initially, I wanted děda to give me his recipe for bread dumplings too, but he simply pulled a dumpling mix packet out of the cupboard to show me. There was some discussion among the family about whether a mix was as good as homemade dumplings, but I realized that I could probably tackle this part on my own.
I’ve had every intention of making the svíčková this past week, but Radek and I couldn’t coordinate a night together in the kitchen, and I couldn’t pysche myself up to undertake such an authentic Czech endeavor without backup. So, with svíčková ingredients on my shopping list, I plan to test out my Czech cooking prowess this coming week. The recipe which follows is děda‘s svíčková as told to Radek and translated by me (and as yet, untested by a non-Czech).
For the record, when I talked to other Czech friends, they admitted that they rarely use written recipes to cook by. I know there are different variations to this traditional favorite, particularly with the flavor, consistency and seasoning involved in the sauce preparation. I’m sure I’ll have a few tweaks of my own to make once I actually try the recipe. However, here’s a basic starting point.
1.5 kg beef tenderloin, beef back, rump or roast
Small cubes of bacon fat or lard
Approx. 1.5 L water
3 bay leaves
6 all spice berries
2-3 soup spoons of vinegar
2 large carrots
1/2 celery root
1 bunch fresh parsley
*Vegetables should be approximately equal portions
Thickener made from water/milk and flour mixture
2 packages cream (sour cream, whipping cream or condensed milk)
Clean meat, prick and stuff with lard. Add spices, vinegar and whole vegetables to boiling water. Cook for 10 minutes. Cool. Cover meat with cooled marinade and leave to sit in baking dish overnight. The following day, roast the meat in the oven for approximately 2 hours or until tender. Take the meat and spices from the sauce. Strain out the whole vegetables and puree them in blender with 2 cups of the marinade. Pour this mixture back into the rest of the marinade. Cook until boiling. Leave to simmer. Mix 2 spoons water/milk with 2 spoons of flour and add to thicken sauce. Add 2 packages of condensed milk or 1 package of condensed milk and 1 container of whipping cream to cooled sauce. Serve meat with sauce covering it and top with cranberries and lemon wedge.