I have an awesome neighbour, Lucia. When I told her that I wanted to go into Slovaks’ homes to learn recipes from them, she called me up. “My grandmother-in-law is making oškvarkové pagáče, want to come?” Yes!
Pagáč are similar to what North Americans would call biscuits and British would call scones, small savoury scones. There are many types – potato, cheese, bryndza (soft sheep cheese), and lard crackling, among others.
Oškvarkové pagáče are the ones made with lard cracklings ground into a paste and spread onto the yeast dough, folded to create layers. There is a variety even within oškvarkové pagáče, however. These ones are soft and a little bread-like; another recipe I have is richer and more flaky. One isn’t better than another, they just have different textures.
We dashed through the rain to the grandmother’s apartment on a Sunday morning, shaking off our coats and umbrellas at the door. Babka (grandmother) smiled at me, welcoming a stranger but still somewhat reserved. Her daughter, an aunt-in-law, was also there and she mostly made the pagáč.
The best thing about cooking is that you can chat at the same time. Babka asked Lucia to figure out a picture sent to her phone from a relative – the daughter of a cousin maybe? While Teta (aunt) stirred the dough, Babka told us about this person with a promising career, a broken relationship, a stroke, a new romance, and a new child through adoption.
We had heard stories about her grandfather and asked about him. The only problem with some of the next stories is that she called both her grandfather and her father dedko, grandfather, one because he was her grandfather and one because she is used to referring to her father as grandfather to her children and grandchildren. I wasn’t always sure which man she was referring to.
Years ago, more people lived in scattered cottages behind the towns, most of which have since disappeared. Watching a video of an interview with her father on his 96th birthday, I discovered that these people were called the Huncokari. The Huncokari were people from German speaking countries, mostly from what is now Austria, who moved to the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathian) region on both sides of the hills starting in the middle of the 18th century. The title Huncokari came from the German Holzhacker, wood cutter. They lived in hilly forested areas in isolated cottages, two or three families together. Though they kept a distinct bilingual culture for many years, much of the culture disappeared when many of the people were moved to Germany in 1945.
Her family, and her father’s family, lived in various cottages behind local towns, in charge of the forests. A forest overseer was in charge of what wood came out of the forest – a fair amount of power in the days when everybody used wood heating, what parts of the forests were logged or planted, and in charge of the other people working in the forest.
Both men, it seems, also had a way with women, knowing secret areas of the forest for rendezvous on the side.
Her grandfather worked together with the aristocrat of the local castle. There was a joke about their names, in fact. In Slovak, gróf means aristocrat, and her grandfather’s last name was Gróf.
Every Sunday morning at eight Gróf met the gróf to open up a building kept for animal feed storage. One day the priest asked him why he didn’t come to Mass. “Oh,” said her grandfather, “I have to meet the gróf in the morning and then I can’t manage to get there in time.”
As the aristocrat had their own chapel at the castle, he didn’t have to manage church on time. A few days later, the aristocrat told him that they could meet later, at 11. When her grandfather asked him why, he discovered that the priest had intervened. Babka chuckled remembering how his excuse was no longer valid.
Her grandfather’s sister was a single mother with four children who lived with her brother’s family, who had five of his own. Nine children, three adults, and the cottages then were a kitchen and a single room…we were all quiet for a bit imagining such living conditions, which were then normal. (Ever read the book It Could Always Be Worse?)
Teta grunted as she rolled out the dough. Babka’s grandfather wasn’t always a very nice man though, she said.
Near the cottage where Babka lived as a child, a box with two large bottles of slivovica, homemade plum brandy was buried near a large tree. The longer slivovica sits, the smoother and better it gets. A few years ago she and some siblings and cousins dug around the tree for two days, but to no avail.
Clothesline outside the window, looking through to the next apartment building.
Babka worked for some years as a teen as a tree planter. The teens worked in pairs, one making the hole, the other planting the tree. They used to try to siphon off trees so that they would get paid for planting more, just enough not to get noticed.
Her father, in his later years, made a family tree, reaching back to 1764. He went village to village, digging up birth certificates. Pouring over the typwritten names, my neighbour sorted out where various family members she knows belong. This lady was so-and-so’s daughter, and her children…
By the time I left, they were visibly more comfortable – I was now a friend. Babka rubbed me on the arm in a grandmotherly way, telling me to come by anytime. Teta brought out her knitting to show me, a beautiful weaving pattern.
Many thanks to all for your openness and for showing me the great recipe!
These oškvarkové pagáče are soft, rich, and somewhat addictive. They are similar to a biscuit/scone but more moist. A good oškvarkové pagáč isn’t straight, said teta, but is leaning over. You may flavour them with caraway seed or sesame seeds if you wish, but some like them without too.
Lard cracklings are the leftover bits from rendering lard. You may be able to find cracklings at a specialty butcher shop; you are certainly able to make them. Rendering lard was trendy a little while ago and there are many articles and videos on how to make it. Basically, chop up fat, heat slowly, and sieve off the melted fat (lard). This article has detailed instructions, photos, and a video on how to make lard.
You want to stop rendering the fat when the cracklings are still somewhat soft, which means don’t render all the fat out of the cracklings because they will be hard as rock. To use the cracklings in this recipe, put them through a meat grinder to make a paste. Make sure the crackling paste is at room temperature or you won’t be able to spread it.
Flour in Slovakia is bought in various consistencies, from very finely ground to more course to quite course. There is no all-purpose flour. If you live in a country with flour available in different grinds, choose the finest grind, in Slovakia called hladká múka specialne 00. If not, I’ve seen recipes for pagáče with a more course grind, so all-purpose flour should work fine.
See below the recipe for instructional photos.
Mäkké Oškvarkové Pagáče: soft lard crackling biscuits
These soft Slovak biscuits use ground up lard cracklings to create layers in this traditional baked good, moist, rich, and addictive.
- 42 grams fresh yeast, OR 6 teaspoons dry yeast
- 200 ml (3/4 cup + 1 tbsp) milk
- 1 tablespoon sugar or other sweetner
- 600 grams (5 cups) all-purpose flour or extra fine grind (hladka) if possible
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 250 grams (1 cup) sour cream
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons lard
- 250 grams (3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp) lard cracklings, ground see note above
- 1 egg
- caraway seed or sesame see, optional
Warm milk (I prefer in a pot on the stove) until warm but not hot. You should be able to hold a finger in the milk without it being too hot. Stir in sugar or other sweetener. Crumble in fresh yeast or sprinkle in dry yeast and let sit for 7-10 minutes.
In a large baking bowl stir together flour and salt. Add sour cream, egg yolk, and lard. When yeast mixture is ready, pour it into the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the dough is too heavy, then switch to mixing with your hands. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes.
Turn the dough out onto a flat floured surface and roll or pat into a rectangle about 3/4 to one inch (2-3 cm) thick. With your fingers, spread the ground lard cracklings to cover the dough. As you spread the lard crackling paste, make sure there are no overly large hard bits.
Fold the dough into thirds in both directions, from front/bottom and side to side. To do this, fold the top down a third of the way and the bottom up overtop. Then from the right side a third of the way and the left side overtop.
Let the folded dough rise for 20 minutes, then roll out to the same size and fold again. Some people say the folds must be the same way every time, other people say each time needs to be different, so I'm going to go ahead and say that until proven otherwise, it doesn't really matter. Do not turn the dough over.
Let rise another 20 minutes, roll, fold, and let rise again for 20 minutes. (So, in all, the dough will have been folded and risen 3 times). Preheat oven to 200C/400F.
Roll the dough out about an inch/3cm thick. Use a small glass or round cookie cutter to cut rounds out of the dough. Take each piece and build it up between your hands by gently pressing your hands together on the sides of the pagáče as they move in opposite directions. This is more simple than writing makes it sound.
Place on a greased or parchment-papered baking sheet. Whisk an egg and brush each pagáč with the egg wash. If desired, sprinkle sesame seeds or caraway seeds on each one.
Bake the pagáče 15-20 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool (if you can!) and enjoy. While the pagáče will keep for some time, they are best fresh or by the next day.
A popular style of ceramics in Slovakia, reading “Bread” and “Nuts”