The admonition to cook what's in season is not just idle advice in the Balkans, where residents gorge on strawberries in May and June, feast on raspberries and blackberries in July, and lament the passing of all of them by late August. Tiny, luminescently green Brussels sprouts appear in open-air market stalls in February and last the whole bleak Balkan winter. Author Joan McQueeney Mitric knows this firsthand: She has cooked them all, from the luscious berries to the bright little sprouts, while caring for elders here.
Fall is the season of the small, dusky purple Italian prune plum, or sljiva. Cooks from Belgrade to Novi Sad to Dubrovnik are making the plum dumpling dessert known as knedle sa sljivama (pronounced keh-NAID-lay sah SHLI-vah-mah), sinking pitted plums into simple-but-yummy batter to serve with tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee -- or with plum brandy, otherwise known as sljivovica, or slivovitz. When the plum dumplings are cut open, the dark fruit's golden centers should be succulent and sweet.
These lovely prune plums have made their annual brief fall appearance in American East Coast markets. Locally, they are available at Snider's markets, M.O.M. (My Organic Market) in Rockville and some Trader Joe's and Giant Food stores. So, Mitric says, you might say the two continents are sharing a rare United Nations moment of culinary solidarity.
Servings: 4 - 6
- For the topping
- 1/2 to 3/4 stick (2 to 3 ounces) unsalted butter
- 1 to 2 cups medium or fine plain bread crumbs (may use a mixture of white and wholoe wheat)
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (may use light brown sugar)
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional) OR
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
- For the dumplings
- 10 to 12 Italian prune plums
- 6 medium red or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quatered
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (or safflower oil)
- 1 to 3 tablespoons flour
For the topping: In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Gradually add 1 cup of the bread crumbs, then 1/4 cup to 1/2 of the sugar, stirring to combine thoroughly. Taste (the mixture should not be too sweet) and add more bread crumbs or sugar, as desired. Add the cinnamon or vanilla extract, if desired. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
For the dumplings: Wash the plums and pit them by cutting a small slit along one side of the fruit, then pressing on each end. The pit should pop out easily if the plums are ripe. Set aside.
Place the potatoes in a large pot of lightly salted water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cooking for about 15 minutes, until they are easily pierced with a fork. Drain and process through a potato ricer and transfer to a large bowl, or place the potatoes in a food processor and pulse until lump-free. Add the egg, a pinch or two of salt to taste and the vegetable or safflower oil, mixing well. Gradually add just enough flour, so that the potato dough becomes firm enough to hold its shape when formed around each plum. Enclose each plum in a thin, even 1/8-inch layer of dough by rolling the fruit individually in your hands. (You may have some dough left over.) At this point, the dumplings can be covered and refrigerated for up to 6 hours.
When ready to cook, bring 2 quarts of water barely to a boil (not a rolling boil) over medium-high heat. Cook the dumplings, working in batches, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they float to the surface. (If the fruit splits during the cooking, that's okay.) Using a slotted spoon, drain slightly and transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle topping generously over the dumplings or roll the dumplings in the topping to coat. Serve warm.
This dessert recipe was passed on to author Joan McQueeney Mitric some 35 years ago by the cooks in her husband's village of Lipolist, southwest of Belgrade.
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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