Cornelia Wynne explores the cooking traditions of Americans through their distinctive foods and dishes and through their stories. These assert our defining traits of independence, resourcefulness, and a can-do spirit.
Vera Bisek: Old World Baker
Vera grew up in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and in 1959 she met Peter at a Communist youth rally. Four years later they were married. In 1965, eager to escape the repressive regime and build a better life in freedom, they managed to sneak out of the country to Malmo, Sweden. There they found work, Peter in a printing plant, Vera assembling electrical contactor switches. They worked hard and saved money for their main destination: America.
A Swedish cargo ship named MS Indiana brought them to a Brooklyn shipyard. They landed, frozen, on the shores of the "promised land" with two suitcases (one packed with clothes, the other with books), and $180. Unbeknownst to them, during their transit to America their sponsor in the United States had gone bankrupt, leaving them with no place to go, no one to aid them. Fortunately, a friendly co-passenger took them home with her and here they stayed a week, looking for work every day. Fortunately, an old friend from Prague helped Peter find a job in the printing business. Vera worked in a dry cleaning store. Ever industrious and thrifty, they eventually were able to buy a house on Long Island where they raised two children, and in 1986 launched their husband-and-wife typography business, Typrints Company.
In April, 1990, in a spirit of euphoria after the "Velvet Revolution" toppled the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia, they started a Czech-Slovak-American newspaper, Americke Listy, which became the most widely-read Czech periodical in the Czech language to be published abroad (it remained a Czech and Slovak language periodical even after the split of Czechoslovakia into two separate entities). In 1998, for their lobbying for the early acceptance of the Czech Republic into NATO, Peter was awarded the Medal of Merit First Order by Vaclav Havel, President of the new Czech Republic. In 2005, he and Vera received the Gratias Agit, an award from the Secretary of the Czech Republic "for spreading the good word of the Czech Republic abroad."
In 2010 they decided to retire and focus their time and energy on their family and four grandchildren (two of them in the Czech Republic where their son settled).
If awards were given for incomparable baking in authentic Old World style, Vera would be crowned queen. Her nimble fingers, trained from childhood to expertly bunch radishes and fresh violets for her father's market garden, still roll out strudel dough filled with the classic apple filling. The finely milled Wondra flour, produced by Gold Medal, is essential for a tender, flaky pastry. If you can't find it locally, google "calibex" on the Internet and type in "wondra flour" to find sources.
Vera's Apple Strudel (makes 3 rolls)
2 1/2 cups Wondra flour
2 sticks plus 1 tablespoon butter, softened
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons white vinegar
4-6 tablespoons milk
Apple Filling for One Roll
2 large apples (Granny Smith), peeled and grated
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup chopped nuts
Put flour on a wooden board. Form a mound in the middle and add in butter cut in pieces, egg yolks, salt, vinegar, and milk. Knead with a fork or with your fingers until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is smooth and elastic. Divide the dough into three equal pieces. Wrap in clear plastic and leave in the refrigerator overnight. Next day, take it out and leave for several hours to become workable. With a rolling pin roll out one piece of dough in a square about ? inch thick. The sheet should be at least 18 x 16 inches. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and melted butter. Toss grated apples on the dough sheet, sprinkle with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon, raisins, and walnuts. Roll the long side up like a jelly-roll, place on a greased baking sheet, so that the seam is on the bottom. Brush the top of the roll with egg and milk mixture (1 egg lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of milk) and bake in an oven preheated to 350 F for 45 minutes, or until the rolls are golden brown. Dust with confectioners' sugar.
Correction: the last "American Pantry" column should have stipulated 1/3 cup of shortening, not 1 cup. *