Sifting through the leftover magazines at my local coffee shop, I came across a copy of the esoteric food journal Gastronomica. When what to my wandering eyes did appear, but a story about the Croatian dish strukli, “The Best Dish in the World.” Really? I have a vague recollection of my mother making strukli when I was young, a bland sort of boiled dumpling filled with soft cheese. And others in the extended family have mentioned it in ensuing years, without ever really seeming to remember what it is or how it’s made. So, the best dish in the world? This I had to try.
Strukli, for the uninitiated, is a pillowy kind of dumpling, filled with soft cheese (farmer’s cheese is traditional) that’s served either baked with cream or boiled and served with sour cream. Sounds like any number of dumplings from other cultures (borek, pierogi, etc.—virtually every country has its favs). But I did not realize that strukli occupied such an exalted place in Croatian culture. Strukli is the best-selling dish of all time at the Palace Hotel in Zagreb, apparent strukli capital of the world. The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia has awarded traditional home-made strukli the status of protected asset of nonmaterial culture. As such, it will be entered in the Registry of Protected Cultural Assets of the Republic of Croatia. Strukli is so popular that today’s harried housewives can pick up frozen versions at the supermarket to be able to put a quick meal on the table.
Following the basic Gastronomica recipe, the strukli dough was made from scratch, kneading together flour, water and eggs, and then rolling it out until paper thin. The dough, now stretched across my 60-inch-round dining table, was spread with a mixture of ricotta and farmer’s cheese, rolled up jelly-roll style, and cut into pieces using, as tradition dictates, the rim of a porcelain plate.
The full recipe makes 20 pieces, enough to try the three different variations suggested.
No. 1. Basic, boiled strukli seemed the place to start. The dumplings are cooked in a thin broth made by sautéing onions in butter, adding a judicious amount of paprika, then water.
Some sour cream is stirred into the broth after the strukli are tender (about 10 minutes). The strukli are served in a soup bowl with some broth. Results: Good, but rather basic, sort of like a ravioli without much seasoning or sauce. The broth definitely needed work, even with a punch of brandy added during cooking. This was closest to what I remembered from my mother’s table, although in those pre-gourmet food days, she used cottage cheese. Definitely rib-sticking, though.
No. 2. The Gastronomical article suggested steaming as a way to combat the loss of flavor in the boiling method. Steaming did turn out fluffier dumplings that retained more of the cheese flavor. These were served, as suggested, with toasted bread crumbs and a dollop of sour cream. Better, but still kind of nondescript.
No. 3. The most intriguing recipe: baked strukli. The basic dumplings are baked in a casserole with copious amounts of butter and cream. Oh yeah, this was the winner. But what doesn’t taste good doused with heavy cream and butter?
Strukli: The best dish in the world? Of this I am still not convinced. Like most other comfort foods involving some variant of dumpling, butter and cheese, they seem to fall into the category of More Delicious in Memory than Actuality. One man’s strukli is another man’s madeleine.