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My introduction to this lovely dish came quite recently. Here in Johnstown (PA) one of the great summer events held annually is the Cambria City Ethnic Fest, a multi-day affair spread out over the space of several blocks in the Cambria City section of the city.
My husband and I had spent the summer of 2018 settling into our home here, still caught up in the turmoil and frenzy of a move from New Hampshire. Aware that the city had many events of interest, we were too worn out to attend them.
As summer 2019 rolled around, I was determined to explore what this city had to offer, especially as I became acutely aware of the similarities in foods and culture Johnstown and Southwestern Pennsylvania shared with my beloved Anthracite Coal Region and Northeast Pennsylvania.
I started searching “to-do” pages on the web and joined several local groups on Facebook. Slowly, I started filling up my calendar with events I knew would be of interest.
Blessed with a fairly kind streak of weather courtesy of Mother Nature, my husband and I mounted our trusty mobility scooters and struck off across the streets of the city nearly every weekend.
My first realization that I would truly fit in here came at the end of May as we sat outside a huge tent at The Johnstown/St. Mary’s Polka Fest. listening to live music and watching dancers twirl across the dance floor. The line for “church lady made” pierogi, kielbasa, and halupki was out the door at St. Mary’s Byzantine Catholic Church.
Later that summer, one of the largest fests featuring a plethora of ethnic foods rolled around. I had been looking forward to attending the Cambria City Ethnic Festival since before our move to Johnstown.
Let me say, the choices of food were wide ranging, the lines for it were long at times — and it was worth every second of the wait in anticipation of attending!
Many of the foods were very familiar, but at a stand featuring Hungarian food, a hand-lettered sign read “strapachka”. Now, this dish apparently had eluded me for my many decades and I asked my husband to find out what it was. As he returned and informed me it involved potato dumplings, cheese, and bacon, i wiped away a tiny drop of moisture at the corner of my mouth and promptly informed him that’s what I would be having for lunch.
He got into line and a few minutes later, he returned with – well, I honestly don’t remember what he returned with other than my bowl of strapachka, for the second I stuck the white plastic fork in and took a bite, the angels sang. Soft dumplings surrounded by a slightly tangy cheese, mixed with bites of bacon blinded me to my surroundings. I was in love.
I guarded my leftovers like they were in Fort Knox on the way home. Later that night, as I gobbled down the remainder of that lovely strapachka, I realized if someone at the festival could made it, so could I — I just needed to do a little research, so I set about doing just that.
Lo and behold – success! I am pleased I no longer need to get my strapachka fix once a year, but can whip up a batch on a whim in my own Coalcracker Kitchen! I even bought a spaetzle maker to speed the process along and make things easier on my arthritic hands.
Using a spaetzle maker
A little background
Bryndzove halusky is a the national dish of Slovakia. “Bryndzove halusky” is made with potato dumplings (halusky), bryndza cheese (a slightly sharp, slightly dry, sheep’s cheese) and fried, diced bacon. “Strapacky” is when the halusky (the potato dumplings) are cooked with sauteed sauerkraut, onions, and bacon. (As always, there are variations.)
But many Hungarians refer to “brynzdove halusky” as “strapachka”, which is how I was introduced to it via the Hungarian food stand. The word strapachka is of Slovak origin. It would loosely mean something that’s really disheveled or shaggy, like the dumplings.
A cheese quandry
Finding the bryndza can be a bit daunting here in the US unless you are in an area with a market or shop that caters to Eastern European foods. But there are acceptable substitutes, and I am pleased with the results of the substitutions since I cannot get bryndza locally.
One option is to use a good quality feta mashed or blended in a food processor along with some sour cream or milk and a little butter. Another option is to mix the feta with light (not fat-free) cream cheese and butter.
Serving it up
Traditionally, the strapachka is served by placing the halusky (the dumplings) on a plate, then topping them with the cheese and bacon bits. My version when serving myself involves simply mixing all the ingredients together; I coat the halusky with the cheese mixture, stir together and toss the bacon into the mix. As my Pappy (grandfather) would say, “It all ends up in the same place!”
Hungarian Strapachka (aka Slovak Bryndzove Halusky)Course: RecipesCuisine: Eastern EuropeanDifficulty: Intermediate
8 ounces bryndza more or less to taste (or see brynzda alternative below)
18 ounces potatoes or about 5 medium
Approximately 2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces smoked bacon
chopped chives or parsley optional garnish
- BRYNDZA ALTERNATIVE
feta cheese (1/2 cup or more, to taste)
cream cheese or sour cream (1/2 cup or more, to taste). I like to use sour cream.
butter (1 – 2 Tablespoons)
Milk, if needed to thin or mellow the cheese mixture
- Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile, grate raw potatoes on the fine holes of a box grater. Add flour, egg, and salt and mix.
- Using a spaetzle maker, drop the dough into the boiling water. Alternatively, you can put the dough on a cutting board and use a wet knife to cut off small chunks and drop them into the boiling water. Work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan if necessary.
- When halusky float, cook for a couple minutes longer or until tender then use a slotted spoon to remove them from the water, placing them in a bowl
- Chop bacon and fry until crispy.
- For brynzda alternative
- Blend ingredients until smooth; make it as strong or mild tasting as you like – more feta will make it stronger, sour cream will make it milder; cream cheese will be thicker, sour cream thinner. To start with, try half a cup of each feta and sour cream and 1½ tbsp butter.
- Finishing the dish
- Heap up dumplings, put bryndza or alternative on top (it melts as it warms up), sprinkle generously with bacon and optional chopped chives or parsley. If using brynzda, you can add 1/4 c milk to your taste depending how strong the bryndza’s flavor is. The milk will make it milder.