Bryndzové Halušky – Potato Dumplings with Sheep Cheese and Bacon

What better way to start a Slovak cooking blog than with the most iconic (and arguably most delicious) Slovak dish? Bryndzové Halušky literally means “Potato Dumplings with Bryndza (soft sheep cheese).” For those who have struggled to find bryndza or a proper substitute in the United States, search no more.

There are three main components to this dish; Potato Dumplings, Bryndza Cheese, and Bacon. I will first give an overview of the ingredients and process, then give plenty of options and guidance for each part of the dish to accommodate many cooking styles and tastes.

You will need (assuming 4 people):

4-6 potatoes (Russet is nice but any kind will do)
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2-4 cups all-purpose flour
lots of boiling water in a big pan

4-7 oz. fresh goat cheese
6-8 oz. quark cheese
1/2 cup milk (optional)

1 pound double-smoked bacon

Serve with:
salt and pepper
sour cream (8 oz. should be more than plenty)
sparkling water, diet soda (regular has strange taste with this dish), or Kofola
Slovak Salad (grated or sliced cucumber, onion, and tomato topped with garlic salt, pepper, and copious amounts of white vinegar)

Basic Procedure:

  1. Make Slovak Salad for side, refrigerate
  2. Cube bacon and put in pan, but do not start heat
  3. Begin cheese-melting process in part II and stir periodically
  4. Start boiling water for dumplings
  5. Begin grating potatoes and make dough in part I
  6. Start heat on bacon and watch/stir as you complete step 7, turn off heat when done
  7. Cook dumplings as outlined in part II
  8. If noodles have cooled quite a bit, microwave bowl for a minute or so
  9. Stir cheese into noodles
  10. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water into the cheese/noodle mix. Subtract for milk added to cheese mix.
  11. Add bacon (and half or all of the bacon grease if you really want to be adventurous)
  12. Serve in bowls, top with sour cream, salt, and pepper

I. Potato Dumplings

The potato dumplings can be one of the trickiest parts of this dish, but once you get used to it and know what to avoid, it’s not so bad.

The first trick is to finely grate the peeled potatoes.  They may turn brown at this stage and that’s okay. You don’t need to zest them, but they do need to be finer than a standard large-strand cheese grater. An alternative here is to use potato flakes and rehydrate them into normal potatoes, then follow the rest of the process as usual.

Trust me, the grating is a more authentic taste but reconstituted dried potatoes are much less work.

From here, you add one egg per 2-3 people. Also add a little milk (1 Tbsp. per person). Between the egg, milk, and the water from the potatoes, you have a very wet mash.

Here is where it gets tricky: to maintain the right consistency, add flour until your stirring implement will stand up straight when left in the dough.

I know that’s ambiguous, but it really is a consistency thing and cannot be measured precisely.  A rough estimate is 1/2 cup of flour per person to start out, adding up to another half of that amount to attain the proper consistency.  This is somewhere between a batter and a bread dough.  Remember, it must be viscous enough to drip through the holes of the haluskar. If you don’t have a haluskar, try cutting the pieces like this video. You can also follow any spaetzle recipe using a spaetzle maker and it will taste similar if this seems like too much work.

Now that you have the dough completed, it’s time to cook the noodles.  This part is very important if you don’t want to be eating a starchy goop. Use a large pot and fill it 1/2 to 2/3 full of water.  A 6-quart pot or larger is optimal. Make sure the water is boiling and add a little salt (2 Tbsp.) for flavor. You want to keep the temperature of the water relatively high.  If you cook all your noodles at once, the water will turn goopy. Fill the haluskar with dough and coax it to drip out the bottom by stirring with a spoon or fork. Cook the noodles one haluskar load at a time (1-2 cups), let the water return to a boil, let all the noodles float to the top, wait another 20 seconds, then take them out with a slotted spoon. Briefly run in a strainer under cold water (makes them firmer) and set in the serving bowl. Repeat for all the noodles. If your water gets gooey, wait a minute for it to regain its temperature.

II. Bryndza Cheese

Bryndza is hard to find in the United States if not impossible.  I have even tried Serbian Bryndza from a Russian market in Idaho, but it just isn’t the same as the Liptov bryndza or anything else you can find in Slovakia. Thankfully, I have tried many different combinations and found a flavor equivalent:
Goat and Quark
The blend of a soft goat cheese with quark cheese provides a flavor and consistency nearly identical to that of bryndza.  I found a goat cheese at Costco here but most fresh goat cheeses will work. Quark cheese can be harder to find, but is readily available in the Midwest at most supermarkets with a significant cheese selection. If you cannot find quark, just use this combo: (two parts fresh goat cheese, one part feta, one part milk). Without fresh goat cheese, I have seen many recipes that call for a blend of cream cheese, feta, cottage cheese, and milk, although I don’t think the flavor is even close enough to bryndza to count.  You might as well use cheddar or something else because it won’t taste authentic.
Plan on around 1-2 oz. of total cheese per person (this can vary widely and still achieve delicious results). I tend to use about 5 oz. of fresh goat cheese with a 7 oz. package of quark for 4-6 people.

I heat the cheese in a glass bowl by setting the bowl over a pot of heated water (almost boiling).  Once the cheese is fully melted and blended together, it is ready to pour over the noodles. You can also add a little milk to the melted cheese for a thinner consistency. Microwaving is also an option if you want to speed up the process, just try not to burn the cheese.

III. Bacon

This part is the easiest. The key is the flavor and the consistency. You want hardwood-smoked bacon, not the cheap stuff. The right kind of bacon will cost between $4.50 and $8.00 per pound or more. You will want about 1 pound per four people as a minimum (1 pound per two people is especially delicious). In Iowa, I have found that the Village Meat Market & Cafe in the Cedar Rapids Czech Village has delicious double-smoked bacon for about $7.50/lb. 
After you have purchased the bacon, you will want to dice it into 1/2-inch cubes or smaller.  Dicing is easier if the meat is frozen or semi-frozen.  
While preparing the other ingredients, go ahead and cook the bacon (covered pans are handy) on high until it is crispy but not quite burned. Be aware that it will cook a little more (equivalent of 30 seconds or one minute on heat) in its own fat after you turn off the heat.
Also be aware that the bacon, if added to noodles before the cheese, will collect much of the cheese and adversely affect the consistency.  Add at the very end and mix very little if at all (many Slovak restaurants simply top the halusky with bacon).

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