Sunday, December 25, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Nebraska I - O, chci chléb na Vánoce! (Oh, I want bread for Christmas!)

It wasn't my original intention for this first post to fall on Christmas morning, and yet it did.  And for this extra-special Christmas installment of the state-by-state series, I start my visit to Nebraska with some Christmas bread, courtesy of the Czech-Cornhusker community.

Official Name: State of Nebraska
State Nicknames: The Cornhusker State
Admission to the US:  March 1, 1867 (#37)
Capital: Lincoln (2nd largest)
Other Important Cities: Omaha (largest), Bellevue (3rd largest), Grand Island (4th largest)
 Midwest, Great Plains; West North Central (US Census)
RAFT NationsBisonPinyon Nut
Bordered by: South Dakota (north), Iowa, Missouri (east), the Missouri River (northeast and east), Oklahoma (south), Colorado (southwest), Wyoming (northwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: channel catfish (fish), honeybee (insect - of course, the honey is what people eat, not the bee), white-tailed deer (mammal)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: corn, wheat and honey; foods of the Great Plains, including Native American foods (pemmican, wojapi, etc); foods from German, Czech and Russian immigrants, and foods from Midwestern and Southern settlers; the Reuben and runza sandwiches; beef (Omaha steaks)

Like the other prairie states, Nebraska cuisine is a mixture of frontier, immigrant (internal and external) and Native American foods. It's more than just corn, beef and wheat (though can we be blamed for thinking it is?).  Many Plains Indian peoples, from the Omaha to the Oto, the Pawnee to the Arapaho to the Lakota, ate many of the same things that people ate across the Great Plains for millenia: buffalo, antelope, and wild greens and tubers.  As fur trappers and homesteaders moved on in, they brought their staples from the East, the South and the Midwest with them.  Specifically, Nebraska's food is particularly Midwestern (see Nebraska Guide's "As American as Apple Pie" for a thorough rundown), but Nebraska is famous for a few specific items:

* Omaha Steaks.  Yes, those ubiquitous steaks sold since 1917 by the same company, now sold all over the country.  There's one not ten minutes from my apartment.  There's a lot of beef in Nebraska.
* The Reuben sandwich, which I will come to in a few posts from now.  All I will say is this: there is some debate between Nebraskans and New Yorkers about where the Reuben first was made.  But again, that debate is for some other time.
* the runza sandwich, which I admit this Back East boy has never heard of (must be a Midwestern thing):  brought to Nebraska by Russian immigrants, this is, in the words of Jane & Michael Stern's Roadfood website, "hot bread pocket filled with ground meat and cabbage and onions. The bread is soft, freshly-baked white bread, and the filling is mildly spiced beef; the cabbage stays well in the background." [Stern & Stern date unknown, 2011].  Here the Roadfoodsters are raving about a runza from a restaurant of the same name in Lincoln.

Not just Russians but also Germans, Czechs and other European immigrants made their way into Nebraska.  The Cornhusker State has a sizable Czech-American population.  What sent them to Nebraska?  Advertisements in Czech about available land in the area, for one.  What sent them from Bohemia and Moravia was the same thing that sent peasants from all over Europe fleeing to the Americas:
...worsening economic conditions and overpopulation in rural Bohemia and Moravia. Specific crises like crop failures of the 1870s, and agricultural depression beginning in the 1880s resulted in greater numbers of people leaving. Some also left to acquire greater political freedom and escape the control of the Habsburg Monarchy and constant conflict with Germans. [NebraskaStudies.Org date unknown]
Czech-Americans in Omaha and Lincoln are probably enjoying a nice mixture of typical American and ethnic Czech foods for this first day of Christmas.  One recipe that caught my eye was a recipe for vanocka, or Christmas bread.  It's a slightly sweet braided bread with an egg wash, filled with sliced almonds and dried fruits.  Sounds Christmas-y to this Irish-Italian guy raised near the Chesapeake Bay!  However, for the sake of convenience I did something that will probably make little old babičky [Czech for "grandmothers" - thank you, Google Translate!] want to smack me: I used a recipe from Red Star Yeast that gave instructions on how to make the dough in the bread machine (here's a much more traditional version from Czech-American food blogger Tanja at the Czechmate Diary), and then braided, raised and baked the bread the normal way from there.  You're not in Bohemia anymore!

The Recipe: Vanocka (Czech Christmas Bread)

For Red Star Yeast's version I needed the following (go to their recipe for exact measurements):

* bread flour, butter and yeast (duh, duh and duh - had it all)
* water and evaporated milk (had them both)
* sugar and salt
* eggs (both for the dough and for the egg wash)
* lemon zest (this will go in the dough)
* sliced almonds and dried fruit (this recipe calls for raisins and golden raisins - I had raisins and craisins ;left over from the pemmican I made for my final Montana post)

For the dough, combine the dough ingredients at room temperature.  If you go the bread machine route as I did, throw these ingredients into your machine.  I found that my 1 1/2 lb capacity Zojirushi bread machine can handle a 2 lb blob of dough, if you're just making dough and baking it in the oven.

Two hours later, your bread dough will be risen enough to take it out, flour it up and punch it down.

Make sure you add the fruit and almonds while still in the bread machine.  I missed the beep (I was expecting it to happen much later, like with my previous bread machine), so...

I had to add it later, like you would if you were making it the normal way.

Fold it in and work it through for a while.

This next part was actually more difficult than I thought it would be.  Divide the dough into four equal pieces (that was not the difficult part) and roll each out into a thin twelve inch log that you can braid with others.  I did not follow directions, because you are supposed to set aside one of those pieces, divide it further and roll it into even thinner logs.  Since I've never braided anything, I figured I would save myself the headache and just braid it challah-style.  I used this video from eHow to walk me through my first bread braid (apologies for whatever ad they're throwing in).  For a video that shows you how to braid vanocka the correct way, check out one of these videos from YouTube (yes, most are in Czech).

It was not as difficult as I thought it would be, though my initial confusion made it seem so.  After pinching the four strands together, it was just a process of - as the nice bread lady said - over, under, over.




Over under, over, over done.  Roger, Over! (And don't call me Shirley.)

When the bread dough is braided, wash an egg over it.  I had no brush, so I had to use a paper towel.  Yes, sue me.

Next you need to let it rise one final time, fully braided.  One fast way I found on the internet was to set it in an oven that is turned off, covered, and with a bowl of hot water underneath it.  Let it sit with the door closed for about 30 to 45 minutes.

Mmmm!  Puffy!

Take it out before you preheat the oven to 350°F (again, um, duh), and bake for 45 minutes.  Mine is not the prettiest, okay, but it was still lovely to eat.

And there you have it: Czech Christmas bread with bread machine dough.  It's a soft, luscious and not too sweet bread with nice sweet-tart bursts of raisins and craisins in the middle.  Eat this with some good butter.  Yeah, the European stuff - Icelandic, Irish... I don't think they have a Czech brand in the states.  It should also go nicely with some jam, or with the Native American berry pudding you will see here in a few more days.  Now go bake some bread, and Veselé Vánoce!


Abourezk, Kevin.  "Ponca Tribe to honor Milford for historical gesture".  Lincoln Journal Star.  Posted May 29, 2011.

American Indian Health and Diet Project.  "Traditional Indigenous Recipes: Wojapi".  American Indian Health and Diet Project, date unknown.  Copyright 2011, American Indian Health and Diet Project

Carson, Dale. New Native American Cooking.  Random House: New York, 1996.

CzechMate Diary (Tanja, blogger).  "Czech christmas magic: Vanocka / Kouzlo Vanoc: Vanocka".  CzechMate Diary.  Posted December 11, 2008.

Hill, Cheryl Joy.  "Blueberry Wojapi". Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes.  Date posted unknown.  Copyright 2011 NativeTech.

Nebraska Folklife Network.  "Recipes: Traditional Foods of Nebraska Ethnic Groups".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2011, Nebraska Folklife Network

Nebraska Guide (Nebraska-Guide.Info).  "As American as Apple Pie".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2004-2011, Interatctive Internet Websites, Inc.

NebraskaStudies.Org.  "The Immigrant Experience: The Czechs Move to Nebraska".  The Homestead Act: Who Were The Settlers? From Nebraska Studies.Org, date unknown.

Rader, Jim.  "Brief History of the Reuben Sandwich". The Reuben Realm, date unknown.

Red Star Yeast.  "Vanocka".  Red Star Yeast, date unknown.  Copyright 2011, Red Star Yeast.

Stern, Jane & Michael (  "Runza"., date unknown.  Copyright 2011,

Stradley, Linda.  "Reuben Sandwich - History of Reuben Sandwich".  What's Cooking America (, 2004.

Weisman, Karen.  "Baking a Four-Strand Challah Bread Loaf"., date unknown.  Copyright 2011,

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Nebraska" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Nebraska".