Serbian desserts for soul food enthusiasts

A perfect dessert is the one that excites our senses, but also which triggers our memories. Even if we taste it for the first time.

To think about food is to remember, and to think about desserts is to yearn. Have the munchies.

Enthusiastically long for that perfect bite, moment in which it happened and memories that surrounded it. For me, Serbian desserts can be summed up into reminiscing about innocence and pure childhood joy, and struggles of adulthood and calories count which threat to hinder them.

A quote to ponder over

“There are two kinds of women in the world: those who savor, and those who don’t. The ones who savor know how to enjoy a good time when it happens. We dig in the claws and ride a rush as hard and as long as we can.

And then there are those other gals. I don’t know if they feel guilty about having fun or if they take themselves too seriously—or maybe they’re just afraid they’ll get their hair mussed if they throw their head back and have a good time. Whatever it is, they’ll push back from the table at d’Annunzio’s, still flushed from some masterpiece of chocolate-raspberry bliss, and their first words uttered will involve ‘walking it off.”
Chris Dee, World’s Finest: Red Cape, Big City

I have never been the latter. I could never really feel guilty for the pleasure I had or am having. Not from precious food anyway.

You see, ever since we are little, here in Serbia, we are taught to eat, eat, eat. Eat up. Eat to be healthy. Eat to be strong. Eat in honor of this, that. Eat for good fortune. Eat for religion. Eat for the sake of your mom, dad, granny, grandpa, God, neighbor, bus driver. Eat to console your existence and your mortal soul. And then wait in lines at the doctor’s office praying your fat and sugar blood levels come back normal.

Serbian desserts are not to be “walked off”

Because Serbian desserts are like that. Comforting. And like Serbian women, men and culture, Serbian food is not always good for you. It presents a challenge. A chore. A thing to savor, approach with care and analyze, and then fully understand.

It is not easy to handle. It hits you with great amounts of every single flavor you can imagine and then more. You will try to fight it, you will try to escape it, because fear comes from the lack of understanding.

The passion, the brutality, the ugliness, the rough edges, unevenly cut pieces, oozing liquids, thick crusts and layers and layers of various stuff. This is Serbia. These are its people.

So, where to find best Serbian desserts?

Sorry to tell you this, but like all best things in life, great food and desserts are difficult to find. I mean authentic ones, handmade, homemade ones, the ones we actually want. The ones we need and long for. The ones that smell of childhood, of passion, of tears and sorrows, of heartaches and heartbreaks. The ones that are imprinted in our very essence and being like a layer of savory crust that eventually-comes to define us. Here are my three choices, completely personal.

1) Reforma cake and warm June
Whenever I smell linden trees blooming, my heart kinda skips a beat and however much I try to pretend that getting older makes one’s birthdays less relevant, a burst of joy overflows my body and I look forward to that one special day in which I gather my friends, family, prepare a lovely feast and of course-eat cake! The one thing never changes though. Having reforma cake on the table. Even if there is a fancy, fondant icing sculpted star hosting the ever growing number of candles, she is always there, too.

Many might disagree, but I really love and cherish this cake, and I regard it to be one of the finest human achievements. The smell of melting chocolate and dark, walnutty base covered in buttery joy for palate. Soft cream, not too sweet, not too aggressive, never dry, always moist and full flavored. Sprinkled walnut powder, or almond, or hazelnut versions can work equally as well.I prefer it cut in rectangles, but I have seen it made round and cut in triangular shape, too.

I keep searching for a place that can offer me this cake in all its glory, but bias or not-my mum still takes the cake. Literally.

The best recipe is always the family one, but you can find an example in English here if you want to try making it yourself.

So, if you are ever in Serbia, drop by around the beginning of June, and I’d be glad to introduce you to this amazing dessert that, even though it is hundreds of years old, I still feel awaits its 5 minutes of glory.

2) Urmašice or hurmašice, that is the question
Cold winters make us run for cover and tuck ourselves in the comfort of our home. I remember coming back from my primary school and whole day spent playing the flute and singing in my music school, boots soaking from snow and perhaps and occasional snowball fight (I am not confessing to anything). I would walk into my building, this old, spacious typical Belgrade high-quality old-style salon building and the instance I would enter the winding staircase I would pick up the familiar, citric, sweet, and caramel smell luring me straight towards the kitchen. Sticky countertops and mum smiling, preparing tiny saucers and pastry forks, she opens the oven and the smell is intensified by a hundred times mixed with heat and stuffy air already overtaking the entire flat and probably the entire building as well. Simple life, simple joy. But so precious, and so unforgettable. Days when we were all together, my brother crawling on the floor trying to walk, my dad watching sports on TV. Bitter-sweet memories of times gone, but never lost.

These golden, buttery bites are also known as one of the Bosnian favorites. This recipe is not too demanding, though it can get messy. They are something between a biscuit and a cake.  Dipped into this sweet syrup that oozes into the biscuit – they are soaked to perfection. Just don’t think about the calories 😉

Smell of our memories

The thing with food is that it has strong associative impact on our memory. It has a specific smell and this olfactory aspect, which is the biology’s way of treating us with emotions long forgotten or misplaced, hits us every time. One reason for this is because our brains process odors and memories. Smells get routed through our olfactory bulb. It is closely connected to our amygdala and hippocampus, brain regions that handle memory and emotion. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This explains why with food-it is always more important what it tastes like than how it looks, and why I don’t care in which shape and/or size we get served our piece of cake.

It’s not only positive associations and memories that are brought back by different odors. They are also known to induce physiological arousal and trigger trauma-related flashbacks.

In any case, nothing brings you back to a certain point in life and time like a scent, smell, even a hint of it.

3) Hot days by the Danube and plum dough
I remember this one afternoon from many years ago, in a tiny village on the Danube, called Ram in Eastern Serbia. This village is near Serbo-Romanian border, just next to this old ruin of a Turkish fortress. I used to spend my summers there, a city kid living a country life, running after cows and earning my first salary as a milkmaid at the tender age of 5,6,7…It would get very hot during the day and we would go to the beach, swim with river snakes in the strong and muddy currents of the Danube, in which you swim or die and hence learn to toughen up whether you want it or not. Quick change of clothes and off to the pastures, pretending to lead the herd back home even though, in fact, cattle knows where to go perfectly fine. I would run along with my tiny stick and jump carefree over the hills and streets, then hurry up to the barn to milk them (with help provided in the beginning), earning a liter of milk and whatever I managed to drink during the process. Did you know that milk is really warm, almost hot when you milk a cow? It is very thick and fat and full of bits and pieces of hay or grass. It comes out almost as a foam. Nobody was worried about lactose, gluten and calories back then, yet we were all so happy. Tired and proud, I would climb over the fence from the neighbor’s back yard and run across a pathway towards this summer house belonging to our family friends.

One day, everyone was in the garden, the table set, dinner on the table, it was still sunny, the most beautiful dusk burning behind many river islands and over the fast Danube water, in the shady grove next to the fortress wall and I could feel my nostrils filling up with the scent of this comfortingly sweet mix of fruity and fried dessert. Summer dress code is always kinda informal, relaxed, sitting barefoot, mismatching cutlery and bunch of different chairs, plates and glasses. I put my milk in the fridge and dug in. I really cannot remember what was the dinner, the smell of dumplings being so overwhelming that whatever we ate had this sweet note anyway. And then teta Verica brought them to the table. Crumbs. Warm bites melting in your mouth. Sweet, soft, potato dough which hides a juicy, sour, runny middle. Of course these are Plum dumplings, another all time favorite which is hard to find outside the kitchens of well-experienced Serbian cooks. One after the other they magically disappeared, and she had to go back to the kitchen and make at least two more batches. We couldn’t even breathe anymore, but that did not matter. We were in it together, a bunch of us, selfishly taking this gift, consuming it, plums from the garden, potatoes from the village, milk from the local cows, fresh bread from the grocer’s where you buy on loan because it is easier and everyone knows everybody and we were all tanned from swimming in the murky waters of the Danube day in day out and drinking coffee/juice on the sun porch every morning. I remember it clearly.

The essence of sweetness

Sweet food, and great food basically,  is just a glue tying moments together, capturing life in a true selfie manner, us in the front, a memory in the background.

But food is like that. We eat it not just to be full, or to survive. We eat it to surpass life itself, to bond, to contemplate, to savor life and its pleasures. And food made with love is the food that stays in our hearts forever. This element is hard to find outside our homes. But we will keep looking. Check out what we have discovered so far in the link.

1 comment

  1. Diana Fabiano

    I spent a year in Belgrade during the early 70’s. The mother of a friend of mine made some urmasice for me and I made a pig of myself eating them. I asked for the recipe, but never made them. I might attempt it soon. At any rate, I really enjoyed reading your reminiscences. Hvala lepo!

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