I spent a significant amount of time in Prague between 2005 and 2015, even living there for three weeks every month towards the end of that period. When I first arrived in Prague for a business trip, I was taken out for the traditional visit to the beerhouse. The first meal I remember having was svíčková, beef in a creamy gravy. This is a traditional Czech dish and apparently is a popular Sunday lunch. Recently I had a go at making it myself.
The dish requires a bit of preparation in advance because the beef is marinated in vegetables, oil and vinegar for at least 24 hours before the cooking. The dish is traditionally served with bread dumplings. When I started the marinade, I assumed that I would be able to find some bread dumplings in an Eastern European grocery store in the area. We have several of these shops, but my usual one didn’t know what they were. One quick message to a Czech chef (thanks to Martin) and I had a recipe for bread dumplings which worked very well.
For the svíčková, I’m following the recipe of Peter Trnka in his book The Best of Czech Cooking. The book describes the recipes in imperial measurements but is easy to follow. First the bread dumplings:
Czech Bread Dumplings Karlov style (Karlovarské knedlíky) 400g of stale white bread cut into cubes 250ml of full fat milk 150g of butter gently melted 4 eggs - separate, beat the yolks and beat the whites into stiff peaks Nutmeg Salt Chopped parsley
The method is easy. Follow this video (in Czech) – put the bread into a bowl, add the salt, add the parsley and nutmeg, mix the dry ingredients. Then add the milk and melted butter, and mix. Add the egg yolks, and mix. Add the egg whites, and mix. For the last part, I got my hands in there and mixed it well. Then put it in the fridge for a bit. The translated recipe is a bit confusing – “snow of the protein” is beaten egg whites.
When you are ready for the dumplings, take a bit of the mixture, wrap it in cling film, pierce once and then wrap in foil. They can be boiled or steamed for 20 minutes.
These dumplings are very filling and you can see that I made too many. I let the surplus cool, rewrapped them and froze them. Not sure how they will keep in the freezer but we will see.
Now onto the main dish – the meat.
Svíčková 1kg beef (I used top side) 1 strip of bacon cut or lardons 1 medium onion chopped 2 medium carrots chopped 2 medium parsnips chopped 1/2 small celeriac chopped 1 tsp thyme 1/2 tsp mixed spice 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley 2 bay leaves 1 US cup of red wine vinegar vegetable oil butter sugar & sour cream
At least a day in advance, make incisions into the beef and put the lardons into it. Season with salt and pepper. In a large glass bowl (not metal), cover the beef with the onion, carrots, parsnips and celeriac. Sprinkle on the thyme, spice and parsley and add the bay leaves. Pour over the vinegar and about 2 tbsp of vegetable oil. Cover and put it in the refrigerator. Turn the beef midway in the rest time and occasionally baste with the juices.
On the day you want to cook it, calculate your cooking time. I used 25 minutes per half kilo + 25 minutes and I had two pieces of top side – hence 50 minutes. If you have one whole piece of meat you will need longer. Preheat the oven to 180 C. In a hob proof roasting tin, use oil to sear the meat all over and add a bit of water to lift off the debris. Surround the meat in the vegetables and marinade, and put in the oven for the cooking time. Add butter on top.
Once the meat is cooking, turn the oven down to warm, take the meat out of the pan. The vegetables need to come out in to a bowl. The meat can then be returned to the oven.
Puree the vegetables and pass them through a sieve. At this point, my wife took over. What you get at the end is a brown thick gravy. It can be seasoned with sugar to take off any sharpness or with lemon juice to add a bit of sharpness. When you are ready to serve, slice the meat and add sour cream to the gravy and heat it through. And this is what you end up with:
I added a slice of lemon and cranberry sauce – this was how it was served back in 2005 when I first had it. It tasted good, however, I think there is too much red wine vinegar in the marinade. The gravy was quite sharp. It’s possible that it is softened for the tourists and I would be interested to see how it tastes homemade in Czechia. Still, I’m marking this one as a success and will definitely do it again.