I first came across the term "protopasta" in the "Flavours of the Riviera by the brilliant Coleman Andrews. He describes protopasta as "unusual, obviously ancient dishes...- ancestors of the noodle preparations that we know today" that he as encountered in the Riviera refions of France and Italy. I think that it in many ways mlinci fit this general description. Basically they are baked dough, in some cases they are described as pasta, but equally they could be thought of as crisp unleavan bread or even a cracker. Certainly, there are similar dishes of baked flatbreads found thoughout the Middle-East. Whatever the origin, they are likely to be a practical solution to the preparation and storage of precious and perishable flour. Until quite recently, in rural settings and small villages, many Croatian homes did not have a domestic oven, bread was often baked under an inverted cooking pot on a preheated hearthstone or at a communal oven. Baking was obviously quite an effort which means that many dishes that we now take for granted where unlikely to be make on a daily basis. While hard wheat flour products, such as dried pasta, can be dried and stored for long periods of time without loss of nutritional content, soft wheat products are much more fragile and likely to degrade. As mlinci are made from soft wheat flour, but can be baked and then stored for long periods without degrading, they represent an ideal solution to this problem. As they were such a special food item, often they were prepared for special occasions, such as religious festivals, now they tend to me made as an everyday dish. Many dishes have made a similar transition from the special occasion, to the everyday dish, who now thinks of lasagne as a special occassion dish for instance, yet it was so? My connection with mlinci is though my family. For special celebrations (usually Easter), vast rustling piles of mlinci would be prepared in advance by my grandmother. These would be cooked in the pan juices of the roast turkey (so almost a Croatian Yorkshire pudding) while the bird rested outside the oven. The dish (Purica s mlincima, "Turkey with mlinci") is associated with the northern Zargorje region of Croatian. As my family are from Dalmacija, Dalmatia on the Adriatic coast, I have no idea how the recipe ended up as a family festive dish. However, what ever the origin, I dearly loved this dish as a child and I can remember thinking that why on earth would anybody eat turkey when there was mlinci to be had (and the potentially second and third helpings there after)!
Mlinci with chanterelle mushrooms, onions, speck and Turkish Kirmizi biber (oiled chilli flakes).
250 g of all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of water
Extra flour for dusting
1. Pre-heat oven to 180.C
2. Place flour into a large bowl. Add egg to flour and incorporate. Gradually add water and mix until a dough is formed. The dough should not be sticky at this point. If it is, add slightly more flour.
3. Knead dough on lightly floured bench for eight minutes. Allow to rest for 1 hour.
4. Roll out, using a rolling pin until very thin, about 2 mm thick. The easiest way of accomplishing this is to roll in one direction the full length of the dough, then turn the dough 45 degrees and roll again. Repeat this process until the dough is roughly circular and approximately 2 mm thick.
5. Rest pasta sheet for an hour to dry out a little, and then cut into 30 cm lengths. Place these carefully onto baking parchment and cook in the pre-heated oven until the pasta sheets have blistered, dried and are a light tan colour, about 20 minutes. Don’t worry if there are some darker patches.
6. Leave to cool. At this point they can be stored, and as long as they are moisture-free they will remain fresh for many weeks
Using the mlinci
Place mlinci in a heat proof bowl and cover with hot, slightly salted water for 10 minutes.
Drain well and place in baking dish with pan juices (skimmed of the majority of the fat).
Bake at 200.C for thirty minutes.
Sauted mushrooms, pancetta and/or onions can be mixed with the mlinci before baking.