Žemlovka (aka zemlbába) is a deliciously sweet and fruity, mildly-spiced custard and bread-based dish from the Czech Republic. Like its British counterpart, bread & butter pudding, žemlovka is an ideal way to use up leftover stale bread, and is made with basic store cupboard ingredients.
Unlike British bread & butter pudding, however, which is served as a dessert, žemlovka is often eaten as the main part of a meal, usually following a bowl of sour soup (e.g. kyselica).
Variants of žemlovka can be found around the world; for example, in Egypt, they have om Ali, while in Iran, this pudding is known as khumaiaa. Mexicans have a similar dish, called capirotada, with which they end the Lenten feast. In Panama, it’s mamallena; in Aruba, they call it pan bolo (or bolo di pan). Hungary’s version is máglyarakás.
Although žemlovka is deeply ingrained in the culinary history of the Northern Slavs, it appears that its roots may actually be Germanic. The Austrian dish, Scheiterhaufen (meaning “pyre” or “pile”; presumably so-named because the pudding’s layers resemble a funeral pyre) has been around since at least the 1st century AD, when it was mentioned by the Roman gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius, in the cookbook, Apicius.
By the end of the 17th century, Scheiterhaufen had became known as Güldene Schnitten (golden slices). Later still, around the world, the pudding has further evolved into what we now call French toast… although in Britain, it’s still known as poor knights of Windsor!
Žemlovka by any other name
In Czech, žemla means “roll” (as in a bread roll), so žemlovka basically means a pie which is made from bread rolls. Traditionally, rohlík – a crescent-shaped leavened roll – or the short, wide, baguette-type loaf, veka, are used to make žemlovka.
Veka, by the way, is also used to make knedlíky – Czech boiled dumplings. Similar to the German Knödel, knedlíky are the mainstay of Czech cuisine.
Since rohlíky and veka are not always easy to come by in the West, this recipe for žemlovka is made with brioche; however, you can use any type of stale white bread, as long as it’s not too heavy or robust. (I don’t recommend using sourdough, for example.) Hot dog buns and French bread (baguette) actually make a good rohlík substitute too!
There are several conventions for making žemlovka: some cooks advocate soaking the bread in a mixture of egg and milk, then layering it with fruit, tvaroh (quark/cottage cheese), and sweet spices, before popping it in the oven to bake for half an hour or so. Others prefer to keep the component layers dry, pour the custard mixture over the top, and then bake. In yet other Czech homes, žemlovka may be baked with a meringue topping.
In some households, pears are used in place of apples, and in others, nectarines or plums. Some cooks advocate grating the apples, while others believe that slicing them is fine. For this recipe, we’re going with the latter approach because I happen to like my žemlovka a bit more chunky!
Whatever the tradition of any particular Czech kitchen, some things remain constant – that žemlovka must have bread, milk, and eggs, and a goodly amount of sugar, fruit, cinnamon, and some kind of fat.
Žemlovka is a very simple dish to make, and relatively quick (it only takes 30 minutes to bake), so in this recipe, we’re going the whole – feasting – hog, as it were! To go with our enriched bread (brioche), we’re using cheese, butter, whole milk, eggs, and sugar, plus nutmeg and vanilla in addition to the cinnamon.
We’ll be gently melting the butter into the milk, and then whisking it together with the eggs, spices, and sugar. Into this, we’ll dip each piece of bread – any custard that’s left over is then poured over the top of the žemlovka. The layers of bread, cheese, sliced apples, and raisins are topped with some brown sugar, and then baked until crusty and golden on top.
The tanginess of the cheese lifts the sweetness of the raisins and sugar, and gives the whole dish an added richness but without it being claggy or greasy. Once baked, the inside of the žemlovka is light and fluffy, with each bite offering up a perfect balance of sweet and tart.
Whether you eat žemlovka as a main course, dessert, or tea-time treat, I’m sure you’re going to love it!
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in Czech cuisine, Kristyna Montano. You can find Kristyna on her food blog CzechCookbook.com.
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup cold water
- 12 tablespoons unsalted butter , divided
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 3 apples
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 eggs
- 4 oz. brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg , freshly grated
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ lb day-old bread or brioche
- ½ cup quark or cottage cheese
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar (for the topping)
Place raisins in a small bowl, pour over the cold water, and soak for 20 minutes to rehydrate.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In the meantime, grease an oven dish with 2 Tbsp butter, and set aside.
While the raisins are soaking, warm the milk over a low heat in a medium saucepan, then add the remaining butter, and stir until melted. Set aside to cool slightly.
Peel and slice the apples, and place in a bowl with the lemon juice, making sure each slice is coated. Set aside.
Add the eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla to a mixing bowl, and beat until smooth. Stir in the milk and butter, and beat again for another minute or so, to thoroughly incorporate.
Drain the raisins, and discard the water.
Slice the bread, and dip each slice into the custard. Gently squeeze out, and place a layer (including crusts) on the bottom of the baking dish.
Sprinkle the raisins over the bread, then a layer of cheese, and then arrange the slices of apple on top. Pour over the lemon juice.
Next, add another layer of dipped bread, and pour any remaining custard over the top. Sprinkle over 2 Tbsp of brown sugar.
Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.