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Re-creating Hungary A Glimpse Into a Style of Cooking That Has All But Disappeared

You can have your celebrity chef cookbooks, the coffee-table-sized volumes with the luxurious four-color photographs printed on pages so glossy that they seem almost to melt in your fingers. These may be the big sellers, but I for one am far more interested in the cookbooks that authentically present the traditional cuisine of a culture — especially if that cuisine is otherwise in danger of disappearing. If these cookbooks are done right, they are not only exciting culinary explorations, but also acts of rescue.

Just such a book is “A Taste of the Past” (published this year by the University of New England Press), in which the New York-based architect András Koerner has re-created the life and cooking of his Hungarian great-grandmother, Therese (Riza) Baruch. Koerner, who emigrated from Hungary as a young man, has accomplished this by plumbing a rich variety of sources, including conversations with relatives, trips back to Hungary and an amazing cache of personal documents that he found in the home of his aunt. Among them were religious books, family photographs and, most valuably, copybooks. One of these copybooks contained drafts of dozens of letters that Riza had written in the three years before her marriage, while another contained a collection of some 130 recipes.

As Koerner recounts in his narrative, Riza Baruch was born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1851 and spent most of her life in the Western Hungarian town of Moson, where she ran a household that included her husband, four children and two grandchildren; she died in Budapest in 1938, shortly before the Nazi occupation. Riza’s was a life entirely unremarkable in its particulars, yet ironically, this very ordinariness accounts for much of the book’s worth. Her story provides a window into the life of a fairly representative Hungarian Jewish woman of the 19th century — one that allows us a greater understanding of the community as a whole.

Nowhere is this truer than in an exploration of Riza’s recipes, 85 of which Koerner has provided in “A Taste of the Past.” Of such old recipe collections, he writes: “You can learn from them what people ate, what utensils they used in the kitchen, what ingredients they could buy in the stores, what cultural and culinary influences shaped them, and whether they were religious.” This last item proves to be especially significant, as a manifestation of the social changes beginning to stir in Hungary at the time. Like countless generations of women before her, Riza ran a kosher household — purchasing her beef and veal from the kosher butcher, bringing her chickens to the ritual slaughterer, and keeping separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy. (If, by chance, a utensil meant for meat touched some dairy product, Riza followed the traditional custom of sticking it into the ground and leaving it there for several days; the earth, she claimed, “sucked the milk out of it.”) Riza’s three sons, on the other hand, stopped keeping kosher after they served in the army in World War I, as did Riza’s daughter after moving to Budapest. This was the apartment in which Riza ultimately came to live at the end of her life. (Riza apparently was a very accommodating, not to mention practical, woman. Koerner reports that she told her daughter: “Whatever you give me is kosher; I won’t ask, and you shouldn’t tell.”)

The recipes themselves offer a fascinating glimpse into a style of cooking that now has all but disappeared — and indeed, was disappearing even then. Koerner notes, for instance, how few of Riza’s recipes call for paprika as a seasoning. Paprika is today the most frequently used spice in Hungarian cuisine, but this dates back only to the early 19th century. Before that, ginger had been more widely used, sometimes in conjunction with cinnamon, even in savory dishes; this flavor set still was reflected in Riza’s cooking, a vestige of earlier times.

These were recipes meant for the running of a particular household; rather than provide standard cooking times, reports Koerner, they instructed the cook (who most often was the family servant, Paula) what time in the morning the various cooking tasks should begin in order to have lunch ready by noon. (“Then at 9:30 add the green beans and cook covered until 11,” etc.) In traditional Hungarian fashion, lunch was the main meal of the day. Invariably it began with soup, usually vegetable (chicken soup was reserved for the Sabbath). The soup often was followed by meat or chicken that was typically prepared, in the venerable Jewish practice, by braising; among the braised recipes Koerner includes here are beef with vegetable sauce, veal cutlets in onion-lemon sauce, and veal tongue in a “Bohemian” sweet-and-sour sauce. The meat was accompanied by vegetables freshly picked from the garden, and some form of starch — either potatoes, rice or one variety of a seemingly endless array of dumplings, among them potato dumplings, bread dumplings and, most evocatively, “a sweetened noodle dish, a rice pudding, sweet fruit dumplings, or that Hungarian favorite, the crepes napkin” dumplings (dumplings boiled inside a napkin). Finally came dessert, which might have been called palacsinta, filled with anything from apricot jam to sweetened curd cheese to cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar.

Not surprisingly, lunch was followed by a nap. Dinner was a lighter affair, usually comprising cabbage noodles and perhaps some stew or a dish of goose cracklings with mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs with smoked beef or hard-boiled eggs with anchovies. For cold dinners, there was homemade sausage or a kind of “bacon” made from goose meat rubbed in garlic and rolled in paprika — the Jewish equivalent of a popular Hungarian dish made from pork fat.

Many of the recipes included in “A Taste of the Past” will be new to readers more familiar with the cooking of the Jews of Eastern rather than Central Europe. Riza, for instance, did not prepare gefilte fish for the Sabbath, this being a dish far less common among Hungarian than Polish and Russian Jews. Instead, she poached a whole carp in a vinegary broth spiced with black peppercorns and allspice berries, and served it with fresh horseradish. (Sometimes the poached carp was served in a sauce made from puréed vegetables and ground walnuts.) On Passover, Riza’s matzo balls did not contain matzo meal, in the Eastern fashion; rather, they were made from broken-up matzos and flavored with ginger and parsley, as was also the custom among the Jews of Alsace.

Most of the recipes here are fairly elaborate, the consequence of Riza’s having had both a live-in servant and the sort of time that allows one regularly to bake bread, pickle herring, render goose fat, fill potato dumplings and stretch dough for strudel. Koerner has done an admirable job of streamlining many of these recipes to meet the demands of today’s home cook, but still, most require an hour or more to prepare and likely will be reserved for special occasions rather than providing everyday fare, as during Riza’s time.

That time, of course, is forever gone. The Nazis killed most of the Jews of Moson; the rest moved away. Today there are no Jews left in the town, and as is the case in so many other places, the only functioning Jewish institution there is the cemetery. What is left of Jewish Moson is memories: family stories, photographs, letters, recipes and now, for the rest of us, Koerner’s “A Taste of the Past.” It is a careful and loving re-creation of a world that met an unhappy death, and for a cookbook — or any other type of book — there is not much finer purpose than that.

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This moist and flavorful torte was a Sabbath staple in the home of András Koerner’s great-grandmother, Riza. Originally the torte was sliced into two layers, filled with apricot jam and coated with rum icing; Koerner simply brushes the top with rum-flavored apricot jam and sprinkles it with ground walnuts.

Apfeltorte (Apple Torte)

(Adapted from “A Taste of the Past,” by András Koerner)

for torte:

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and grated

1 tablespoon lemon juice

7 tablespoons sugar

1 cup walnuts

3 egg yolks, well beaten

1/2 cup bread crumbs or matzo meal

2 tablespoons dark rum

4 egg whites

for topping:

2 tablespoons apricot jam

1 teaspoon dark rum

1/4 cup walnuts

1 tablespoon sugar

  1. Combine the grated apples with the lemon juice and three tablespoons of the sugar, and mix well. Place the mixture in a colander. Place a small plate and a heavy can on top, and let stand for at least 20 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease well the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan.
3. In a food processor, finely grind the walnuts with one tablespoon of sugar. Mix the beaten egg yolks in a large bowl with two tablespoons of sugar. Stir in the ground walnuts.
4. With the back of a spoon, press out as much liquid from the grated apples as possible. Add the apples, bread crumbs and rum to the egg-walnut mixture, and mix well.
5. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then add the remaining tablespoon of sugar and continue beating to form stiff peaks. Stir approximately one-third of the beaten egg whites into the apple mixture, then fold in the remaining two-thirds.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth out the top. Bake for 15 minutes with the oven door slightly ajar, then close the door and continue baking until the torte is completely set, approximately another 45 minutes.
7. Let the torte cool for 10 minutes on a cooling rack, then remove the sides and let cool completely. Invert the torte onto a plate to remove the bottom, then invert again onto a serving plate.
8. Combine the apricot jam and rum in a small saucepan and heat slowly, stirring, until the jam has thinned. Brush the top of the torte with the jam. Grind the walnuts and sugar in a food processor, and sprinkle over the top of the torte.

Serves 12.


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