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Cooking: Hungarian Dreaming
by Tina D. Wasserman


Photo by Rose Eichenbaum
Whenever I teach cooking or lecture about Jewish culinary history, I am often asked to describe a favorite dish prepared in the “old country” by a grandmother or great-aunt. As most of these queries are about Hungarian dishes, I started to wonder if and why there seems to be this lapse in the culinary memory of Hungarian Jews. I decided to consult with two Hungarian-born friends who had immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and 60s, settled in Dallas, and now belong to my congregation, Temple Emanu-El. One of them, Judy Weisz Steinberg, could think of only one Rosh Hashanah delight from childhood: Pitea, a Hungarian apple tart with rich, buttery dough that her mother used to bake. The second, Dr. Andrew Fenves, the father of a recently ordained Reform rabbi, remembers a few Jewish Hungarian foods: strudel, Palacinta (thin crepes filled with fruit or chestnut puree), Paprikashes (stews of meats or chicken slow cooked with onions and seasoned with paprika), and potato noodles.

I now suspect that the four decades of oppression and scarcity of food during World War II and its aftermath under the Communist regime kept many Hungarian Jews from observing religious holidays and preparing the foods associated with these special occasions. It was in these austere times that the lowly potato and cabbage rose to prominence in Hungarian kitchens.

The following Rosh Hashanah recipes recall that historical period, though with a modern twist. Enjoy them—and may your New Year be filled with health and happiness.


Hungarian Cabbage Strudel (Káposztás Rétes)

Food encased in dough is popular for Rosh Hashanah because of the visual reminders of being “sealed” in the Book of Life in the coming year. The following strudel dish, reminiscent of apple strudel (for which Hungarians are renowned) but including cabbage and caraway seeds (indigenous to Hungarian cooking) and discarding cinnamon and sugar, demonstrates the creativity of Hungarian Jewish cooks in times of scarcity.

1 pound cabbage (half of a medium head)
1⁄2 Tablespoon salt
2–4 Tablespoons unsalted butter or 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for sautéing
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 teaspoon caraway seeds (optional)
3 Tablespoons dried bread crumbs
Up to 1 stick unsalted butter for brushing Phyllo dough
8 sheets of Phyllo dough, defrosted (see tidbit)

  1. Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise, then thinly slice into shreds crosswise. Place in a large bowl, add 1⁄2 tablespoon salt to cure the cabbage, and toss. Set it aside for 15 minutes to half an hour.

  2. Using strong paper towels or a clean cloth towel, squeeze the water out of the cabbage and pat it dry.

  3. Heat a 10-inch frying pan over high heat for 20 seconds. Add 2–4 Tablespoons butter or butter/olive oil blend, allowing it to melt but not brown.

  4. Mix in the cabbage and stir over medium heat for 10–15 minutes until the cabbage is soft and slightly browned.

  5. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and caraway seeds (if using).

  6. Place the cabbage in a bowl to cool.

  7. Melt the remaining butter. Set aside.

  8. Remove 4 sheets of defrosted Phyllo dough (keeping the remaining sheets folded and covered by a sheet of plastic wrap that is re-covered with a damp paper towel). Spread out a thin towel, sheet of waxed paper, or plastic wrap that is as long as the dough. Place one sheet of Phyllo on the towel and brush it liberally with some of the melted butter.

  9. Place another sheet of dough on top of the first and brush with melted butter.

  10. Repeat this with the remaining 2 sheets.

  11. Lightly sprinkle the bread crumbs over the last sheet and then place half of the cabbage in a 2-inch-thick strip parallel to the short edge of the dough. Leave 1 inch of room on the side ends so the cabbage can be encased.

  12. Using the towel or plastic wrap, fold the dough tightly over the cabbage. Brush the 2 long edges of the dough with butter, then fold them in about 1 inch to encase the cabbage. Lift up the towel to help you tightly fold the roll of dough. Place the finished roll seam-side down on a parchment-lined, low-sided cookie sheet.

  13. Repeat the process with the other half of the dough and the filling.

  14. Preheat the oven to 375˚F. Brush the tops of the rolls with melted butter and lightly cut on the diagonal through a few layers of dough with a sharp knife at 1-inch intervals.

  15. Bake the strudels in the center of the oven for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cut through slash marks and serve. Serves 4–5 for lunch or 8–10 appetizer portions.


Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To prevent Phyllo dough from cracking when handled, thaw it in its sealed box in the refrigerator for 24 hours, or alternatively thaw on the kitchen counter away from direct heat or sunlight for about 4 hours. Do not try to defrost the dough in the microwave!

  • If your dough is stuck together and cannot be rolled, crumble it, toss with a stick of melted butter, and place half of it in the bottom of a 13" x 9" pan. Cover with the cabbage mixture and then with the rest of the Phyllo crumbles mixed with butter. Bake at 375˚F for about 20–25 minutes, until the Phyllo is golden. Cut into squares and serve.

  • Any recipe using Phyllo dough may be frozen before baking so long as the filling is pre-cooked. Just don’t freeze raw fruits and vegetables or uncooked eggs, as they will crystallize and become grainy.

 

Hungarian Potato Dumplings with Prune Filling (Szilvas Gombak)

Whenever I am asked about Hungarian cooking, the number one request is a recipe for Shlishkes (potato dough noodles with bread crumbs). So here is an elaborate, yet easy variation to complement your Rosh Hashanah festivities. If the scraps of dough, rolled into 1⁄2-inch-thick logs and then cut into 1-inch pieces, are boiled and treated the same way as the dumplings, you’ve got Shlishkes. Whereas in Hungary this is served as a second course, here you might want to present it for dessert.

2–3 medium Russet potatoes—about 3 pounds
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature (or 1⁄2 cup oil or chicken fat)
1 egg
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
18 pitted prunes
2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably freshly made
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons finely ground hazelnuts or walnuts

  1. Bake the potatoes in a 350˚F oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until a fork can easily be inserted and removed from the potatoes. Set aside until they are easy to handle.

  2. Scoop the insides of the warm potatoes into a large bowl. Mash until there are no lumps. You should have about 2 cups.

  3. Add the butter, mixing with a rubber spatula until it is thoroughly incorporated.

  4. Add the egg and salt, blending well.

  5. Stir in the flour. Mix first with the spatula and then with your hands, kneading 5 or 6 times until you form a smooth ball of dough. Divide the dough in half for easier handling.

  6. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured board or counter until it is 1⁄4-inch thick. Cut out 3-inch circles. Save the dough scraps.

  7. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a small dish. Toss in the prunes, a few at a time, to completely coat.

  8. Place a prune in the center of each dough circle and fold up the sides, pinching the dough together to completely encase the prunes. Shape into a round ball and set aside, the seam (pinched) side down.

  9. Repeat with the remaining cut circles.

  10. Bring a 4-quart pot of salted water to boil. Drop all the dumplings into the pot and cook for 5–10 minutes or until they float on the surface. Place in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Drain and move to a buttered dish large enough to hold both batches of dumplings.

  11. Repeat the steps above with the remaining dough. Set the scraps aside.

  12. When all the dumplings are made, heat a large frying pan for 20 seconds and then melt the 4 Tablespoons of butter. Add the bread crumbs, stirring over medium-high heat for about 1 minute, until all the crumbs are coated and begin to crisp.

  13. Mix in the dumplings, gently stirring them with a rubber spatula and turning them over to reheat and coat with the buttered crumbs.

  14. Place the dumplings in a serving dish and top with any remaining crumbs.

  15. Combine the finely ground nuts with the remaining cinnamon and sugar mixture and sprinkle over the crumbs. Serves 6–8 as a side dish.


Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To achieve smooth mashed potatoes, mash the dry potatoes before adding any other ingredients.
  • Never use a food processor to mash potatoes or you’ll get wallpaper paste!


Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, is the author of the URJ Press book, Entree to Judaism. She also teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.

Any Questions?

Tina will be delighted to assist you. E-mail AskTina@urj.org.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.