If you’re Hungarian, you know the wonders of what are simply called Hungarian cookies. They’re humble-looking little things folded into squares or curved into crescents, and have several fillings: apricot, prune, nut, and sometimes cream cheese, if you miscalculate the amount of dough. They don’t look like anything special…but they are. Oh, readers, they are.
I can’t give you the recipe for three reasons: there are no fixed measurements; the smallest batch yields about 20 dozen cookies; and because it requires the skills needed require about ten years of apprenticeship.
I started learning at my grandmother’s kitchen table when I was already a pretty good baker, back in my twenties. My own mom doesn’t love to bake; it skipped a generation, she says, and so I was my gram’s girl. The Princess, my daughter, has been studying at my side since she was about ten. Now almost twenty-three, she’s getting the hang of it. In five or six more years, she might have the chops to try it on her own.
The dough itself has twelve ingredients; the dried fruit takes hours to stew, then cool. You have to grind them by hand; no food processors or mixers allowed. You need to know what it means when my grandmother’s notes say, “If it’s too wet, add some flour,” or “If you need it, add another egg.” My favorite instruction is “Mix till it’s right.” The few Hungarian words I know, aside from curses, come back to me: sütemény, lekvar, dioche.
I was the first granddaughter on both sides of my family. My dad’s mother didn’t have much use for me, but my mom’s mother more than made up for it. Those days when I’d ask if I could come help sift pounds and pounds of flour, or beat eggs just enough, or learn to fold the soft, fragrant dough around a spoonful of filling…I loved those days. Just Gram and me in the kitchen, the table elevated by the Encyclopedia Britannica (good for something after all). Gram would tell me about her own mother, her sisters, her days as a young wife and mother. I learned more about her life in those hours than in all the other days of the year, because we stood in that humble, sunny little kitchen for hours and hours, baking those cookies.
And the smell! The smell of those cookies is like nothing else except maybe heaven. The year after Gram died, I brought my dough and fillings and baked the cookies in her oven, so my grandfather would have that smell in his house, and I did that until he died. Eating one (or four) warm from the oven, when you can taste all those ingredients, when two days of hard labor has come to fruition…it’s the taste of love. My aunts and uncles love the cookies so much; the best compliment I can get is, “They’re almost as good as hers.”
I still have the cards Gram wrote out for me in her pretty handwriting, and I laminated them after she died. I prop them up on the windowsill in a little shrine as I work, and I tell my daughter stories of her great-grandmother, for whom she was named, and there is no Christmas tradition I treasure more.