Honey cake, a springy loaf called lekach in Yiddish and traditionally served at Rosh Hashana, is not my favorite holiday dessert. So I was thrilled when, in the 1990s, Charles Fenyvesi, a colleague of mine at The Washington Post, shared a tantalizing family recipe for a Hungarian honey cake with thin, biscuit-like gingerbread layers.
Essentially, it’s an icebox cake with a gingerbread crust. Layered with a buttercream based on Cream of Wheat (yes, Cream of Wheat) and either apricot or sour cherry jam, it must sit to soften for a day.
But the recipe didn’t quite work as I’d hoped. (“The torte is more like a stack of thick graham crackers and the filling a runny soupy mess,” read one comment on Epicurious, where it was published. I also included the recipe in one of my cookbooks.)
Recently, I tried a better version of this cake, making it for Steven Fenves, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor whose family recipes had been preserved and translated.
At age 13, Fenves was taken from his home in Hungarian-occupied Subotica, in what is now Serbia, and sent to Auschwitz, where he was separated from his family. As locals looted the Fenveses’ house, Maris, the family cook, grabbed a red-clothed book of handwritten recipes.
Fenves’ mother and grandmother died at Auschwitz, and his father, so weakened by the experience in the camps, died shortly after they were released in 1945. The two children returned to Subotica, where Maris cared for them; she returned the slim handwritten cookbook 16 years later, when they had settled in Chicago with relatives.
A year or so ago, Alon Shaya, the chef of Saba in New Orleans, shared the contents of the book with me. Among them was a minimalist recipe for mezeskalacs from Fenves’ grandmother: just a paragraph for the gingerbready dough with a few measurements in dekagrams and vague instructions describing thin layers of cake.
Cakes with thin layers, called flodni in Hungarian or fluden in Yiddish, have long been trademarks of Hungarian and Hungarian Jewish baking. András Koerner, author of “Jewish Cuisine in Hungary,” suggests that they were invented in the second half of the 19th century, an evolution of a medieval filled pastry. The Cream of Wheat filling — a far more recent addition — is meant to mimic a European gruel called griess, made with semolina or any hard wheat flour.
Last spring, when Shaya was looking for a space to prepare some of Fenves’ dishes for supporters of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I agreed to hold the event at my home. For two days, Shaya’s chefs took over my kitchen, preparing beef and vegetable goulash with noodles, crisp semolina sticks, sweet-and-sour cabbage, walnut cream cake, recipes reconstructed from a family’s distant past. As the almost 100 guests, including Fenves and his family, tasted the dishes at a buffet in my dining room, I waited for the right moment to present him with a version of his grandmother’s cake, which I layered with jam and cream fillings.
Bringing out a slice, I watched as Fenves lifted his fork and tasted. He took another bite. A faint glimmer of memory took hold in his eyes.
“All of a sudden, I remembered our dinner table,” he told me later. “Of my sister quibbling about something, my father who was a newspaper publisher coming straight out of his office and telling us about world events, even at my very young age.”
As Fenves dipped his fork into the rich cake again and again, he asked politely if he could take the rest of the cake home.
HUNGARIAN HONEY CAKE
This Hungarian honey cake is deeply flavored with ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. The dough is more like a gingerbread biscuit than a tender sponge cake; it softens as it sits. It’s best made at least a day in advance, resting until the icebox-like crust absorbs its sweet surrounding layers of filling. The buttery, vanilla-scented filling is so pleasant to the tongue — but so rich you may want to cut small cake slices. Hungarian honey cake was popular before the Holocaust, but sadly this version was largely lost with the cooks in concentration camps. It’s been adapted in the United States by survivors and other family members using Cream of Wheat filling, which resembles the European gruel made with semolina or hard wheat flour, and enriched with lots of butter. This special cake brings back the memory of their former lives.
Yield: One 9-inch cake
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus at least 3 hours chilling and 25 hours resting
For the filling and frosting:
4 cups milk or soy milk
1 cup Original 2 1/2-Minute Cream of Wheat
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1 1/2 cups thick, chunky apricot or sour cherry preserves
For the Torte:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup milk or soy milk
3 tablespoons dark wildflower honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large eggs
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
Prepare the filling: In a medium pan over medium heat, bring the milk to a simmer, then whisk in the Cream of Wheat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 2 1/2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool slightly, then stir in the butter, sugar and salt. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to overnight. Once you’re ready to assemble the cake, bring the filling back to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Beat in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or with a spoon until fluffy.
While filling chills, make the torte: Warm the sugar, milk, honey and butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring well until sugar is dissolved, butter is melted and ingredients are thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes until lukewarm, then pour into a stand mixer. Add the eggs and mix with the paddle attachment on medium just until incorporated.
Sift together the 4 1/4 cups flour with the baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, coriander and salt, then add to the bowl of the mixer. Mix on medium-low until a smooth, not sticky, dough is formed, adding more flour if needed, a few teaspoons at a time. Using a dough cutter, divide the dough into 4 equal balls. Set on a plate and cover with a towel; let rest at room temperature for 1 hour to allow the gluten to relax.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Lightly dust each ball of dough all over with flour before placing it in the middle of a sheet of parchment paper. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough into approximately a 10-inch circle, about 1/8- to-1/4-inch thick. Cut out a circle using a sharp knife and a 9-inch-round dinner plate or baking pan. Save the scraps of dough, pushing them to the sides of the parchment paper, away from the circle. Transfer the paper with the circle and the scraps to a baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough balls. You can use 4 separate baking sheets (or use 2 baking sheets at a time and then repeat).
Bake 2 sheets at a time until the top of each round is slightly puffed and set, about 7 to 10 minutes. (Watch carefully, as they can burn quickly.) Let cool, then pulverize the scraps in a food processor or blender. Reserve the crumbs in an airtight container to decorate the cake.
Assemble the cake: Tear a sheet of parchment into several wide strips and use the strips to line the bottom of a serving plate in a circular pattern. (These will be removed before serving and will help keep the plate clean while you decorate the cake.) Place the first baked cake layer on top of the parchment and spread with 1 1/2 cups of filling. Top with a second cake layer and then spread the apricot or sour cherry preserves on top, leaving 1/2-inch border uncovered along the perimeter. Top with a third cake layer and spread with 1 1/2 cups filling. Add the final cake layer, then spread 1 1/2 cups filling on top and the remaining 1 1/2 cups filling on the sides. Pat the reserved crumbs over the top and sides, just enough to lightly cover, reserving the rest.
Let cake stand at room temperature, covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap, for at least 24 hours — or, ideally, 2 days. (Refrigerating the cake would cause the frosting to firm up, preventing the cake layers from soaking it up and softening as they are intended to do.)
To enjoy, sprinkle more of the reserved crumbs all over the cake to add texture. Carefully slide out and discard the parchment paper strips before cutting into slices to serve.
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