Honey cake, a porous loaf called lechch in Yiddish and traditionally served on Rosh HaShana, is not my favorite holiday dessert. So I was thrilled when, in the 1990s, a colleague of mine at The Washington Post, Charles Fenvesi, shared a tantalizing family recipe for Hungarian honey cake with thin, biscuit-like gingerbread layers.
Essentially, it’s an icebox Cake With gingerbread crust. Layered with buttercream based on Cream of Wheat (yes, Cream of Wheat) and either apricot or sour cherry jam, it should soften for a day.
But the recipe didn’t quite work out as I had hoped. (“Tort is like a stack of coarse graham crackers and filling a runny soupy mess,” read a comment on Epicurious, where it was published. I even included the recipe in one of my cookbooks.)
Recently, I tried an improved version of this cake, made it for Steven Fenves, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor whose family recipes were preserved and translated.
At the age of 13, Fenves was moved from his home in Hungarian-occupied Subotica, now in Serbia, and deported to Auschwitz, where he was separated from his family. As locals plunder the Fenves home, the family’s cook, Maris, grabs a red cloth book of handwritten recipes.
Fenweis’s mother and grandmother died in Auschwitz, and his father, who was so weakened by the experience in the camps, died shortly after his release in 1945. Both children returned to Subotica, where Maris took care of them; She returned the thin handwritten cookbook 16 years later, when they had settled in Chicago with relatives.
A year ago, Chef Alon Shaya from Saba in New Orleans shared the contents of the book with me. Among them was a minimalist recipe for mezcalac from Fenves’ grandmother: just a paragraph for gingerbread dough with a few measurements detailing thin layers in decagrams and vague instructions. Cake,
Thin-layer cakes, called flodny in Hungarian or flüden in Yiddish, have long been a trademark of Hungarian and Hungarian Jewish baking. Andrus Körner, author of “Jewish Cuisine in Hungary,” suggests that they were invented in the late 19th century, a development of medieval filled pastries. Cream of Wheat filling – another recently added – is meant to mimic a European gruel called greuz, which is made from semolina or any hard wheat flour.
Last spring, when Shaya was looking for a place to prepare some of Fenwes’ dishes for supporters of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, I agreed to host the event at my home. For two days, Shaya’s cooks took over my kitchen, preparing beef and vegetable goulash with noodles, crispy semolina sticks, sweet and sour cabbage, walnut cream cakes, recipes recreated from a family’s distant past. About 100 guests, including Fenves and his family, visited my . Tasting Delicacies at the Buffet of dining roomI waited the right time to present her with a version of her grandmother’s cake, which I topped with a jam and cream filling.
Bringing out a piece, I watched Fenves pick up his fork and tasted. He took another bite. A faint ray of memory flashed in his eyes.
“All of a sudden, I remembered our dining table,” he told me later. “About something my sister quipped, my father who was a newspaper publisher was coming straight out of his office and telling us about world events, even at my very young age. Too.”
As Fenvas dipped his fork into the Rich Cake over and over again, he politely asked if he could take the rest of the cake home.
Recipe: Hungarian Honey Cake
by Joan Nathan
This Hungarian Honey Cake Is So Delicious With Ginger, Cardamom, clove and cinnamon. The dough is more like a gingerbread biscuit than a tender sponge cake; It becomes soft as it sits. It is best made at least a day in advance, then 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’ll want to bite into small cake slices. The Hungarian Honey Cake was popular before the Holocaust, but sadly, this version was largely lost with cooks in concentration camps. It has been adapted by survivors in the United States and other members of the family using a cream of wheat filling, which resembles a European gruel made from semolina or hard wheat flour, and enriched with lots of butter. This special cake is reminiscent of his past life.
Yield: 1 (9-inch) cake
Total Time: 1 1/2 hours, plus at least 3 hours of chilling and 25 hours of rest
For Filling and Frosting:
4 cups/960 ml milk or soy milk
1 cup/176 g Original 2 1/2-Minute Cream of Wheat
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups/340 grams unsalted butter, chopped
1 1/4 cups/252 grams granulated sugar
1/4 tsp fine salt
1 1/2 cups/454 g thick, chunky apricot or sour cherry preserves
1 cup/201 g granulated sugar
1/4 cup/60 ml milk or soy milk
3 tablespoons dark wildflower honey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large eggs
4 1/4 cups/544 grams all purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 tsp ground cloves
3/4 tsp ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/4 tsp fine salt
1. Prepare the Filling: In a medium pan over medium heat, bring the milk to a boil, then whisk in the Cream of Wheat. Cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 2 1/2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract. Let cool slightly, then add 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 stand mixer with paddle attachment or with spoon until fluffy.
2. Make tempering while cooling down: Heat the sugar, milk. Honey and butter in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring well until the sugar dissolves, the butter is melted and the ingredients are well combined. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes until lukewarm, then pour into stand mixer. Add eggs and mix with paddle attachment on medium until incorporated.
3. Sift 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour with the baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom, coriander and salt, then pour into the bowl of a mixer. Mix on medium-slow until a smooth, not sticky, dough is formed, adding more flour if necessary, a few tablespoons at a time. Using dough cutter, divide dough into 4 equal balls. Set on a plate and cover with a towel; Let the gluten rest for 1 hour at room temperature.
4. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly sprinkle each ball of dough with flour before placing it in the middle of a sheet of parchment paper. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 10-inch circle, about 1/8- to-1/4-inch thick. Using a sharp knife and a 9-inch round dinner plate or baking pan, cut out a circle. save scraps of the dough, pushing them to the edges of the parchment paper, away from the circle. Transfer paper with circles and scraps to baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough balls. You can use 4 separate baking sheets (or use 2 baking sheets at a time and then repeat).
5. Bake 2 sheets at a time until top of each round is slightly puffed and set, about 7 to 10 minutes. (Watch carefully, as they can burn quickly.) Let cool, then grind the scraps in a food processor or blender. Reserve the pieces in an airtight container to decorate the cake.
6. Assemble the Cake: Tear a sheet of parchment into several wide strips and use the strips in a circular pattern to line the bottom of a serving plate. (These will be removed before serving and will help keep plate clean when decorating cakes.) Place previously baked cake layer on top of parchment and spread with 1 1/2 cups filling. Top with a second cake layer and then spread apricots or sour cherries on top, leaving a 1/2-inch border along the perimeter. Top with a third cake layer and spread with 1 1/2 cups filling. Add last layer of cake, then spread 1 1/2 cups filling over top and remaining 1 1/2 cups filling on sides. Pat the reserved pieces on top and sides, just to cover lightly, reserving the rest.
7. Let cake stand at room temperature covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap for at least 24 hours — or, ideally, up to 2 days. (Refrigering the cake will harden the frosting, preventing the cake layers from soaking it up and softening as they are intended.)
8. To enjoy, sprinkle the reserved crumbs over the cake to add texture. Carefully lift out and discard parchment paper strips before cutting into slices for serving.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.