Hungary is famous for its decadent Austrian-style pastries served in glamorous coffeehouses that make us feel as if time stopped somewhere at the turn of the last century. Travelers are often amazed by these elegant cakes in Hungary. Who can resist beauties like the seven-layer Dobos torta with its glistening caramelized top or the Esterházy torta with its rich walnut flavors? And then there is the annual National Cake of the Year to anticipate! Visiting a Hungarian patisserie can be a battle of wills as there’s such a selection of sugar-coated temptations that making a choice is difficult.
“Are there fairies in the Hungarian kitchens using secret recipes,” people ask after realizing how complicated these cakes are to prepare (and how delicious they taste). In fact, in Hungary our home cooks are like fairies in the kitchen. But they are not usually preparing fancy cakes like Dobos and Esterházy. Rather, they have a repertoire of simple and amazing recipes, and not all of them are secrets. Most Hungarian families have their own handwritten, well-worn cookbook inherited from mothers or grandmothers. It contains a long list of sweet pastries, cakes, dumplings, strudels, and pancakes, from the most simple ones to the very difficult-to-prepare ones, all are impossible to resist.
Palacsinta, the Hungarian pancake (similar to the French crépe), is a favorite. Very thin and large (and with some added soda water the batter becomes translucent), it is filled with ground walnuts, jam, chocolate, or sweetened curd cheese. Donuts are another favorite, especially around carnival season, and can be made from yeast-raised dough or choux pastry. Deep fried and served with jam or cocoa, when freshly cooked they are an unforgettable culinary experience. Túrógombóc—large sweet dumplings made with curd cheese, semolina, and topped with sour cream and sugar—was my childhood favorite. Since they are just slightly sweet, they are often served as a light supper or a main course after a hearty soup.
Hungarian winters can be very long and cold. To console ourselves (and pass the time) we like to create difficult, time-consuming desserts. One of my family’s favorites is aranygaluska (the so-called golden dumplings) which reminds me of my grandma, who was my kitchen fairy. This was her signature dessert to serve at Sunday family meals, and it’s excellent after a hearty soup like gulyás or the bean and ham soup. It does take a few hours of work, but the thankful looks on the faces of my family tells me that it is worth the effort.
Note: In Hungary everyone bakes with a kitchen scale—even the kitchen fairy grandmothers—which is why this recipe is written using weight measurements. We highly recommend purchasing an inexpensive scale to achieve the best results! Once you start using it, you will probably agree that it is an indispensable kitchen tool!
Aranygaluska (Golden Dumplings) Recipe
For the Dough
17 grams sugar
14 grams dry yeast
90 milliliters milk, lukewarm
230 grams flour
170 grams butter, separated and chopped into small pieces (plus additional for the pan, if needed)
2 grams salt
Zest of 1 lemon
100 grams walnuts, ground
2-3 Tablespoons raisins (optional)
Apricot jam, optional
For the Sauce
500 milliliters milk
1 Vanilla pod
3 Tablespoons sugar
1.5 Tablespoons flour
3 egg yolks
To Make the Dough:
- Combine the sugar, yeast, and milk in a large bowl. Stir until the yeast dissolves. Cover the bowl and allow it to rise in a warm place until it has thickened and looks bubbly.
- Add the flour, 17 grams butter, salt, and lemon zest. Knead for approximately ten minutes (until the dough is smooth with an even surface), and then punch it well. Place it in a bowl, cover with a dish towel, and leave it in a warm place to rise for about an hour, or until it is doubled in size.
- Coat the baking pan (I usually use a round cake pan) generously with butter.
- Roll the dough out into a 2 centimeter thick piece. Melt the remaining butter (150 grams). Cut the pastry into small rounds (approximately 4 centimeter pieces) using a round cutter, or a glass if you don’t have one. Spread each dumpling with melted butter and sprinkle with ground walnuts (and raisins, if you’d like). Arrange them snugly in the pan. Sprinkle with more melted butter and walnuts. If you’d like to use apricot jam, add a layer of jam here. Make a second layer of dumplings, sprinkle with more melted butter, ground walnuts, and a bit of sugar.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C / 340°F. Allow the dough to rest again for about 30 minutes.
- Bake the dough for 30-40 minutes, or until the dumplings are thoroughly cooked and slightly browned.
To Make the Vanilla Sauce:
- Heat 450 milliliters of the milk and vanilla until it just boils.
- Combine the sugar and flour in a large pot. Pour in the remaining cold milk, add the egg yolks, and whisk until well-combined. Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, stirring frequently. Place the pot back on the stove and cook over low heat until sauce thickens, whisking constantly.
Serve (as soon as possible after baking) with the vanilla sauce. When serving at home, the aranygaluska is typically placed in the middle of the table and everyone tears apart the dumpling with their hands (rather than cutting with a knife).