Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dateline: Budapest - Rigo Jansci!

Life's funny sometimes.

Just a month ago, if you were to ask me to describe Hungarian food - or, even, anything about Hungarian culture - I would probably be dumbfounded to offer anything outside of "paprika" as my answer. And even with that, truthfully, I would mostly be reminded of the absolutely amazing Satoshi Kon film (RIP Satoshi Kon, BTW, the world lost one of the best there was.) Second to paprika, I would probably think "some sort of really smelly sausage", courtesy of the boyfriend's penchant for using it in the Brazilian delicacy feijoada. Finding the Hungarian deli in town was one of the best days of his life, no doubt, but to me...meh.

But then, as luck would have it, we got ourselves a new room mate. A Hungarian! From Hungary! He's a P.h.D. student in Hungarian history, which makes a nice, and hilarious, contrast to the M.Sc. I'm chugging along on. He isn't a huge fan of the indigenous Hungarian food as I would have assumed, but he came with all sorts of melodrama when I found this:

Yep..another dessert cookbook! From the library, too! I bet you're all dumbfounded by that complete surprise. This book has "Ira" written all over it, for 1) the recipes, and 2) the blatant and gorgeous use of Art Nouveau design, typography, and embellishments within. Love it!

I showed the book to my roomie, making sure to point out that "Budapest" was on the cover, and then instructed him to choose something that was within my capabilities to bake for us. This was my chance to bake something Hungarian, expanding my repertoire to a whole TWO items.

After some consideration, we decided on Rigo Jansci (REE-go YAHN-shi) (again, blogger fails in the accent department - there should be one on the i). This translates to "Johnny Blackbird" in Hungarian. Yes, I know. It's weird, but at least there's an explanation.

Like many European desserts, this one is named after a person. And not just any person! Johnny Blackbird was, apparently, a gypsy violinist. And not just any gypsy violonist, but the most attractive  gypsy violinist ever. 

The story goes that in the late 1800s, Johnny was playing violin at a hotel in Paris. Watching his performance was the (former) Klara Ward - a milliionaire's daughter, and wife of Baron Chimay. Upon seeing Johnny, Klara was so taken with his good looks that she went so far as to take off her wedding ring and place it on his pinky. Can you believe that! 200 years later, that's some racy shit! I mean, really! Taking off your wedding ring IN FRONT OF YOUR HUSBAND, and putting it on some RANDOM MUSICIAN'S FINGER?! My God...

Anyways, she left her husband and two kids (ach!), and joined Johnny on his travels. Then, some Hungarian pastry chef named a "sinfully" chocolate dessert after him. Surprise surprse, the marriage didn't last, and he faded into obscurity. But Rigo Jansci, the dessert, did not.

Rigo Jansci has everything a chocolate lover would...well, love. It's like a chocolate sandwhich: chocolate sponge cake is the bread, and the "meat" (or whatever) is chocolate whipped cream, spiked with a bit of rum. On top, there is a chocolate glaze to make everything pretty. Admittedly, though, this isn't the super mega heavy chocolate orgasm that I was thinking. Actually, the chocolate taste is a bit subdued. I guess this is more representative of what the European tortes are like - more of an emphasis on texture and flavour combinations than overwhelming, huge, heavy cakes that North Americans are accustomed to.

Photo: Ira Sherr

And just to make sure things are going according to plan, I was able to double-check the appearance against an adorable watercolour from Cakespy.

Image: Cakespy

Yep, things check out. Phew!

The dessert isn't too difficult to make, either. But be warned, these tortes (and their similar desserts) are an exercise in preparation and assembly. There are a number of different components to make, so take some time to plan (ie. don't start this at 9 PM). The other somewhat comforting thing about these kinds of desserts is that they are all based on sponge cakes, so they are somewhat healthier for you (right? right?), and take far less time to bake. One baking sheet of sponge was prepared in about 10, and bakes in 15 minutes, and that's all you need for this recipe.

Perhaps the biggest victory for my Rigo Jansci was that I managed to impress some people! Apparently the roomie's coworkers - who may or may not be from Hungary, but know of said dessert - tried some and were pleased with the results. Diplomacy win!

In light of that, do expect more central European desserts in the future. Especially because Kaffeehaus is a phenomenal body of baking work.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rugelach...for "When the Schnecken Beckons"

In further efforts to re-create the noshes of my youth, today's project are Rugelach.

Rugelach are small, flaky pastries with a filling that contains any of chocolate, cinnamon, currants, and walnuts. And although they can look somewhat impressive and professional, you'll be pleased to know that the baking and assembly is quite simple.

The dough is made from a 1:1 mixture of butter to cream cheese, which makes them extremely flaky and, obviously, ridiculously fattening. Just do yourself a favour and pretend that we live in an age where nutritional information simply doesn't exist on food packaging, okay? You`ll want to make sure that the butter and cream cheese are beaten together for a good length of time so as to maximize the prospects of a delicious dough.

Traditionally, Rugelach are made by rolling the filling and dough into a large log, and slicing the cookies into small pieces. Case and point, the recipe I followed suggested this, but I decided to deviate on account of a) those pieces are too close to bite-sized morsels for comfort and/or portion control, and b) small spirals are prettier. I mean, really. Not wanting to end my rebellious streak there, I opted to replace the currants with semi-sweet chocolate chips, because I am crazy about the chocolate/walnut/sugar combination, and currants just seemed a bit...I dunno...healthy? 

Now, I was always under the impression that Rugelach and Schnecken were one and the same, but the good folks over at Schnecken Connection (Ira's endorsement for Best Name Ever), set the record straight: "Schecken" meaning "snail" in German, are pastries that are rolled (like mine), whereas Rugelach are result of the ol' log-and-slice technique above. Additionally, Schnecken are made with sour cream, and Rugelach of cream cheese So, I guess I really made a Rugelach-Schecken hybrid? The important thing is, we still have our health, and both these pastires descended from immigrant European Jewish communities.

For those not familiar with delicious, heart-attack inducing pastries of the Jewish heritage, you may remember them from their brief cameo in the 1996 film The Birdcage.

Photo: Ira Sherr

I have to give respect to Kate Zuckerman for this recipe - the butter-cream cheese dough is off the hook! I'm not sure how much it deviates or borrows from "traditional" rugelach recipes, but this is the first time I've made these, and I'm very pleased with the results. True to her claims, the dough is very flaky, but also has a nice sourness to it that is heavily addictive. I only wish that I had stuffed an irresponsible amount of filling into these little guys in order to maximize the flavour profile and play off the dough better. For those baking along at home, I would recommend at least doubling -- or even tripling - the dough recipe. I have nearly 3/4 of the filling left over, currently residing in my freezer. Thankfully, it's delicious and is one of those guilty pleasures you  could just eat by itself. Or if that seems too uncivilized for your tastes, you could probably dump it into yogurt for a sugary, impromptu `granola`.

The recipe was taken from The Sweet Life, which is an amazing resource. More to the point, Kate is really friendly and very helpful - I know this because she's actually returned my emails! If you are looking for a dessert cookbook with solid, impressive recipes, I would highly recommend it.

Let the Schecken beckon!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

P is for Praxis...and Pfeffernusse

So, I've been doing some thinking these past few days.

Thankfully, I won't bore you with details, but the gist is: I have decided that I will start posting about my baking endeavours. Not that I intend bakegeek to be a play-by-play of what comes out of Ira's oven, but I want to share recipes and stories and successes (and occasional failures) with you all.

Without further delay, on with the show!

I picked up Greg Patent's wordly, "A Baker's Odyssey" at my super top secret source for cheap cookbooks, and I've been really impressed with it. Long story short, it celebrates America's immigrant heritage by going straight to the source for passed-down, ethnic creations that come from a variety of different Motherlands. There are tons of great recipes in here: breads, flatbreads, cookies, pies, yeasted breads, etc., and they come from as wide a range of countries as you'll probably find in any baking book (Germany, Sweden, Greece, Italy, Norway, Syria, Israel, Ireland, Lithuania, etc).

As I've always been one for learning about different cuisines, I was thrilled at the chance to bake from different cultures, as well. At this point, I've only had time to bake two recipes (I blame Committee Meetings), but there will definitely be more to come in the future. For now, I'm going to share the latest and greatest: Pfeffernusse. There should be an umlaut (sp?) on the u but I can't figure out how to insert it in Blogger's word processor.

Photo: Adam Dombovari
Pfeffernusse belong to a family of German cookies that seem to only be baked around Christmas time, which I think is a total shame. However, one thing you'll notice from this book is that a great deal of European baked goods - especially the really rich ones - are often baked either for a) Christmas, or b) before Lent. This was a huge shock to me. How can you resist only baking these things once a year? Why are there not riots in the streets? After speaking to a German friend of mine, he confirmed this to be the case ("Germans really only eat cookies during Christmas"). Well! Soorrrry for being a complete pig, then! I guess I'll never fit in in Germany. Which is probably for the best, because I don't think I could ace their pronounciation.

Pfeffernusse translates literally to "Pepper nuts", which means these cookies are a spicy little number, loaded with...you guessed it..nuts. Well, this recipe is a bit of a deviation from tradition, as they don't contain pepper or nuts (I haven't yet found whole, shelled walnuts to bake with, and I have a peanut allergy which makes me paranoid). Thankfully, there is more than enough flavour to compensate for both parties. The cookies utilize one of my favourite flavour combinations or cinnamon, nutmeg, and anise to give that lovely, deep, magical spiciness that does, in fact, remind me of the winter months. The spiciness even gets help from ground coriander seed, which works so well I turned a blind eye to the fact that I hate that vile plant and all of its associated life stages (Coriander = the seed of Cilantro - FACT). If you love that Spice Axis (think gingerbread), you'll enjoy these for sure.

The base of the cookie is a combination of honey, sugar, and butter, which gives a nice thickened cookie and a subtle sweetness. After baking into little domes, the cookies are glazed with icing sugar and then rolled...in more icing sugar. At this point, they kind of do resemble little igloos as the recipe indicates. The intense sweetness of the icing sugar makes a great contrast to the wonderful deep spiciness of the cookie. The texture is quite nice, too. After two days the cookies are a wee bit firm, but overall chewy. Apparently they can keep for two months, so this is something you can bake a good deal in advance and save...if you had that mysterious "self control" thing I hear so much about.

As for "A Baker's Odyssey" find out more here. I highly recommend it if you're a fan of home-baked goodness.
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