Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hungarian Celebration Food

Our family celebrations are always feasts. There are two staples for a celebration. For birthdays, graduations, weddings or anniversaries, there will always be rum cake. In my family, you feel truly honored when someone makes a rum cake for you. We are Hungarian and we have our own version of this amazing cake. The first thing you must know is that it is a commitment. The cake takes a day or two to bake and put together, and then it requires at least a week of basting with rum before it can be served.

The recipe calls for three sponge cakes; two regular or 'yellow' cakes and one chocolate. Also needed is chocolate custard, apricot jam (extra points if you made the jam in the summer and saved a jar just in case you needed to make a rum cake that year), and two simple syrups – one green and one red.

Usually we bake the cakes one day and put them together the next. The cake has a base and a top and gets layers of broken cake pieces (alternately drizzled with red or green syrup to represent the Hungarian flag), and layers of custard and jam. When the cake is assembled it can be up to eight inches high. During the next week or two or three, we put a board on the cake and weight it down with whatever is handy and heavy enough, usually jars of sour kraut or bottles of water. Everyday a bit of rum is drizzled over the top and the weights go back on. When the cake is done it will have compacted to about three or four inches high.

We have been known to hand carry this cake through airport security and onto planes to travel as far as three thousand miles for a party. If you are lucky, my older brother, Jay, will be present to do the icing and decorations. He is a professional pastry chef and the cake is always beautiful when he's done with it. If Jay isn't around, then my Uncle Bruce will do the icing and decorations – this is just as much of a treat as when Jay does it, though the result will most likely be humorous. My uncle is known for his handmade birthday cards (kept for years and years) and his rum cake decorating. But let it be said, the cake does not need anything special on top – if I have to do the icing I just make a simple powdered sugar and water glaze – usually with some orange flavoring, and smooth it across the top, letting it drip down the sides.

When the cake is cut you see the layers of green and red along with the chocolate and jam and the now very dense cake. We cut it in half inch slabs and newcomers to this cake can usually only handle one slice. The rest of use have a slice and an hour later we're back for more. It's really good for breakfast too.

No doubt you've noticed that I started with dessert first. I could say that I did that because you have to plan so far ahead to make this cake, except that the next item on the menu takes as much pre-planning and preparation time. The main course for almost every gathering in my family is Stuffed Cabbage. My mouth is watering just thinking about these succulent rolls. We start at least a week ahead with our cabbage heads. They are cleaned and we carefully peel off each leaf, keeping it completely intact. These leaves go into a vinegar mixture where they sit for five or seven days. During this time the leaves are pickled and become soft and tender. We make a mixture of pork and rice and spices and when the cabbage is ready we sit around the table making the rolls: a leaf of cabbage, a small handful of pork mixture, roll and stuff the ends inside. The rolls get put in the largest pots, layered with sour kraut and paprika. Add some water and cook on the stove.

I cannot even begin to describe the aroma, so pungent and fragrant. People who know it will walk into the house and say, "We're having stuffed cabbage?!!!" It is a lot of work, but so worth it. We serve the rolls with boiled and buttered potatoes and crusty bread for sopping up the juices.

Just thinking about these two foods fills me with a longing for a family reunion. I suddenly miss my brothers and sisters, my aunts, uncles and cousins and all the noise that fills the house. We are a loud group. The wine flows freely, we eat until we can barely move and we laugh. Sometime after dinner my Uncle Bruce will say, "Who wants to play Michigan Rummy?" and we go scrambling in search of the multiple decks of cards we'll need, and settle in for a four hour game which inevitably includes cheating from all comers.

(Thanks to Catherine Arnold of the February Project for the inspiration and writing prompt.)

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