Back in March, when we unveiled our Treasury of Hungarian Recipes, we published a companion piece underscoring the difficulties of cooking from old Hungarian cookbooks. In our case, the “old” books mostly went back no farther than the turn of the last century, and the complications generally involved now-outmoded terms and general vagueness compared to the detail-laden cookbooks you find today. But judging from the experiences of the author and readers of a popular Hungarian “book blog,” your odds of making a tasty meal out of an old Hungarian cookbook seem to decrease geometrically with the number of centuries it’s been sitting on the pantry bookshelf.
Last month blogger Kálmán of KönyvesBlog caused a ruckus among his readers when he cooked up a type of bread pudding called Kenyér tortáta from the 1806 cookbook Úri és közönséges konyhákon meg-fordúlt szakáts-könyv. The title roughly translates as “Cookbook Used in Noble and Ordinary Kitchens,” and is an extended version of the first known printed Hungarian cookbook, from way back in 1698, shortly after the Holy League liberated Hungary from the tyranny of Turkish food.
According to Kálmán, the resulting pudding (left, lower) was inedible, and the failed experiment led him to make some comments about the cuisine of his ancestors which some of his readers found, well, distasteful. The recipe included little in the way of measurement, and contained a rather curious array of ingredients, including bread, eggs, wine, honey, raisins, figs, almonds, pepper, saffron and ginger. But one of his readers quickly pointed out that Kálmán had probably made a mistake when translating the recipe from “old Hungarian,” as the word téjfel was likely to have meant cream rather than sour cream. The same reader also argued that he shouldn’t have used rye bread for a sweet dish just because it is more “rustic” than white bread, and shouldn’t have added any water to the wine. Despite this, Kálmán would only admit to adding too much saffron and ginger.
Two weeks later, Kálmán returned to the topic, after one of his readers had tried another of the recipes he had earlier posted, this time with a successful result. One Ágnes Kern cooked a dish called Karbonáta (top), which is liver served with a sour sauce made from fruit and wine. Kern somewhat simplified the original recipe, in part because it called for ingredients impossible to acquire today in Budapest, and partly because she wanted a “simple dish” for two people. But not that simple.
While the recipe called for calf or sheep liver, Kern could only find pork liver at her local butcher. She cut it into small pieces, mixed in one egg and one slice of bread without the crust, cut into small pieces. She added pepper, ginger powder and ground clove. Since she couldn’t find any “pork membrane” to wrap the mixture in, she merely fried it in butter and allowed it to fall into pieces when she turned it over. For the sauce, Kern boiled 200 milliliters of red wine, then added one handful of raisins and the same amount of frozen currant. She flavored it with pepper, more ginger powder, nutmeg and clove, roughly half to one quarter kiskanál each. She then added one tablespoon of honey and the same amount of lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. Once the raisins and the currant were cooked, she added one more slice of bread torn into pieces and two tablespoons of peeled almonds previously crushed in a mortar. When serving, she added some salt to the liver and ate the dish with bread.
Kern concluded that the liver was good but nothing special, but the sauce was “very exciting, with the right balance of sweet, fruity and vinegary, sour flavors.” She said the overall result was “fine,” though it would probably fit today’s tastes better if less bread and more liquid were used, and the sauce was strained.
As for whether we’re going to add Karbonáta or any other similarly ancient Hungarian delights to our recept trezor, we’ll play that by ear. But if we do, and you end up cooking something from it that tastes unholy, note that you’ve been warned and you shouldn’t go all medieval on us in the comments.