My Hungarian Jewish roots and infusing the holidays with a special sense of grandeur

I once dated a guy who said that there were two reasons to date Hungarian women: their looks and the food. Some people may consider these superficial qualities but my Hungarian mother elevated them. By dressing up and making special food, she infused our Jewish holiday celebrations with a special sense of grandeur. We always had new clothes for the Jewish holidays, especially so that we could wear something special on holidays when we said the “shehecheyanu” blessing—a blessing that thanks God for keeping us alive to celebrate special occasions. In addition to saying this blessing on holidays, we always recited it the first time we wore new clothes. This fancy dressing was an essential part of the holiday when I was growing up and remains so for me today.

And then there was the food! Mom would start cooking multiple batches weeks before the holidays and freeze everything. She had to start early because there was so much food. A holiday meal had at least two main courses—for example, capon AND veal roast or duck AND roast beef. There were also multiple dessert options and to this day, I worry that I need to provide choices for my guests. After all, some people are only happy with a chocolate dessert and others can’t eat chocolate—so I channel my mom, and make sure there’s something for every palate.

My mother was always open to new cooking ideas but at holidays there were always traditional Hungarian Jewish foods—especially the desserts, such as dobos torte or rigo jancsi. One fall favorite of my mother’s ties in to her Hungarian heritage but was of more recent vintage: Roszi Neni’s (Aunt Roszi’s) apple roll.

A slice of apple roll with some chocolate ice cream (a necessary option in case you have guests who think dessert must include chocolate) Photo copyright REG

A slice of apple roll with some chocolate ice cream (a necessary option in case you have guests who think dessert must include chocolate)
Photo copyright REG

According to mom, her mother’s sister Roszi was one of the family members who cried bitterly when my mother’s family left Hungary in 1939. They thought my grandfather was foolish to uproot his family because they believed Hungarian Jews were safe. Later, Roszi took a course and learned how to make foods that would appeal to Americans with the hopes that she could emigrate and perhaps work as a cook. She shared the recipe for apple roll with my grandmother. Sadly, Roszi never made it out of Hungary; she was one of the family members killed by the Nazis.

My grandmother's sisters who both died in the Holocaust: Roszi Bloch Hausman and Szidi Bloch Aron

My grandmother’s sisters who both died in the Holocaust: Roszi Bloch Hausman and Szidi Bloch Aron

This is a tragic rather than festive story but I share the one recipe I have from Roszi Neni as a way of connecting to my  Hungarian Jewish heritage. It seems particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashanah when it is traditional to eat apples (which just happen to be in season). Roszi Neni’s apple roll also connects me to the sense of occasion and splendor at my mother’s holiday table and in the finest Jewish tradition allows me to bring some elements of my extended family and their memory to our table.

Roszi Neni’s Apple Roll

Dough:

3 cups of all purpose flour

1 tsp salt

¼ cup sugar

4-5 egg yolks

Lemon rind from one lemon

1 tsp vanilla

½ lb. shortening (or margarine or butter or some combination)

4-6 tablespoons cold club soda

Filling:

3 lbs tart green apples (like Granny smith) .

¾ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ cup raisins or currants

1 tablespoon tapioca

Cut shortening into flour, salt and sugar with a pastry blender. Add remainder of dough ingredients until ball is formed. Refrigerate several hours overnight.

Cut apples into around 16-20 pieces each. I leave the peel on because I like the peel. Mix in remainder of ingredients.

Cut dough into two parts. Roll one half of the dough on a floured surface into a 10” X 14” rectangle (well not a perfect rectangle—the beauty of this is its rustic look so no need to make sure that this is perfect. It will be better if it’s a little misshapen). Place half of the apple mixture in the center of the rectangle so that it goes almost the whole length of the “rectangle,” leaving some room so that you can seal the ends when you’re done. Fold the sides of the dough over  so that they overlap a little in the middle and so that you have a roll that is 4 inches wide (still 14″ long). The top will look home made. Repeat this with the remaining dough and filling. Place the rolls gently on a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper. Seal the ends tightly. Prick all over with a fork so that steam can escape.

Bake at 400 for 20 minutes. Reduce to 350 for another 40-50 minutes.

Serve hot (either fresh or heated up) with a sprinkling of confectioners sugar. This actually freezes very well though it’s heavenly when fresh.

The final instruction is one of my favorite lines in my mother’s cookbook: “Cut slices as for strudel.” I’m sure she knew what that meant.

Extra tip for those of you making festive meals that require lots of desserts: this recipe uses only the egg yolks. You’ll have 4-5 whites to use for making great meringues.

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