We were stymied, trying to figure out where to go for dinner one night, when our friend suggested a restaurant on the Danube. It specializes in fish stew. Specifically catfish soup which is a comfort food and Christmas tradition in Hungary.
Uhhh…catfish? In Hungary? I had misgivings involving unpleasant memories of trot lines in east Texas and the smell of rancid oil frying. Why in the world would we order catfish in a grand European capital?
But –honestly– who could possibly pass up dinner on the Danube?
So we bundled up and went to the floating restaurant below the Sinatra Piano Bar, just south of the Chain Bridge. The Danube glistened outside the window and inside we had a cozy corner to ourselves. And (pleasant surprise) there was no fried catfish in sight! After extended debate, because nobody wanted to duplicate entrees, Lizzy chose a sauteed version covered in an herbed cream sauce, while Gergely had typical Hungarian fish soup stewed with paprika. And while we devoured the fare, Gergely filled us in on holiday traditions in Hungary.
Turns out, Santa, known as Mikulás, doesn’t waste any time getting presents to Hungary. He arrives early in Budapest and thereabouts- on the evening of December 5, the day before St. Nicholas Feast Day, with his evil sidekick, Krampusz.
Krampusz sounds completely terrifying. If a child has been bad he faces a fate much worse than coals and switches. He will be kidnapped by this hairy, horned devil-man who suddenly whisks him away from his family. Where are Saint Nicholas’s kindly, toy-making elves while all this is happening? Certainly no where near the Danube.
The Christmas season is just gearing up early in the month. A week later on December 13, our Sicilian friend, St. Lucia, shows up. Hungarians have all sorts of traditions, such as predicting the weather, foretelling the name of your future husband and even constructing a wooden stool to take to church on Christmas Eve, that take place that day. (Actually, Gergely never mentioned St. Lucia, so maybe she’s not prominent in Hungary these days. I was just thrilled to see her name pop up on Wikipedia so soon after our visit to her hometown in Sicily.)
The whole family gathers together for three days of celebration beginning on December 24. Late Christmas Eve, when Santa is busy in other parts of the world, Hungarian kids receive their main gifts — from the baby Jesus. Then the extended family gets together for the next couple of days.
Whew! That’s a lot of family togetherness.
In Hungary, everyone loves to munch the cheesy leavened biscuits called pógacsa (pronounced “po-gotcha”). See somebody snacking on the street? Most likely he’s popping a pogacsa into his mouth. Having a dinner party? As a gift you’ll probably get a paper bag full of the breads in flavors such as potato, bacon or cabbage.
Of course, every cook has her own special version of the savory snack and Gergeley swears by his mother’s. We agree that Ágnes’s pógacsa, especially hot out of the oven, are addicting. So even though fish stew isn’t on the menu in Texas this New Year’s Day, the pógacsa will be perfect with a big mess of black-eyed peas.
Köszönöm and Boldog Új Évet!
- 4 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) butter, sliced into ½ inch chunks
- ¾ cup sour cream
- 8 ounces mild cheddar or edam cheese, grated
- ¼ cup milk, slightly warmed in microwave
- 2 eggs (divided use)
- 2¼ teaspoon yeast
- Proof the yeast according to the instructions on its label.
- While yeast is proofing, sift together flour and salt in large bowl of electric mixer. Cut in butter, then add sour cream, 4 ounces of the grated cheese, milk, egg and proofed yeast mixture. Combine well.
- Attach bowl and dough hook. Turn mixer on speed 2 (being careful flour doesn’t fly out of bowl), until dough clings to hook instead of side of bowl. Knead on speed 2 for 2 minutes longer, or until dough is smooth and elastic. Dough will be slightly
- sticky to the touch.
- Put the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with cloth and leave it in a warm place for about an 1½ hours until it has doubled in size.
- For first folding, roll out dough on lightly floured board. Fold outer left and right edges to meet in center (See photos). Then fold left edge over one more time. Return to oiled bowl and let rise in warm place for 30 minutes. Repeat folding and rising for 30 minutes two more times.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- After final rise, roll out dough about ¾ inch thick, then cut out as many pogácsa as possible with small cup or biscuit cutter, about 1½ in diameter.
- Place on cookie sheet. Brush with beaten egg and top with remainder of cheese.
- Bake for minutes until tops are golden brown.