The Budapest Christmas Fair may be small, but it packs a sensory-overload of sounds, smells and sights into a few city blocks. The two of us had set off from our little apartment, ready to buy enough goodies from Hungary to fill that extra suitcase. Instead we wandered through the market, wide-eyed and slightly overwhelmed by the clothing, toys, soap, honey, fruit wines, jewelry, glass work.
Each had its own little stall, including the obligatory ceramics:
Christmas ornaments and towels:
and lots of Christmas-scented gifts which we knew wouldn’t make it through customs:
Who knew making a choice could be so stressful?
We needed some snacks to lift our spirits AND blood sugar. Luckily, we were in the right place. Should it be marzipan or strudel? Or something local, like flodni, a traditionally Jewish cake of apples, plum jam, walnuts and poppyseeds, or keksztekercs, a sort-of chocolate sponge roll filled with coconut icing. Judging by the number of sellers, the locals favored kürtőskalács or chimney cakes, so we did, too.
Half the fun is watching the cooks prepare the traditional sweet from Transylvania. A bread-like dough is spread on a rotisserie spit and baked over open coals:
When it’s golden brown, the shopkeeper dips it in your favorite flavoring. We picked cinnamon. Then she hands it -so hot it’s still steaming- over to you:
and everyone pinches off a piece:
Of course, no Christmas market would be complete without gingerbread. Hungarians call the cookies mézeskalács, literally “honeycake,” because of its sweetener. In your own home, decorate them with curlycues, circles and loops to make them look authentically Hungarian.
- ½ cup honey
- ⅙ cup molasses
- ⅔ cup packed dark brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 3¾ to 4 cups all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg white
- 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
- 1 cup of powdered sugar
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Bring honey, molasses, brown sugar, and spices to a boil in a large saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam). Then stir in butter 3 tablespoons at a time, letting each addition melt before adding next, until all butter is melted. Add egg and stir, then add 3¾ cups flour and salt.
- Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting with remaining flour as needed, until soft and easy to handle, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Halve dough, then wrap half in plastic wrap and keep at room temperature.
- Roll out remaining dough to ⅛ inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut out as many cookies as possible with cutters and transfer with spatula to baking sheet, arranging them about 1 inch apart.
- Bake cookies in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until edges are slightly darker, 10 to 12 minutes total (watch carefully toward end of baking; cookies can burn easily). Transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps
- When cookies are cool, pipe icing onto cookies.
- Beat the egg white until stiff peaks form. Mix well with the powdered sugar and lemon juice.
- Fill a piping bag with the icing to pipe out into different shapes. (Or use a plastic sandwich bag, with the tip of one corner of the bag cut off.) Keep the icing covered while you work with it or it will dry out.