(This story and recipe were submitted to The Gulyas Pot in 2008 by KTV)
Grandma’s kitchen was always warm with comforting smells, but never so much as around Christmastime. Stuffed cabbage simmered on the stove as she rolled out her sour cream and butter dough for the delicacies that we knew as “Grandma’s cookies”—soft, flaky pastries wrapped and filled with poppy seed, walnut or apricot. They were lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar and presented on an elegant platter of aluminum and etched glass.
Everyone has their special family memories of the holidays, and many of them include their favorite desserts. This cookie, however, has become a symbol of my heritage.
Once I married, I began collecting family recipes and Grandma’s cookies were on the top of my list. I found out, however, that it wasn’t as simple as copying a list of ingredients; Grandma had all her recipes safely stored in her head, not on paper. So I sat down with her, my pen held tight and ready for her dictation.
Grandma was in her 80s by that time, and all her recipes—cookies, potato salad, deviled eggs and chicken soup—had become more instinct than instruction, so for her to translate the process into words took time (for her) and patience (for me). She didn’t use measurements like cups and teaspoons. Ingredients for the cookies started with a pound of butter (easy enough), but quickly shifted to “some yeast” and “about this much salt,” as she traced a circle around the palm of her hand.
Back in my kitchen, I did my best guess-timates and began experimenting. I had to add more flour for some batches and let the dough rise longer for others, but over the years, I began to get a feel for the cookies. Of course, they weren’t as good as Grandma’s (an opinion she shared, gently but honestly—and she was right).
Twice a year—Christmas and Eastertime—for a decade, I bought butter, flour, yeast, sour cream and fruit fillings and labored over the cookies. It was a big project. On the first day, I’d mix the dough, divide it up and make room in the refrigerator for it rest and rise. The next day (or two) was set aside to roll out, assemble and bake the cookies—but the work was always worth it.
At Christmas dinner and parties, I’d serve the cookies and they were well admired before being devoured. I’d carry them as treats to friends and mail them to relatives. Everyone raved about Grandma’s cookies.
I’d assumed the recipe was something Grandma had brought with her from Hungary—a family tradition—so I was more than a bit surprised when our local children’s librarian bit into one and her eyes lit up. “Just like my husband’s grandmother used to make!”
“Is she Hungarian?” I asked. “No, she’s from Austria.”
Grandma was fiercely proud of her Hungarian birth, but she was also open to other cultures and new ideas. I felt an uneasy sense of doubt, even a touch of panic. Had Grandma actually been raising us on German cookies?
When I asked her later, Grandma assured me that the cookies were Hungarian—they were called ‘kifli,’ or crescents, she said. Still, I wanted to understand how an Austrian cookie and a Hungarian cookie could taste the same.
A thoughtful Christmas gift from my dear friend Grace gave me the answer. She found a book at a local shop that she was sure I’d like—Flavors of Hungary by Charlotte Slovak Biro. I flipped through the pages, passing the töltött tojás and paprikás krumpli, until in the dessert section I found a recipe for kifli. Taking time to browse through the book further, I also saw recipes for Weiner schnitzel and dumplings, traditionally German foods (I’d thought).
Written in 1973, Charlotte shares cherished recipes and also recounts her early life in Hungary, her trials during wartime and her family’s eventual move to America. Her inspiring story also includes insights into the character of Hungarian food. She explains that while Hungarian cuisine was greatly affected by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it still retains its own special flavors.
Now my children have the recipe for Grandma’s kifli and I’m content that the cookies are the Hungarian treasure I always thought they were.
Kifli (Hungarian Crescent Cookies)
1 pound unsalted butter 1 packet yeast
5 cups flour ¼ cup milk, warm to touch
5 tablespoons sugar Dash of salt
5 eggs, separated Assorted fillings (see below)
1 cup sour cream
In a medium-sized bowl, cut butter into flour until it has a piecrust consistency. Mix in sugar and set aside. In a large bowl, mix egg yolks and sour cream together. Set aside. (Set aside egg whites for later use.) Melt yeast in milk that has been warmed (in small pan) so it’s just warm to the touch. Pour and stir yeast mixture into the egg yolks and sour cream. Toss in a dash of salt and stir the flour in a bit at a time.
Divide the dough into four parts and place in covered bowls or plastic bags. Store in refrigerator overnight.
When ready to make cookies, let the dough warm up a bit. Roll out one part of the dough until 1/8” or so thick (a bit thicker than paper). Cut into squares (about 2” x 2”) and lay ½ tsp. of filling from one corner to the opposite end. Wrap and bend into crescent. Place on ungreased cookie sheets and brush each cookie with egg whites. Let rise for 30 minutes and brush once again with egg whites. Bake at 350 degrees until cookies are lightly browned (10-12 minutes). Cool and dust with sifted powdered sugar.
This recipe makes about 200 cookies. Suggested fillings to use are: Apricot, Almond, Poppy seed, or other fruit and nut flavors. I use Solo brand, about 4 to 6 cans per 200 cookies.
Note: This is the recipe as my grandmother originally gave it to me. There are inconsistencies and I routinely change things as I mix and bake, but I’ve never taken the time to write down the changes.