My late father-in-law was born in New York City to parents who emigrated from Hungary. A proud New Yorker, he was also proud of his Hungarian heritage, mainly demonstrated by lunching regularly at the old Hungarian restaurants in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I sometime cooked him beef goulash when he visited us in Washington, DC; it was one of the first dishes I learned to cook from a Hungarian cookbook I bought after I got married. He gave his seal of approval as long as it was served piping hot.
His often-maddening mantra was, “Don’t fuss for me.” But fuss I did. I liked cooking for him. So when he passed away almost seven years ago at age 92, I added “Bake Dobos torte,” the elegant, six-layer Hungarian cake, to my “Things I want to master” list. I thought it would be comforting to bake it and remember an endearing man who treated me like a daughter.
As life happens, plans were pushed aside because time is always short and the Dobos-making process so daunting. So I never got to bake it. However, I was newly inspired after a family heritage roots trip to Budapest and then to Kaposvár, the small town from which my father-in-law’s mother came, where the bakeshops are ubiquitous. On my first afternoon in Budapest, I sought refuge from the oppressive heat at a small café across the street from the magnificent Dohány Street Great Synagogue. Sitting facing the pastry case, I spotted flódni, a traditional specialty of Jewish Budapest. I had just learned about it before our trip and had to try it.
Flódni has five layers of dough and four layers of distinct fillings: apple, walnut, poppy and plum jam. You can eat a bite from one layer at a time. The perfect bite, however, cuts through the layers of fillings and blends in the mouth in a concert of flavors and textures. My first impression was that this is a leftovers cake, the kind a Jewish balaboosta (homemaker) would concoct in order to waste nothing. Even though it was a specialty of Jewish Budapest, a large metropolitan, it looks more like the country cousin of the dainty Dobos. It has a rustic feel, with that old-world buttery deliciousness of juicy plums, cinnamon-scented apples, earthy poppy and the awesome nuttiness of walnuts.
On our second day, our tour guide took us for a sweet treat, Rachel’s flódni, to cap a poignant morning of exploring the remnants of Jewish Budapest’s magnificent past. Rachel Raj, the queen of flódni, is preserving a food tradition that is a symbol to the revival of the Jewish community. Through her work and pastry chef celebrity status, she has created bridges to the wider community and made all Hungarians familiar with Jewish food. Fun fact: She holds the flódni Guinness World record, with 1,600 pieces forming a giant 22-meter-long flódni.
Flódni was traditionally eaten for Chanukah, which may seem incongruent considering the contemporary association of Chanukah with all things fried. Now, there is a trend of serving flódni during Purim. For one, the fillings—poppy, prune and apple—are the same ones we find in hamantashen. And the dough and some of the fillings are made with wine—though not enough to get one drunk.
During World War II, the deadly plan of Haman in the Purim story came close to materializing. But life grew from the ashes, and hope prevailed. Flódni came to symbolize a revival of Jewish life and tradition in a country that turned its back on its citizens in the most brutally treasonous way. I never made it to eating the dainty Dobos in Hungary, let alone baking it. Baking flódni is more in tune with the memories I have of my late father-in-law: solid, down-to-earth, humble with no fanfare, generous and kind in an old-world way. And, yes, baking it was quite a fuss, but definitely worth it.