Years ago–back in the early 1960s–my then-husband & I became acquainted with a group of Hungarians who had settled in Southern California. Most of the men were Hungarian freedom fighters who had fought in the 1956 Hungarian revolution and then found it necessary to escape their homeland and came to the USA as political refugees. They all married American women. One couple lived in an apartment behind us on Screenland drive in Burbank and that was how we became acquainted with this group. One of the best cooks in this group was a girlfriend named Neva, who married a Hungarian refugee named Les. Neva’s family was from Missouri and so she did a lot of “down-home cooking” but she took up Hungarian cuisine with the enthusiasm of a native.
The first time I watched Neva making palacsinta, Hungarian pancakes pretty much the same as French crepes -I was completely non-plussed and exclaimed “This is just how my grandmother made German pancakes” which, as children, we often had for lunch at grandma’s…spread with jelly and rolled up. However, the Hungarian palacsinta are stacked with filling in between each layer and then cut in wedges. Palacsinta can be a main dish or a dessert, depending on the filling. (My grandmother was German, my grandfather Hungarian – we lumped all of Grandma’s dishes together and called it all “German cooking”–I was to learn many years later that Grandma’s cooking was actually a combination of German, Hungarian with favorite Jewish dishes thrown in for good measure. When Grandma first came to the United States, she worked as a cook for a Jewish family).
The piece de resistance in Neva’s culinary repertoire, though, wasn’t the Palacsinta although it was always delicious – what everyone loved and clamored for at their dinner parties was Hungarian Layered Potatoes. Neva didn’t have a recipe for the layered potatoes written down and neither did I. You just made it – a lot or a little depending on how many people you expected to feed. I served Hungarian Layered Potatoes at our Christmas open house parties for several decades. I think there were friends who only came to get some of those layered potatoes. And the truth of the matter is I stopped making them over 20 years ago because of all the butter and sour cream that goes into the dish. Another key ingredient is the Hungarian kolbasz, not to be confused with Polish sausages or anything other than real Hungarian kolbasz, which is very dense and has a lot of paprika in it. Back in the 60s and 70s, we could find authentic kolbasz at one of several European grocery stores one of which was in Burbank, California. If you want the real thing you have to find the Hungarian sausages which are smoked and dried and can be eaten ‘as is’. (Since I began writing this, I Googled “Hungarian Kolbasz” and discovered a wealth of European delis and markets still sell it. I even found the little grocery store in Burbank still in operation and online!)
Jolie Gabor’s Family Cookbook, published in 1962 contains a recipe for a Potato and Sausage Casserole that is similar to Neva’s Layered Potatoes, except Jolie’s contains caraway seeds and knockwurst neither of which would have ever found their way into Neva’s casserole. Otherwise it bears a striking resemblance.
Well, back in the 60s we didn’t have the Internet or Google – out of curiosity I Googled “Hungarian Layered Potatoes” and was rewarded with 250,000 hits. I checked out each of the first 20 recipes and while most are close none is exactly the same as Neva’s. The ones I found in Google have bacon or ham, onion, and breadcrumbs (none of which was ever in our layered potatoes) – most don’t even contain paprika which is a key ingredient in making Hungarian Layered Potatoes (all the better if you can lay your hands on authentic Hungarian paprika). So I guess I have no choice but to try and explain how to make real Hungarian Layered Potatoes.
You will need
6-8 medium size potatoes (more if you are feeding a bunch-back when I would be making it for big parties, I would cook about ten POUNDS of potatoes)
1 dozen eggs, hard-boiled
1 16-oz carton of sour cream
2 sticks of butter, melted
1 Hungarian sausage (we called it Kolbasz)
salt, pepper, Hungarian paprika
Cook the potatoes in their skins until tender. Cool, then peel and slice the potatoes. Cook the eggs in a separate pot while you are cooking the potatoes. When the eggs are cool, peel and slice (an egg slicer is ideal for this). Then melt the butter and mix the sour cream in with it. Slice the sausage into thin pieces. Now you are ready to assemble:
Butter a 2-quart glass casserole dish. Place a layer of potatoes into the dish. Add a layer of hard boiled egg slices. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and a little sprinkling of paprika. Then add a layer of the sausage slices. Top with half of the butter-sour cream mixture, then repeat the layers, finishing off with the butter-sour cream. At this point you can cover the dish with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate it over night or until you are ready to bake it. I generally made up the layered potatoes the day before a party. Bake it at 350 degrees for about an hour or until bubbly and hot. Then stand back and watch guests gobble it up.
One last thing – if you really want to make an authentic Hungarian layered potatoes casserole and can’t find Hungarian Kolbasz, try http://quickshipeurope.com. You can order the real thing online.
Now is anyone interested in learning how to make palacsinta?