Let Them Eat Baumkuchen

porva, hungary

It’s gotten cold in New York, and all of the girls are wearing their pretty new boots and cozy sweaters. It’s the kind of weather that makes me want to stay inside and tell stories, like the story of this breakfast, sweet and slow, that I shared with my parents on their last day with us in Hungary this summer.

It was a simple meal, but how it got there was not so simple at all. The trouble began last fall, back in the kitchen I share with András in New York, where he first told me that after two years of waiting that we’d finally be able to get into the little stone farmhouse in Porva, Hungary he bought just after we met. It was there that I sat at the counter with dozens of pages torn from Domino, House Beautiful, and Town & Country, dreaming up the haven we would create on the other side of the ocean.

“Look at this fireplace, it’s extraordinary,” I would say holding up a photo from inside a French chateau.  Or, “See how this couple turned a stone-barn into an artist loft? We could do that!”

Andras would look up from where he was invariably tending to more practical details of restoring a 200-year farmhouse, like plumbing, and nod.

“It’s beautiful. Just remember the photos in magazines don’t tell you the whole story.”

“I know.” I’d say. “It’s just for inspiration.”

But I didn’t really believe that.

András was constantly trying to reign in my expectations about this little house that until this year, I’d only seen from the outside, where its crumbling stone barn and fruit-tree-lined yard had charmed my imagination. But I was certain that with a few trips to the flea and a little elbow grease, we could turn whatever awaited us inside into our own version of chateau-chic.

The trouble really began when András handed me the keys to the house when we arrived in Hungary, for our Lakodalom, or wedding party, in July. I walked through the sterile hallway and straight into the kitchen that wore the signs of neglect from the previous owners. The sink was rotting, there was a faux leather couch in the corner and a raw bulb hung from the ceiling. But I saw possibility. It had high ceilings, a walk-in pantry and bright shutter-windows that opened up to a tiny chapel out back where András’ nagymamma {grandmother} attended mass each week, and where we’d repeat our vows in his native tongue in just a few days.

That unsightly gas stove would have to go of course, I thought as I lifted boxes and looked under every pile of cardboard, but….

Alors! A small wood-burning stove sat forgotten, tucked into the corner by the sink. Suddenly, I saw myself standing before the stove with a toe-headed toddler tugging at my antique apron calling me Anya as I baked him sour cherry struedel and pinched noodles above the crackling wood. I clapped my hands with delight.

“This is perfect!” I said. “Let’s take the gas stove out and store it in the barn. I’ll cook on this.”

András translated this to his father, who laughed and shook his head, gathered the little stove up in his arms and carried it out to the stone barn. I followed with the gas tank, enormously proud of my contributions to the restoration. Back in the kitchen, I removed everything that distracted the eye from this little gem, including an ugly rotting wood cabinet that held up the sink.

The ugly things, as it turned out, where quite functional. But the men in András’ family could work wonders with wood, so I was sure we had the tools and talent to replace them. The only trouble was, we also had a wedding to plan, plumbing to restore, a pile of birchwood to turn into four-post beds and a house we’d never lived in to make guest-ready in five days when my parents would arrive.

That week, we spent almost every day at the house, building beds, mopping floors, fixing plumbing, potting plants and arranging every detail of our little nest. I lovingly washed and displayed the old iron stone pottery we’d uncovered in the cellar, washed and arranged the antique Herendi China András’ mother gave us for our wedding, and hung botanical drawings of tomatoes in tattered frames I’d found in the attic. Each night we’d return to his parent’s house 30 kilometers away, where Anya would have a nourishing meal waiting for us. We’d eat, sleep, wake, and begin again.

After five days, almost everything was in place, except the sink. We fashioned a make shift operation out of an old wash basin and a rescued wooden bench that created the kind of romance that made dish-washing seem like a pleasure. I was so proud.

On the sixth day, my parents, my sister Amy, and my nieces Kate and Grace arrived just minutes after the mattresses they’d be sleeping on later that night. Anya and Apa welcomed them with a meal at their home. After dinner, the girls and I climbed the ladders high up into the sour cherry trees out back and picked enough cherries to line our wedding table the next day. Just before dark, we drove to the little house in Porva and tucked everyone into their new beds. András and I slept in the room next door, our first night in our new home.

I could barely sleep, already dreaming up the breakfasts I would cook in the morning. I got up with the first rooster’s crow, shuffled out to the wood pile and recalling everything I’d learned in girl scout camp 20 years earlier, built us a fire. My dad stirred not long after and joined me in the kitchen next to the stove.

“Oh, isn’t that quaint.” Dad said. “You know my mother used to cook on one of those in the old farmhouse. This will be fun!”

We gathered around a table of fresh bread and Anya’s jam, creamy yogurt, and strawberries from the back garden. While we ate, the water I’d put on the stovetop struggled to creep above body temperature. And just about every three minutes dad would ask, “did you get that water to boil yet?” We’d long since finished when the water boiled, so we drank coffee and tea for dessert, and let the fire die.

Over the next two days, mealtime conversations were laced with subtle suggestions from András and Dad that perhaps a gas stove would be more practical. Nonsense, I insisted. Dad offered to buy us one, and when I declined, citing aesthetic principals, he gave me tips on keeping the embers burning and best practices for building fires that start easily and got hot fast.

On the second day, we hosted 50 guests in the backyard to celebrate our wedding around a table András and his friends built in the morning while the girls and I arranged flowers. After the goulash was served and the bonfire put out and the wines from Lake Balaton long gone, Mom and Anya washed every dish by hand in the wash basin. Bless them.
The following day, my Dad’s attempts at subtly waned. While Mom and I set to work prettying the table at mealtime, Dad would breeze in and out of the kitchen with the broom whistling, stop in front of the wood stove and turn to me with a statement like “There’s this new invention called electricity! It’s just wonderful.”

On the third day, András slipped out quietly and returned home with an electric kettle that kept our table ready for tea in an instant. I did most of my cooking in bulk, boiling potatoes for the evening meal with the morning eggs, and creating spreads of Keilbash {cured sausage}, cheeses, long green paprika and other feasts that didn’t require cooking at all. Meanwhile Dad chopped wood and tended the fire, we all did dishes in the wash basin.

We ate beautiful things pulled out of the earth, fresh bread, strawberries grown in our own soil. We sat for long meals and talked for hours. We were content and satisfied. During one of these slow meals, Dad found the beauty and humor in my little wooden stove.

“This is fun Sarah, I haven’t been camping in ages.” He said.

It was fun. It was splendid even.

Until, on the fourth day, we ran out of hot water, and my hair desperately needed washed. Dad, who had turned into an excellent farm wife by then, offered to boil up a pot of water on the stove. When the water was warm, I leaned over the bath and Mom and Dad washed my hair, taking turns pouring hot water and cold, rinsing shampoo and conditioner down our antiquated drain.

While the stove was hot, and my hair clean, I decided to preserve what was left of the sour cherries we’d picked for wedding day. I layered them in a big pot with sugar and set it on the hottest plate on the stove. The pot never came to a boil, but it got hot enough to cook the cherries down, sweet and soft. For our final breakfast, we spooned this still hot from the pan over day-old bread, toasted and slathered in butter, a meal that rewarded us with an endless rush of nostalgia for my grandmother’s cherry cobbler.

As we spent our last day together in Hungary, I apologized over and over for the dishes, the lack of hot water and the stove, promising to fix them all before we invited them back again. But no one really seemed to mind, and Dad kept spooning on the sour cherries, asking for more bread and carrying on about how much it reminded him of his mother.
In the magazines I used to create my vision board for our house, they don’t tell you the cute couple standing in their stone-barn-turned-artist loft are actually bankrupt, or that the girl washed her hair in a wash basin because the plumbing shut down. Just like fashion and beauty magazines don’t show you the crease across Scarlett Johansson’s tummy. But these truths likely exist. There’s a journey that sometimes doesn’t make it in to the vision board, a few details that get edited out.

That’s why I’m particularly proud of my little batch of sour cherry preserves and this breakfast. I’m proud of the way it looks, the simple beauty of its flavor and all that it recalls, and the way it comes together so handsomely on film. Most of all, I’m proud of the truth it beguiles sitting there in its Herendi china with a stacked Baumkuchen in the back, looking like a meal fit for a queen, if only the queen of a teeny, tiny castle in the hills far away. I'll take that any day. 


Kelly said...

What a sweet tale. Of course it reminds me of picking cherries from Carlos and Virginia's trees in Houston, MO. Since Eric and I were the smallest cousins then, we hauled up the sturdy trunks with buckets and worked our way through scratchy limbs to collect enough cherries to appease the Copeland family appetite for cobbler (not a small task, as you well know). Despite the rough nature of your first hosting experience there in Hungary, every guest surely grew from the chance to go back in time to wash-buckets and water boiled on the stove. Experiences like those make the cherries taste sweeter, the beds feel softer, and the company seem brighter than any electric light bulb ever could. Well done.

Liz said...

Sarah... what magic. I'm not just reading the words; I'm smelling the simmering sour cherries, I'm seeing the arched brow of your dad when you refused his stove offer (what a good dad), and I'm honored to be a part (at least through your words) of this beautiful family and journey.

Erin said...

Sarah and Kelly,

I had to cry. My earliest memories were actually of the old Copeland farmhouse and the cook stove and a pan of water with a ladle for drinking water from the sistern. And most of all, Grandma's hot cobblers served with a spoon full of cream or a big ole scoop of vanilla ice cream that melted into a mixture of the sweetest and tartest sauce. Kind of a reminder of life, no? There was never a more elegant table set than the one filled with laughter and love. The love of our family, the love that Sarah and Andras will share with their own children one day in that simple little stone farmhouse with the wood cook stove and wonderful hand made furniture.

erin said...

Oh, and P.S. - your daddy never did like antiques - said it reminded him of just old, used stuff and he never could figure out why anybody that could have something new would want anything old....:-}.

Holly said...


This story is so beautiful. I almost feel like I was there. And I'm not one bit surprised at your resistance against a gas stove. You're such a purist:) I can't wait for the chance to see that idyllic little cottage.

Marilee said...

I do hope you are not planning to leave the USA permanently. Since taking your cooking class in VT, I am hooked on your website, and on cake recipies with fruit. Found a great one with plums, I am sure you are behind the scenes on that one. My husband is now buying apricot and plum trees to add to berry and fruit orchard in Spring. Marilee

Edible Living said...

Marilee, you lucky lady! What I wouldn't give to have apricot and plum trees right outside my door here. They are the perfect inspiration for endless baking adventures.

If you don't already have it, you'll love The Backyard Orchardist by Stella Otto, the award-winning definitive guide on growing fruit trees at home. And then of course, you'll need Chez Panisse Fruit for more ideas for what to do with everything you grow.

Thanks for reading, and please let me know what amazing things you make next!

Stacey said...

don't let me forget... I owe you a bottle of cherries =) Also, I need to get you some chives. My plot is going to be worked on this winter =( I need to transfer all my perennial goodies into buckets and take them home!

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New York City, United States
Sarah Copeland is a food and lifestyle expert, and the author of Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite, and The Newlywed Cookbook. She is the Food Director at Real Simple magazine, and has appeared in numerous national publications including Saveur, Health, Fitness, Shape, Martha Stewart Living and Food & Wine magazines. As a passionate gardener, Sarah's Edible Living philosophy aims to inspire good living through growing, cooking and enjoying delicious, irresistible whole foods. She thrives on homegrown veggies, stinky cheese and chocolate cake. Sarah lives in New York with her husband and their young daughter.