We arrived in Hungary just in time for lunch, as we always do, and were met with the same meal that I’ve come to count on as the taste of Hungary. Everything was just as I remembered it except now I am Anya (mommy) and Anya is Nagymamma or Mamma (grandma). This time the table was set with a tiny spoon for Greta, and before we eat, she is showered with the hugs and kisses of her Mamma and Papa (Grandma and Grandpa), aunts and an uncle who had waited 8 1/2 long months to meet her.
The rest of our first day here was as it always is. Only, after lunch I took my nap side by side with Greta instead of András. And when we awake, groggy and hungry yet again, there, of course, is Nagymamma’s almás pite. Apple pie. The perfect soothing anecdote for seven sleepless hours on a plane.
My guess is there’s as many ways to make an apple pie in Hungary as there are in the U.S. But there’s only one way I like it back home—all butter crust, big chunks of tart apples coated in cinnamon, and topped with a thick slab of sharp cheddar— and only one way I like it here in Hungary. That is Nagymamma’s way.
Her apple pie is a different thing all together from any pie I’ve ever known. It is thick layers of tangy, tart apples cooked musty sweet like apple butter between two thin layers of soft whole wheat dough, with the characteristic graham flavor I’ve come to equate with the taste of András' home. Like most sweets in this household it feels wholesome, almost healthy, fruit picked from backyard trees enrobed in a graham crust. It’s the kind of thing you might enjoy with cheese (say Trappista, from the Trappist monks of Hungary’s hills) as a light dinner (since the large meal here is consumed at noon), or with coffee and milk for reggeli (breakfast) the next day.
Luckily, Nagymamma has the foresight to make a batch big enough for both.
Early on our second day, we run out of what at first seemed an endless plate of almás pite. And we are restless. It’s cold here, for the family, a respite from the 104 degrees of mid-July; For us, a surprise. We’ve packed for high heat, and our gauzy summer dresses are off-limits in the house of a grandmother who is always after us to bundle up, wear slippers on the bare floor, cover our necks lest we get the hiccups. There’s not the right light for making pictures of all the fruit trees brimming with each imaginable variety of stone fruit. Even laundry is on hold, since my mother-in-law, like most Hungarians, still relies on the sun as her dryer. So, there’s nothing to do but bundle Greta in the wool pants and cap her Nagymamma knit for her, and bake.
I hint that I’d like to learn to make Mamma’s almás pite. Out comes her book of hand-written recipes. I examine it, trying to imagine how decagrams translates to something usable in my kitchen vocabulary.
Around me, people pass Greta from lap to lap. Old friends and cousins come and go, talking in what seems (in my limited Mgyar vocabulary) to be great length about the simplest topics, each family member weighing in with words that seem too long to mean what they do.
When the conversation looses me, Greta and I steel away to the garden and make ourselves at home in the blackberry bramble, 5-years thick. The berries are merlot black, jammy. And if perfectly ripe, they ooze a juice that gives us away when we return, my fingers stained from picking and a little inky ring around Greta’s tiny mouth, still in a pucker of pleasure.
It is there that I get the idea that we should add blackberries to the almás pite, to make it seasonal. Apples are, afterall, a fall fruit. I tell this to András. He translates.
Papa shakes his head. Apples are in season here. András tells me, translating his parents rebuttal. Only a few blackberries are ready, he says (though Greta and I have just eaten them). Most of them need a few days.
But okay, Nagymamma agrees. We will add szeder. Blackberry.
While András goes for a long run with his oldest friends, Greta and I go to the garden with Nagymamma to pick fruit. First, she collects the apples that have fallen to the ground. Nothing is wasted here. Then another kilo that come easily from the tree.
Then blackberries, I remind her.
Igen. Szeder. Yes. Blackberries.
Inside, I set up the computer to Google translator, put Greta in a pouch on my back and line up my recipe booklet side by side with Nagymamma’s to start recording.
40 decagram flour
2 kilos of alma. Apples.
I taste them. They are sweet, just subtly tart, and they remind me of jonagolds.
What type of alma? I ask, in a blend of Mgyar-English.
I type the word variety into the translator and she examines the result. Fajta.
Nyári Piros. Mamma answers.
She writes the words in my notebook.
I repeat the words with her. Nyári Piros.
Then I type it into the computer to translate.
A summer apple. Indeed.
How strange they must think my ideas, my insistence that we add a handful or two of szeder to the perfected almás pite. How ridiculous to think my ideas about seasonlity aren't shared here, here in a culture where almost every family outside of large cities still, in large part, lives off their land. Here, in a home where almost everything I've ever eaten is grown by their hands. I try to apologize.
Bocsánat. Sorry. Most értem. Now I understand.
Nagymamma smiles her constant, unjudging smile.
We finish making the pita, Mamma, Greta and I. We rub the butter into the graham flour to coat it like an American apple pie dough. We add sour cream, egg yolk. We roll it thin, coat it in the warm apple butter stained pink from szeder. We cover the filling with another layer of dough, prick it with a fork and set it to bake.
Fifty mintues later then the pie comes from the oven. We cut it into squares, dust it in powdered sugar. Family members emerge from every corner of the house and the pile on the plate disappears. Five minutes later, András sister and sister-in-law, Dalma and Szophie come back to the kitchen praising me, my silly idea redeemed.
Szeder Almas Pita. Szeretem. I love it.
Jó. Nagyon, nagyon jó. All agree. Good. Very, very good.
2 kilos / 4 1/4 pounds tart-sweet apples, such as Jonagold
1 handful ripe blackberries
250 grams / 1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
400 grams / 2 2/3 cups graham or whole wheat flour
100 grams / 1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt
250 grams / 9 ounces / 2 1/4 sticks butter, in pieces
1 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
serves: a crowd (about 25 bars)
- Peel, core and slice the apples. Add them to a pot with blackberries, sugar, cinnamon and the zest of 1 lemon. Squeeze the juices of half the lemon over the top, straining the seeds as you go. Cook on low heat until the apples break down.
- Preheat the Oven to 175 c/ 250 F. Meanwhile, whisk together graham flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Work the butter into the flour with your hands (or pulse together in a food processor) until the butter coats the dry mixture and resembles a coarse meal. Stir together sour cream and egg yolks and blend into the dough with a fork until it just comes together.
- Use your hands to gather the dough and knead it slightly in the bowl. Divide the dough into two portions, one slightly larger than the other.
- Roll out the first portion of dough on a lightly floured surface to create a rectangle just large enough to cover the bottom and up the sides of a 12 X 17 X 1 inch / 32 X 44 X 2.5 cm jelly roll pan or your closest size similar pan (a 1-inch sided baking sheet works well). Spread the filling over the dough. Roll the remaining dough until large enough to cover the top. Don’t worry if some pieces of fruit are left uncovered or the dough cracks in places.
- Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake until cooked through, about 50 minutes. Cool 30 minutes. Cut into bars; dust with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.