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`The Hungarian Cookbook' by Susan Derecskey may be one of the easiest cookbooks I have yet reviewed, as this is quite literally exactly the food I grew up on. My comfort food, as a kid, was goulash, dumplings, Hungarian crepes, strudel, cabbage and noodles, and chocolate walnut cake, each and every one of these dishes made in exactly the same way as described in this book. All of these dishes came to by from my paternal grandmother who emigrated to the United States just before World War I, from a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, forty miles east of Vienna, which is now in Hungary. From this background, I can say with certainty that this is an exceptionally good evocation of Hungarian cuisine.
This is also an exceptionally good evocation of a national cuisine in general, even when compared to some of the leading treatments I have seen recently of the cuisines of Turkey, Lebanon, Germany, and Armenia. It is also as good as many treatments of French and Italian regional cuisines, although it may not be quite as good as the best of these, and it is certainly not as good as Paula Wolfert's classic work on Moroccan cuisine. It is also just a bit less than the classics on national cuisines such as Diana Kochilas on Greece or Penelope Casas on Spain. But, it is exactly all you need to recreate the great Hungarian dishes I remember from my childhood.
Aside from finding recipes for my long lost chocolate nut birthday cake, the first thing which impressed me about the book was the care in which the author pointed out that some recipes were simply difficult to get right the first time. This fact is probably obvious for strudel dough, but it is less obvious with recipes for potato dumplings.
For those of you who may be totally ignorant of Hungarian cooking, its most distinctive characteristics are noodles, dumplings, and soup. Egg noodles and dumplings essentially serve for Hungarians the role of pasta and risotto has for Italians. This is really carb central in that in addition to the white flour, potatoes are also an important ingredient for many dumpling recipes. And, these dumplings are real gut grenades. They are guaranteed to spike your blood sugar in record time.
Since soup is such an important part of the Hungarian cuisine, I paid special attention to the recipes for stock in Ms. Derecskey's book and found them entirely to my liking. They are not long cooking, the vegetables are put into the simmering stock for just an hour, and the author is more careful than most in advising the cook to be very careful not to boil the stock and to skim off scum as quickly as it appears. I usually don't see as much care given to stock making in books on `minor' national cuisines.
Vegetable dishes are always a special interest of mine and this book has several especially good ones. Like most of central Europe, the king of the vegetables was the cabbage. There are several good asparagus and beet and cucumber recipes, but no sign of artichokes or rapini. This is cabbage country, partner. I was also more than modestly pleased with the recipes for salads. I never associated salads with Mitteleuropa, but there they are. Very nice vinaigrette recipes to be sure.
The only thing that puzzled me about the book and its recipes was the author's stating that Hungarians were not especially fond of mature beef. They preferred to cook veal, including braises and stews, which almost seems like a waste when you can let the cow mature a bit and get much more meat for stewing.
While Hungary does not have the great pastry tradition of its neighbor much did rub off while the two countries were joined at the hip up to 1918 under the Hapsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In fact, Budapest was the empire's second city ahead of even Prague in esteem. The star of the Hungarian pastry is strudel, which has a lot of similarities with Greek filo, but it is not exactly the same. I have tried to make strudel with filo and the results are less than perfect.
If you have any Hungarian in your blood, you really need this book. If you are simply interested in reading of world cuisines, this one is a winner. The instructions on making strudel and dumplings alone are worth the price of admission.