In preparation of our Food issue (submissions open until November 1, after which they’ll simmer ’til winter), I’ve asked members of the LPR community to share stories of what they eat. Food occupies such a central place in our lives, that we can’t help but grow with it. Whether we were wandering in a new city wondering at new smells issuing from carts and open doors or, as is the case with this entry from Pat Valdata, being shaped by our grandmother’s hands at the same time those hands shaped our traditional foods, we can call on the sounds, smells, and tastes of our most formative and transformative foods to walk back into our own narrative histories. And on Laura’s suggestion, each piece in this series will feature a recipe, so you can cook yourself through an experience yourself. If you have a transformative experience with food, leave a comment and I’ll be in touch.
And now that I’ve laid the table, Pat Valdata:
My Hungarian grandmother’s hands rock forward and back, moving the rolling pin over a ball of dough in even, rhythmic strokes. From the pressure of her hands and strong arms, the dough spreads and flattens into a thin ellipse. The elastic kifli dough smells of butter, eggs, yeast. I like to watch the edges expand and pull back with the sweep of the rolling pin.
I am only six years old and my small hands can barely thread a needle, so I marvel at my grandmother’s dexterity. Her wrinkled hands transform dough into strudel, kifli, or noodles; pare and slice apples into uniform segments; crochet white cotton thread into doilies so quickly my eyes cannot follow the motion of her fingers. Now her practiced hands pick up a knife and cut the dough into neat rectangles that look like little windowpanes.
She spreads each rectangle with a thin film of apricot jam. With a butter knife she lifts a corner of one rectangle, pulls it up and lays it flat on the outstretched fingers of her left hand. She scoops up half a teaspoon of chopped walnuts and lets them fall onto the dough, which she then rolls up into a tube smaller than a lipstick.
One by one my grandmother fills and rolls the kifli, the way her mother taught her when she was my age. One by one she places them gently on the cookie sheet until it is filled with kifli in five neat rows. Finally, Grandma paints each kifli with a thin film of milk to help it brown. She places the cookie sheet in the oven, traces a cross in the air with her right hand, whispers a prayer, and closes the oven door.
Her prayer is in Magyar; a language I don’t understand. All I know is that she appeals to Uralom Jezusum: Lord Jesus. “Lord Jesus, bless my cookies,” I imagine she says, or “Lord Jesus, don’t let them burn.”
As the kitchen fills with the sweet aroma of baking, Grandma takes another cookie sheet and begins the process all over again. She patiently lets me help. The day before, we cracked walnuts and picked out the meats. Grandma ground the nuts and flavored them with lemon peel, vanilla, and sugar. She let me taste when she had it just right, so I would learn to make the filling sweet, but not too sweet.
Years later, when Grandma’s arthritic hands lost their dexterity, my mother and my aunt made the kifli, every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I cannot remember a family holiday without a heaping platter of kifli sprinkled with powdered sugar. And when my mother’s hands grew stiff, and my aunt’s back became too sore, I made the kifli, the same way my mother and my aunt did, the same way Grandma did, placing them in the oven with a whispered benediction.
This recipe for an easy kifli* dough may be used for other cookies and pastries, too:
- 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
- ½ pound salted butter, room temperature
- ½ pound cream cheese, room temperature
Mix the ingredients in a food processor (or mixer with a dough hook). When the dough holds together, flour your hands and pat it into a smooth ball. Wrap it in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Remove from the refrigerator and cut the dough into four pieces. Roll one piece at a time and fill as described above. Bake at 350⁰ until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.
- 1 pound of finely ground walnuts
- Grated peel of 1 lemon
- 1 tbs. sugar (use more or less, to taste)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
*If you want to read more about kifli and other Hungarian foods, read Pat’s novel, The Other Sister, available from Plain View Press.
Pat Valdata is a novelist and poet whose Hungarian-Italian family lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Pat and her husband Bob live in Elkton, Maryland. Pat’s newest book, Where No Man Can Touch, a series of persona poems about women aviation pioneers, won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize and will be published in 2015 by Story Line Press.