As a child, I didn’t follow clocks or calendars. I woke when somebody nudged me, and I went to sleep when I was too tired to keep my eyes open. I knew Sunday was for going to church, and every other Wednesday was for visiting gram’s doctor. But I didn’t need a clock or a calendar to tell me these things. These were things I knew.
I also knew when it was time for Christmas because gram would go into the kitchen and start pulling out the baking supplies. For her, standing long enough to cook anything more than hotdogs took too much effort, but she still loved to bake, so, when it was Christmastime, she made her way into the kitchen to prepare Hungarian kefli, kolach, and angel wings, and I was alongside her awaiting my orders.
Our kitchen only had about two feet of counter space with one café table with two slight chairs. In the cramped space, we had to work smartly and efficiently to manage the task's size. She’d planned everything in precise order, each spot prepared, bowls and sheets at the ready, for there would be no time or room or adjustments once we were into the frenzy.
I held the coveted position of baker’s assistant, assigned many menial tasks, but also one of great benefit. Not only did I get to work alongside my grandma all day, privy to her undivided attention, I also took a position of authority and importance, providing an invaluable service to our family. We’d waited all year for these baked goods, and ensuring grandma could continue to make them depended now on me.
Honestly, nothing depended on me. Any one of my aunts, brothers, cousins, or mother could have helped her, but the kitchen wasn’t big enough for more people, and besides, they’d have had to pry the spatula out of my cold dead hands to get me to give up my role.
I did anything that required bending, stretching, standing, or repetitive motions. I was the dough kneader, the pan scrubber, and the nut grinder – that was a job nobody wanted, except me alone.
Gram used a small meat grinder to make our nut filling. I loaded the walnuts into the top of the small metal table mounted grinder one tiny handful at a time and turned a long handle until the nuts came out the other side almost a paste. I sweat from the work and the kitchen’s heat, my arms and shoulders aching by the end.
She’d send me from one task to the next, and I was a whirling dervish following her every command. I would scrub baking sheets, measure butter and flour, clean bowls, the counter, grate the lemon. I did everything except handle the oven, knives and eggs. The first two were too dangerous for me, and the eggs, she’d learned from experience, weren’t worth having me manage due to the extra time spent picking eggshells out of the bowl. Her eyes were too bad to see the shells, and it took my clumsy fingers a long time to grasp them.
We’d spend days in the hot kitchen, the window above the sink perpetually coated in steam, and nearly every hour, gram would shoo away one of my brothers or cousins after pretending she didn’t already see him sneak a pastry off the counter. All the boys preferred apricot kefli while I like the nut filling best, so I rarely outed them.
We’d roll and cut the dough for the kefli’s, using just a dab of jelly or nut filling in the center of the triangle dough. Gram taught me how to perfectly pinch together the triangle sides so they didn’t come unstuck in the oven and create an unattractive kefli (the boys hoped for those since she’d give them away freely). Once the pastries cooled enough to touch, we’d dust them with powdered sugar and transfer them to a plate.
Our family would sneak into the kitchen for cups of coffee and presumably to use the side door or get a glass of water from the sink. They’d stand in between the two doorways to the kitchen, watching, smelling, begging for a sample.
“Whatareya makin now?” the boys would ask from the doorway, their noses lifted into the air, just beyond the border of the room.
“Nothing for you!” I would holler. Gram would smile. “Kefli for Christmas,” she would say pointedly, but she never sent them away empty-handed.
I always felt she gave them too freely, and I’d huff under my breath as they seemed to disappear as fast as we could bake them, but I didn’t complain aloud because I was always first. I gratefully did all she demanded to receive my payment and my second title: taste tester.
As each delicacy would come out of the oven, our little kitchen would fill with the smell of sweet sugared fruit, nuts and hot dough. As soon as they were cool enough not to scald the roof of my mouth, she would hand-feed me tidbits with a smile and a stroke of my head. If there is any more significant payment, I have yet to find it. It has been nearly 40 years, and I still connect the taste of sugar and a fresh pastry with love.
Once we finished each pastry and the taste tester determined it adequate, we’d wrap them on platters and hide them in the basement so my brothers couldn’t eat them all before the holiday.
After a week of baking, decorating, and a full day of meal preparation, our entire family, about a dozen of us, would dress in our very best clothes and go to church on Christmas Eve.
At church, we’d sing carols and hymns alternating between English and Hungarian. Simultaneously, we marveled at the poinsettias and candles lining the long entryway and the nativity scene in the congregation hall. After we’d head home for dinner and finally, to enjoy the pastries everyone had been waiting for all year.
As we’d sit around the tree, full of food and everyone exclaiming how the best gift each holiday was Hungarian pastries made by gram, her face would glow with joy. But, from across the room, our eyes would meet, and we knew the best gift wasn’t the kefli; it was making them together.
Gram’s Hungarian Kefli
- 4.5 c. flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 lb. butter
- 3 egg yolks
- ½ pint sour cream
Mix eggs and sour cream. Work together flour, salt, butter, and add egg and sour cream mixture. Work the dough until blended and it leaves the side of the bowl. Let it stand covered overnight in the fridge.
Roll out on powdered sugar board, cut with a fancy cutter in squares, and fill with nuts, apricot, or lekvar jelly. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown.
- 2.5 c. finely ground walnuts
- 1 c. sugar
- ¼ lemon rind and juice
- 4 egg whites, beaten until stiff
- Combine walnuts, sugar, lemon. Add to stiff egg whites. Mix
Apricot Jam or Lekvar (prune)
Cook one box of dried apricots or prunes, chopped small, with a little water and sugar to taste. Cook until thick.