I never had a Hungarian bubby, but I just met one I’d like to adopt: Mrs. Hindy Zafir of Boro Park. She’s been waiting for my visit and greets me wearing a neat, wool skirt, sweater and sneakers, a roll of pastry already set out on a foil-lined sheet in her spotless kitchen. With efficient, vigorous motions she slices me a piece of her kindl, plates it on china, and invites me to sit down to taste a bit of Hungarian tradition.
Ever spry, Mrs. Zafir is a body in perpetual motion: if she’s not helping a sick friend, she’s preparing restaurant quantities of crumb-topped salmon with dill sauce for a sheva brachos, or running errands with her son. Now retired from years of managing a successful furniture business, she gives a weekly talk on the Kol HaLoshon line, interspersing stories of life in Hungary during the war with current events, bits of hashkafah and recipes from back home.
Mrs. Zafir arrived in America after the war as a young woman, and still remains nostalgic for the refinement and worldliness of prewar Budapest. In those days, she says, furniture wasn’t cheap, pressed wood assembled in China, but massive, handcrafted works of art; a snack was not a bag of Bamba, but a pastry served on a silver tray and tea poured into a fine teacup – with maids to do the dishes. (“I didn’t know what to do with dirty dishes when I got married!” Mrs. Zafir exclaims. “I used to hide them in the oven, as if they’d magically wash themselves!”)
She was a child during the 1930’s, as Nazi influence crept into Hungary and the rest of Europe moved into war. While all Jewish celebrations were subdued, she remembers singing Purim songs in school, excited by the prospect of the day’s fun and the approach of spring. “We all had masks, either made or bought, and the grownups told us about more peaceful times when there were Purim shpiels, a Purim rebbe chanting grammen and real costumes,” she recounts.
While outside festivities were limited, homes were redolent with festive preparations, as Jewish mothers baked all manner of cakes: chocolate, nut, lemon, cherries with rum and the Hungarian delicacy called kindl. Platters of these cakes would be sent as mishloach manos and the pint-sized shluchim would receive gelt in exchange. “Kindl is something that lasts a long time, so Jewish housewives would bake a lot of it and give it out in their shalach manos,” Mrs. Zafir explains. “That way, the women didn’t have to do much baking as Pesach approached.”
The Purim seudah was a lavish affair that began with real gefilte fish – fish from which the flesh has been carefully removed, leaving the head and skin intact, then carefully re-stuffed after being chopped and spiced. A ring of carrot would be placed in its mouth, and the whole concoction poached in broth. The fish would then be served in a bowl of fish gelée, looking as if it were swimming in water.
The rest of the seudah, served at a beautifully appointed table, included roast goose with potatoes fried in goose fat and stuffed cabbage. But Mrs. Zafir says that, as a child, she was too excited about the prospect of spending her Purim gelt to pay much attention to her mother’s sumptuous meal. “We were so busy anticipating our trip to the variety store!” she says. “It was an old store where a bell would ring when we entered, summoning an old man. The shelves were packed with old boxes, which, in our imagination, contained all sorts of intriguing, magical things. In the end, we’d buy small, painted balls like marbles, which we kept in an old stocking, or tissue paper balls the size of an orange that contained a surprise. At home, we’d slowly peel away the layers and, lo and behold, all we’d find was a cheap little ring or trinket! Despite our disappointment, we never failed to hope for better luck next time.”
Mrs. Zafir recreates some of these Purim memories every year by baking kindl, just as her mother used to do. “For years I couldn’t find the recipe,” she says. “Then one day, a friend I’d helped out expressed her gratitude with the gift of an old Hungarian cookbook…and there it was!
“The dough is melt-in-your-mouth perfection. My mother’s version was always filled with chestnut purée, but kindl can also be made with walnuts or poppy seeds. Try them all and see which one becomes your favorite!”
This article appeared in Kosher Inspired, Issue 3, March 2011. Kosher Inspired is a product of Mishpacha Magazine.