"Make them bigger," my husband, András, says, leaning over my shoulder as I drop potato dumplings into a pot of boiling water. András embraces my every enthusiastic adaptation of his boyhood favorites, but on the matter of dumplings, we differ. Tenderness is my ultimate goal, so I make my dumplings small, and as light as the best gnocchi. Greta, our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, twirls around our legs, asking for sárgarépa—carrots. I had just pulled them off the stove after simmering them slowly with caraway and paprika. It is our first week back in our house in the Bakony Hills of Hungary, not far from András's childhood home of Veszprém, and friends are coming for dinner.
How I came from a childhood in the Midwest and a career in New York City to this remote village in the Bakony, the former hunting grounds of Hungarian kings two hours west of Budapest, likely has something to do with a sour cherry tree in Missouri. It was my grandfather's. When I was a child, my siblings and I would glean it clean till our chins and hands were stained with juices. I thought it the ultimate luxury—to pick fresh food, still quivering with life, straight from a tree or the earth. I spent decades imagining all the things I would grow, one day, when I had my own land.
My husband had a hundred such experiences in and around these very hills; he dreamed of owning land, too. Then, one day, we did—a landscape defined by overgrown plum, cherry and walnut trees, and row upon row of horseradish, carrots, parsnips, kohlrabi, fields full of parsley and every imaginable squash, which charmed us into overlooking the hard work ahead.
Each summer, we travel from our home in New York to Hungary to spend two weeks in the house András and I own. We aim our arrival for somewhere inside of the two short weeks when ripe sour cherries dot the trees of nearly every backyard. But this time, we are late. András's mother has already preserved the fruit in jars, swimming in their own ruby juices. No matter. I would still prepare our annual summer dinner to celebrate our homecoming. This dinner would be smaller and more casual than our lagzi, or wedding feast—the first meal we ever hosted here, three years ago—but the menu is always the same: classic babushka cuisine, informed by the easy rhythm we have with the land. It centers around the slow bubbling of the bogrács, a giant kettle set over live fire, in which we layer freshly pulled onions and peppers and just-picked zucchini and mushrooms from our fields and forests until they melt into the heady, paprika-stained broth—our version of gulyás, or goulash. It's a nomad's dish, born of the life of a herdsman, but no one, not even our most omnivorous guest, misses the meat.
That everyone in this country is a carnivore is no deterrent to our mostly vegetarian lifestyle. The tending of produce seems an almost all-consuming regional effort. Banquets could be prepared with the food grown and gathered from these fields, with a short trip to Zirc, a nearby town, for fresh bread and rich milk, kefirs and cheeses made from the pasture-raised Bakony cows.
We use these dinners to lure our friends from their corners of the world down the small, solitary road that leads to our village. In the mornings, we set them off to work up an appetite—there are long forest hikes, wood chopping, bow shooting and the unearthing and scrubbing of carrots and potatoes, among other chores.
While our friends rest in the afternoon, I head to the kitchen, with its shuttered windows that open to the ancient chapel out back. After we purchased the property, I remember crawling into the corners of the lofted barn, recovering worn wooden bread peels and oversize enameled bowls. Now, the kitchen is my quiet, nearly bare-walled retreat from the constant puzzle of new Magyar words, and my mind rests in the work of making dough. Pastry is a language I speak—kneading the silken mass against the same board that András's grandmother used to make rétes, or strudel, for the good part of a century. She taught me how to make her strudel, thick with poppy seeds and plump sour cherries, only after András announced his plans to marry me. I've since abandoned her painstaking method of hand-pulling the layers in favor of a shortcut I learned from the son of a famed Balaton baker. Even easier is using a cream cheese dough, which gives the strudel a tender exterior, sturdy enough to handle the weight of the filling, yet still flaky. Soon, the smell of sour cherry perfumes the small house.
Like so much of Hungary and its people, the food here is both raw and refined, and it still seems exotic to most Americans. We start the meal with smoky eggplant spread—dubbed Kinga dip—that I learned from a friend from nearby Erdély (the Hungarian word for Transylvania, which is now part of Romania). Spread on creviced, rye-speckled breads, it is always eaten with the sweet, raw onion that we pull from the inky soil just minutes before it's time to eat . When they're in season, I like to throw on a few tender squash blossoms—a habit far too careless for the sparing economy here, but I love their clean, vegetal finish. As cooks do in almost any home in Hungary, I dress uborkasaláta (cucumber salad) in a tangy cream, using crème fraîche and vinegar instead of the customary tejföl (thick sour cream). I can't help but add shaved radish to the mix. These tweaks occasionally raise eyebrows, but they win praise nonetheless.
One recipe—my mother-in-law's walnut lekvár cake—I follow like a soldier, grinding her hand-picked and air-dried walnuts to a coarse flour, then baking it into a layer cake, moistened with the pulpy, homemade lekvár (preserves) that she lavishly stocks our shelves with for our return. Tangy wild plum or lush apricot vie for first pick, but they'll both have their chance. We make this cake until nearly every jar is washed clean. I heap the tender walnut sponge layers with whipped cream, tart currants and the almost-black-skinned peaches from the markets—instinct from years of American and French cooking, and yet these flavors taste purely of Hungary.
Before long, the kitchen is filled with hungry friends who are eager to shuffle wooden trays of pickled vegetables, körözött (caraway-and-paprika-laced farmer's cheese) and fat-marbled csípos (hot) sausages—my ready detour from vegetarianism—to the table. We eat, tend the fire and the children—life still centers around family in these parts—the conversation alternating between Hungarian and English until dark. We eventually build bedtime nests of blankets near the fire for our daughter while the eating goes on until the bogrács is drained or the fire dies, whichever comes first.
And at the end of it all, among the crumbs and drained glasses, there is the promise of tomorrow—a breakfast of leftover rétes and coffee, a bike ride, a mushroom hunt, another fire, another meal, perhaps a village over. It seems to me this is a culture that always changes, and at the same time never does. And in between, there is always cooking with love and paprika.
Sarah Copeland is the author of The Newlywed Cookbook and the forthcoming Feast: Generous Vegetarian Meals for Any Eater and Every Appetite.