30 August 2011

Budapest's Historic Cafés - Gerbeaud Cukrászda

OK, time to let my secret out.  I snuck off to Budapest and Prague for a few days...

I know, I know, I didn't say anything about it.  But I have to tell you, it was so inspiring.  I can't wait to show you what I saw.

I had no idea what to expect from Budapest.  None.  What I found was a lively, cosmopolitan city steeped in café culture.  I think if you smashed Paris and Prague together you'd have Budapest.  

I fell in love!!

Everything was in bloom!  I couldn't believe how many fountains and art pieces were around every corner.  I'm a sucker for detail and Budapest has it in everything from building facades to gate latches.  Amazing.

For me, visiting Budapest means I've now experienced the whole Austro-Hungarian pastry triad of Vienna, Prague and Budapest.  I never thought that would happen!  While I don't think Budapest can compete with the reputation of Vienna in terms of history or innovation, Hungary has certainly added much deliciousness to the region.

I visited several cafe's during my trip and I want to show them all to you.  Some things were really delicious while other things weren't so great.  Twice the service was so stereotypically 'French' that I had to leave without tasting anything!

I'm going to start with the most well-known café  Gerbeaud Cukrászda (confectionery).  It's right in the heart of Budapest (on the Pest side) near the main shopping street, Vaci utca.

Gerbeaud has been a mainstay of pastry in Budapest since 1858.  During the communist years Gerbeaud suffered the same fate as many cafés in Budapest, Vienna and Prague which were either closed or nationalized.

In 1984, new owners with an eye toward tradition and restoring the quality always associated with the name Gerbeaud purchased the naming rights from the family (for a cool $2-million!) and Gerbeaud was revived again.  Even the dining room has been restored to it's turn-of-the-century brilliance

Gerbeaud features a sprawling patio in addition to its more lavish and traditional late 19th century interior complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, warm wood paneling, marble-topped tables, flowing chandeliers and bronze accents.

Even with the heavy red drapery and gold gilded angels floating from the ceiling, I could still settle in comfortably with a book and a latte for the afternoon.  It's not a stuffy room, but definitely speaks to a bygone era.

And then there's the reason I'm here.  The pastry...

It's spectacular, right??

I think I should be applauded for my discipline in the face of all this sugary beauty!

I was really excited about coffee and cake at Gerbeaud.  It was going to be my only coffee indulgence on the trip (don't ask--it was torture!) and I had read so much about the café that I couldn't wait to see it for myself.

I couldn't believe my luck when I saw 'decaffeinated' as an option on the drink menu--yeah, it was in English, I can't say anything in Hungarian.  Later when I confessed my Hungarian language deficiency to a friend in the Czech Republic (who speaks several languages) he said, "Oh, don't worry, no one can speak Hungarian!"

For the record, this coffee was spectacular.  I added no sugar (rare for me) to this tall glass of milky delight.  It was so smooth and not bitter that it didn't need any help at all.  Even the cookie was crunchy and buttery and good.

Hungary is known as the birthplace of many decadent desserts like Dobos Torta and the Lúdlábtorta and Gerbeaud is known as the main holder of that tradition. 

Eszterházy is the cake I most associate with Hungary, so that's what I decided to order.  It was tough after looking in that case, but I wanted to start old school.

It's six layers of dacquoise -- a thin, crispy meringue made with nuts -- with a kirsch (cherry brandy) buttercream finished with a glazed top feathered with chocolate.

The buttercream softens the meringue so it's moist like a layer cake, but really nutty.

Some recipes use a combination of almonds and hazelnut in the dacquoise, but Gerbeaud goes with walnuts and it really helps balance the overall sweetness of the cake.

But what does Eszterházy mean?  Well, it doesn't tell you anything about its flavors or what's in the cake.  It was named to honor Pal Eszterházy, a foreign minister under Emperor Franz Josef (ruled 1848-1916) and a member of one of Hungary's most wealthy noble families.  This was the thing to do in early 20th century pastry I guess.

The cake was really nice.  Moist, nutty, creamy with a hint of something other than vanilla (the fruity brandy I think).  My fork slid smoothly through all those lovely layers.  It went well with my latte and didn't feel heavy or too sweet.

Gerbeaud was a great start to my tasting travels.

26 August 2011

Tomato Jam? Oh yeah

Every year I dream of a tomato crop that is so bountiful that I become a canning machine filling every cabinet and shelf in my kitchen (and maybe some stashed under the bed in the guest room too) with jars of the beautiful red globe fruit.

Strangely, I had this dream even before we had a place to garden.  I'm a tomato fan.

Year two with our garden, still no bumper crop.

Growing up we had a garden every year.  We grew everything--corn, green onions, peppers, green leaf lettuce, and rows of glorious tomatoes.  I know I sound 100 years-old but I remember eating fresh-picked tomatoes still warm from the summer sun and smacking my lips from their big, sweet, acidic bite.  Delicious.  That's what I want.

I'm from the Midwest where there's humidity and even RAIN, that's not Southern California where I'm trying to grow my boatload of tomatoes.  Here I battle drought and sun scorch and blossom end rot and raccoons and a whole host of diseases and creatures who want my tomatoes too.  So I settle happily for our respectable crop of cherry, San Marzano and Black Beauty tomatoes that all taste a little sweeter because I planted, watered, staked and picked them.  As good as they taste I still dream of a summer filled with jars, lids and rings...  maybe next year?

I may not have enough tomatoes to make quarts and quarts of tomato sauce, juice and paste, but what about tomato jam?  Just the words "tomato jam" conjure up an intriguing flavor idea for me.  So I took 3 pounds of San Marzano Roma tomatoes and had a go at it.

It's really very easy to do and the tomatoes are a perfect canvas for whatever flavor profile you want to explore.  Think about it--we use tomatoes in Italian, Mexican, French and Southwest dishes so why not use those herbs and spices to make jam celebrating those tastes?  Genius.

So take some tomatoes, cut them up and cook them down with your favorite flavor enhancers and when it looks like runny jam it's done.  It thickens when it cools.  To store it, you can either can it like you would jam with sterilized jars and lids and boil it in water for 20 minutes to seal or just keep it in an airtight container for 3 weeks or so.

But what to do with this stuff?  It's great on crusty bread all by itself or as a spread on sandwiches, burgers or garnish on omelets.  Try it on everything I think you'll be surprised.  I was.

12 August 2011

Peach's Here! Peach's Here!

Once summer really kicks in there's nothing I look forward to more than peaches.  It's easily my favorite fruit.  And I'm sure it won't surprise you to know that I'm a purist about it. 

Raw please.  Don't mess with perfection. 

But that's the thing, the peach isn't always perfect.  It's nowhere near as reliable as say, the apple.  You can bite into a Granny Smith apple and know what you're going to get 9 times out of 10.  Not true with the peach.  Now that I'm thinking about it, most of my favorites like papaya, mango and plum have this issue.  If they are picked too early or you slice them too soon they can taste sour, or worse, taste blank.  Nothing is more disappointing.  I'd rather have nothing than an imperfect peach.  And once you've had a perfect peach there's no settling.  Right?

Here's the situation.  Peak peach time was around the corner and I knew I was going to be out of town when it started.  Ugh.  I was just hoping, praying even, that I wouldn't miss it.  I've been thinking about a Fresh Peach Tart since June.  This is tricky business because you never know what the season will yield or how much of a window you're going to get from year-to-year.  Don't be fooled by the piles of peaches you see in the produce section all summer, that's not what you want.  You want the fuzzy globes whose perfume is so strong it slaps your face when you walk in the store.  That only lasts a week, maybe two.   

I got home late on a Friday night and by Saturday morning I was on a peach hunt. I didn't miss it!!  So, so happy.

Peaches procured all I needed was a crisp, flaky crust, some non-jello glaze-y goo and a little Chantilly cream to send it over the edge.  It nearly makes itself.

Now if I had my own cooking show, this would be the part where I would tell you my personal story about peaches that would make me infinitely more relatable to you, the viewing audience.  As I want nothing more than to be more relatable to you, the reading audience, here it goes:
My Mom gets really nostalgic when we talk about my love for peaches.  They remind her of being pregnant with me and she claims it was the only thing she craved during those 9 months.  Money was tight, but she had to find some way to satisfy her craving.  She did the only thing she could, she spent her collection of silver dollars on those yellow and orange pieces of heaven!  Yeah, my Dad was less than happy, but she says it was worth it.  Of course I've heard this story a hundred times and it never gets old.  I kinda think of peaches being my own personal fruit.


I hope we're closer now.  I'm definitely feeling it.

Let's get to the tart making and eating already.  Think of it as a strawberry pie but with peaches.  So refreshing and sweet and to me it tastes like my summer birthday.