Archives for category: Hungary

Mom's Bab Leves

Good Monday morning to everyone!  I wanted to share with you this photo of my Mom’s Bab Leves.  She wanted to post it in the comment section, but since you can’t post photos that way she sent it to my email address with this comment attached:

“It’s not often that the temperature falls into the 30’s in Tampa, Florida, but it will be there tonight, just as it was last night.  Reminding us here in sunny Florida that it really is still winter.  So what could be better than a steaming hot bowl of Bab Leves for dinner?   Hungarian pastries to have for dessert….!   But Dad will have to settle for the soup and some crusty wheat bread – no pastries tonight.  I appreciate your comittment to vegetarian cooking but alas, I did add Hungarian sausage from the super good Hungarian Sausage House in Safety Harbor.  They make it there using authentic recipes so you can be sure it is just like what Grandma used to use in her soup.  I do cut the calories and fat by using plain greek yogurt in place of the sour cream – you really cannot tell the difference.  So that’s my cheat on Grandma’s recipe!”

Thanks for the awesome photo and comment, Mom!  You, too, can choose to substitute greek yogurt for sour cream anytime- you really can’t tell the difference, and it is much lower in calories.  On a day-to-day basis, I try to be not just vegetarian, but vegan, and as healthy and low-cal as possible- but when I make Hungarian food, I want that sour cream!  Maybe one day I’ll make low-cal Hungarian food, or even vegan Hungarian food, but for  now I think losing the meat is challenge enough!

Sharing is an important aspect of Hungarian food and cooking, and my Mom’s sharing gave me an idea.  I have written before that I welcome all your comments, pictures, recipes, ideas, and so on and so forth.  I would like to extend that and start a regular “Show & Tell” series of posts.  I am often so busy with work, studio, exercise, friends, and so on that it is difficult for me to find time to cook Hungarian more than once a month or so.  Ideally, I would love to cook more so I can post more, but realistically I can only do the best I can do, and I think it would be great to expand on my posts to include other vegetarian meals, great vegetarian restaurants I visit, and other vegetarian and/or Hungarian related things.

The “Show & Tell” series would feature your first-hand cooking photos, experiences, stories, recipes, and anything else you want to share with me and your fellow readers- a blog show-and-tell.  Show-and-tell was always one of the best parts of grade school, right?!  I would also love to take reader requests, so if you have a recipe you want me to make vegetarian and post on the blog, send me those as well!

This will tentatively be a monthly series, but if I get lots of awesome show-and-tell emails, it can become bi-weekly!  Send any and all: cooking photos, old Hungarian family photos, stories- cooking, memories, etc.- recipes, experiences, or anything else you can think of, to

Hope to hear from you soon, and have a great week!


Our recent trip to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, plus the gorgeous cool fall weather rolling in, combined with my not-so-gorgeous fall cold, has got me on a serious soup kick.  It’s been weeks, and soup is all I want (the cool new soup bowls we picked up at Ren Fest aren’t helping the matter).  Of course, the best most comforting soup in the world- especially when you’re sick- is chicken noodle, and I think Hungarian Goulash is like chicken noodle soup on crack.  It’s more of a hearty stew, and it still has the traditional onions, carrots, and celery; but instead of “chicken” it has “beef” (which in the imitation meat world are more or less the same thing, but I digress…), instead of egg noodles it has noodle-y dumplings, and on top of that, it has POTATOES and lots, lots, lots of PAPRIKA.  Could anything be more delicious?

Onions + Seitan + Paprika

The answer, my friends, is no.  It is supreme deliciousness.  And best of all, it is easy to make.  So far, all the traditional Hungarian recipes I have shared with you have involved making tricky pastry dough, and may have been mildly intimidating.  But there isn’t any pastry dough here, just some simple noodle-dumplings.  That’s the hardest part, and it’s not hard!

The finished dough

I seriously encourage you to try this recipe TONIGHT.  Not tomorrow night, not next week- TONIGHT.  I am so happy with how it turned out that I did a little jig.  I think Grandma would have been proud.  This also happens to be one of the first recipes I have ever created myself, and I think that in itself is cool.  The fact that my vegetarian version of Goulash tastes fairly authentic is even cooler.

Right after I finished adding the noodles/dumplings

In the Hungarian recipe book, A Taste of Hungary, it says that “These recipes have not been laboratory tested, but their merit has been approved by the most critical of groups- HUNGARIAN HUSBANDS.”  I do not have a Hungarian husband, but I do have a first generation American-born Hungarian father.  So now I just have to wait until November, when my parents visit, for the true test: feeding this vegetarian version to him!

My Dad and Grandma, circa 1970's(?)

Last but not least, I humbly ask you for your honest feedback on this recipe.  Tell me what you liked; tell me what you would change.  Tell me how it compares to meat Goulash.  Tell me if the directions were easy to follow.  Tell me EVERYTHING!  Misha and I felt that the texture of the seitan might be a bit off for this dish, and that maybe next time I should try making it with Lightlife’s Seasoned “Beef” Strips.  I felt that it could use double the amount of dumplings.  Misha added the smoked sea salt and it really brought out a meatier flavor.  Just please share anything and everything you think with me, and together we can perfect this vegetarian Goulash!

Grandma Elek’s Hungarian Goulash

16 oz. cubed seitan (I used two 8 oz packages of the West Soy brand cubed seitan)

1 large sweet onion, chopped

4 carrots, sliced

4 stalks celery, sliced

2 medium golden potatoes, diced (I used 3 smaller potatoes- it’s up to you!)

Parsley, chopped fine (Note added on 11/9/11: If you can find parsley root, use it as well- it is a traditional ingredient that is hard to find these days, and will give your goulash a truly authentic, deep flavor!)

Sweet Hungarian Paprika (Get authentic Hungarian paprika- Szego Szeged brand is inexpensive and easy to find)

Organic Better than Bouillon Vegetable Base

3 tablespoons olive oil

Smoked sea salt (if you can get it)


For noodles/dumplings:

1 egg

½ tsp. salt

About 2 cups of all-purpose flour

In a large pot, sauté the onions in olive oil until transparent.  Add the seitan, along with any juices that are in the packaging.  COVER the onions and seitan in paprika- be generous- the more paprika, the better.  Add about a half a cup of water and let simmer for 3-5 minutes.

Add the vegetables, the parsley, 2 quarts of water, and 3 tablespoons of bouillon, stirring everything together.  Turn the heat to high, cover, and let come to a boil.

While the pot is heating, make the dough for the noodles.  Beat the egg and salt together in a medium size bowl.  Start adding flour, beating in between, until a solid dough forms.  Keep adding flour until you can handle the dough without too much sticking.

Once the pot has come to a boil, start pinching small pieces of dough off, rolling them into little balls, and adding them to the pot.  They should be about the size of your fingertip.  Keep adding them until you run out of dough.  Cook slowly until the noodles/dumplings taste done but not mushy.  Add smoked sea salt (or regular salt if you can’t get the smoked variety) and pepper to taste.  Store leftovers in the refrigerator- tastes even better the next day!

Today (and probably tomorrow as well), Misha and I are confined to our apartment as Hurricane Irene bears down on Baltimore.  We had planned to be at a barbeque in PA this weekend, but alas the weather had other ideas.  The upside is some much needed rest and downtime after a long and tiring week.

Me and Misha on the overlook cliff at Harper's Ferry

On Tuesday we went on a hike in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  Our hike was fun and the day was beautiful, and I ended up spending all the energy I had for the week, leaving me a bit sluggish for my three opening shifts at work.  We also found out this week that due to a huge maintenance problem in our apartment, we are going to have to move into the apartment next door in two weeks.  I will be happy to have a new, clean apartment with no maintenance issues, but moving is always stressful and now we have to do some packing.  I am almost relieved to be stuck inside, reading and relaxing and catching up on my blog posts!

Raspberry jam spread over the dough

I made these raspberry squares about a week and a half ago, and have been so busy that I am just now getting around to sharing them with you.  They are basically the same dough as kifli, just rolled flat, topped with criss-cross pieces, and cut into bars.  It’s wonderful how the same recipe can take on such a different feel and attitude just by cutting and shaping it differently.  They also have a very satisfying amount of jam on them, and are just as wonderful for breakfast as they are for dessert.

Ready to go in the oven

Fresh out of the oven, beautiful and golden brown!

When I made them, the dough got very, very sticky.  If it does this for you, do not be concerned.  It will be sticky and messy, but they turn out perfectly buttery and flaky.  The best part for me was that I got to use our homemade raspberry jam for the filling.  Of course that being said, any jam will do, so long as it is sweet and tasty to your liking!  Grandma called this recipe “Raspberry Squares (or Lekvaros)”.  Lekvar is a Hungarian word referring to thick fruit butter, and Grandma uses it to refer to all jams and fruit purees used in her recipes.  I think it would be interesting to try making these with apple butter- considering how much real butter is in them, I’m sure it would be very decadent!  Remember, if you make any of the recipes I share with you here, feel free to share pictures and stories, or any tips or questions you have along the way.

Dusting with powdered sugar

The wind is starting to pick up here, and I’m off to let my computer charge (in case the power goes!) and read for awhile.  Hopefully the hurricane is not hitting wherever you are, but if it is, stay safe!  (If not, bake!)

Raspberry Squares  (or Lekvaros)

3 cups sifted flour

2 tsps. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 cup unsalted butter

2 eggs, beaten

¼ cup milk

2 cups raspberry jam or other jams (Lekvar)

½ cup coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans)

Powdered sugar

Measure and mix together in large bowl the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Cut in shortening using a pastry cutter (a fork or your fingers would also work).  Mix the beaten eggs with the milk, and then add to the flour mixture.  Knead into a soft dough.  If the eggs are small, more milk may be needed (be careful here if your butter is not soft yet- I thought I needed a bit more milk, but once my butter warmed my dough got sticky).

Once you have a soft dough, set aside about ¼ of the dough.  Roll out the rest and spread evenly in a large pan (I used a glass 9 x 11 pyrex pan), using a spatula to help if necessary.  Press dough well up along edges of the pan so that there will be an edge of dough all around.  Spread on the jam, sprinkle on the nuts.

Pinch off pieces of the reserved dough and roll with your hands on a lightly floured board into strips ½ inch wide.  You will want to make them varying lengths depending on which section of the pan you are laying them across.  Place them on top of the jam, crisscrossing, about 1 ½ inches apart.  Bake at 350 for 45 minutes, or until golden brown.  Dust with powdered sugar.  Slice into squares with a very sharp knife and serve.  Store in an airtight container.

On a grey, rainy spring day, with Norah Jones crooning in the background, I set about making one of the most amazing coffee cakes ever.  Technically it’s not really coffee cake, it’s more like monkey bread.  It’s Arany Galuska, or Hungarian Sweet Dough.  It’s made up of soft, melt-in-your-mouth dough dipped in butter, sugar, and nuts and then baked in a tube pan.  This bread/cake is perfect for breakfast, with hot tea or coffee, but I love to eat it at all times of the day- if it’s sitting around the house, I just have to have some.

I had to spend a little time deciphering my Grandmother’s handwritten recipe.  For example, I didn’t know how to “scald” milk, a term that was probably pretty common to her and which I easily found in Joy of Cooking– but I had never heard it before.  Scalded milk is milk that has been heated to 82 C/180 F, the temperature at which bacteria and enzymes in the milk are destroyed.  With the level of pasteurization in our milk today it’s not really necessary to scald milk much anymore, but I did it anyway to be true to the recipe- Grandma said it was needed “to make a soft dough”.

Dough in the early stage- see how sticky it looks?

The next issue came during the “beating the dough” stage.  Once you’ve combined all of the ingredients with the flour you “beat until dough is smooth and leaves side of bowl”.   Well I started beating, and the dough was JUST SO STICKY.  In the recipe, Grandma says to have an extra cup of flour on hand “if you’ll need it”- I ended up using at least 3 extra cups!  My Dad said, “Honey, you might have over done it”, but really I had no choice- I had to keep adding flour or the dough would never have left the side of the bowl.  Even then I had to beat the dough for a long time to get it smooth.  Norah Jones was singing, “Once it has begun, won’t stop until it’s done”, and so I just kept on beating until it was done!

Much better- with lots more flour in it

Cutting and dipping station

Once I put it in to bake, I was relieved and excited, hoping it would come out ok despite all the extra flour.  However I had one more unforeseen challenge to overcome:  I filled the pan too high and the butter started bubbling and dripping out the top, causing smoke to start filling my apartment and setting my fire alarm off!  So I had to stand there and fan my fire alarm till enough smoke had evaporated that I could safely leave and run the Arany Galuska half-baked across the street to Misha’s sister Jacoba’s apartment to finish baking it there (with a pan under it this time, of course).

Filling the pan

Finished and ready to eat!

And after all that, it turned out PERFECT.  The dough couldn’t have been softer or sweeter.  I highly recommend you make this recipe ASAP and enjoy it during your next Sunday brunch!

Grandma Elek’s Arany Galuska: Hungarian Sweet Dough

6-9 cups all-purpose flour

2 pkg. dry yeast (Red Star is my favorite)

½ cup warm water (just barely warm to the touch- this is for the yeast, and if it is too hot it will kill the yeast)

½ cup of butter (1 stick) at room temperature

1 cup sour cream

¾ cup sugar (Grandma says, “less if you prefer”)

1 tsp. salt

3 eggs

1 cup scalded milk “to make a soft dough”

For dipping the dough:

1-2 melted sticks of butter

2 cups of sugar

2 cups finely chopped pecans

A pinch of cinnamon (this is not from Grandma’s recipe- I added this, and then later saw that it is included in the Taste of Hungary recipe book I sometimes use)

*You may need more or less of the dipping ingredients, depending on how many dough balls you make

Put six cups of flour in a very large bowl.  Make a “well” (a big hole) in the center of the flour and set aside.  Activate your yeast in the warm water according to the directions on the package and set aside to rise.  Scald milk and remove from heat.  Add sugar, salt, butter, and sour cream to the milk and stir.  Place milk mixture in the flour “well”, break in eggs and add yeast last.  With a large wooden spoon mi x and start to beat until the dough is smooth and leaves the side of the bowl.  Be sure to keep the dough soft and don’t let it “catch cold” (no drafts)*.  (*I think what she means is just to keep the dough warm and supple- it should feel soft and pliant in your hands as you work it.  This is where you may need a few extra cups of flour to get the right consistency.  I ended up kneading the dough more than beating it- you really need A LOT of upper body strength to beat it to the right consistency.)

Cover the dough in the bowl with oiled wax paper and a towel and let rise in a warm place (the oven is a great place to let dough rise- just don’t forget it’s in there and turn it on!) till double in size- about 1 hour.  In the meantime, “get your nuts ground & butter melted”.  Melt butter in the microwave in a small bowl.  In a separate bowl, mix finely chopped nuts and sugar.

When the dough is ready, put out on lightly floured board (I kept mine in the bowl) and keep warm with a towel.  Pull some off and start cutting into small rounds “about the size of a whiskey glass” (To me, that might be a bit big- I think she means a shot glass).  Dip the rounds into the melted butter, then into the nuts and sugar.  Place into ungreased tube pan (I used a fluted bundt pan and greased it a bit, but really the greasing is not necessary- I was just worried it would stick since the bundt pan I was using wasn’t nonstick) lightly, not too close, then keep putting layers in until half full (I filled it all the way- probably why it overflowed).  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size (mine didn’t rise too much the second time).  Place on shelf in oven a little below half.  Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes till nice and golden.  Let cool in pan- make sure you eat at least one warm piece!- then turn out on a cake dish and enjoy!

**Remember: if you ever have any questions about any of the steps in the recipes I write, please just comment or email me and I will be more than happy to help!!!!!**

Hello! Welcome to The Wooden Spoon, a vegetarian Hungarian cooking and baking blog!  My name is Sarah Elek, and I am very excited to begin this blog journey with you.  In the past, I wrote a blog about art and art history called “The Art Caravan”.  While I love making art, writing about art didn’t hold my interest quite as much, and I eventually stopped blogging.  Since then, I have maintained a personal blog chronicling creative endeavors and fun events in my life, but have been dreaming of a new blog to replace “The Art Caravan”.  The concept for The Wooden Spoon has been in the back of my mind for quite some time, and I am eager to share all I know about Hungarian food.

Hungary, circa 1930(?)

You may be asking yourself, why Hungarian food?  There are a few reasons, but the primary one is that I come from good hearty Hungarian heritage.  My Dad’s parents, Margaret and Zoltan Elek, were both  Hungarian and immigrated to America with their families as teenagers.  While my Grandfather was born in Hungary, my Grandmother was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and her family went back to Hungary, and then came back to America again, where they eventually stayed.  Both families settled in Ohio, and my Grandparents met on a streetcar in Cleveland.  What could two young, attractive Hungarians do besides fall in love and get married?  While they started their family in Ohio, they owned a restaurant called “The Corn Crib” (which actually wasn’t a Hungarian restaurant- it was a BBQ joint).  Eventually they had their fourth son, my Dad Bob, and moved to Florida to escape the cold Ohio winters.  Fast forward a good twenty years or so, and my Dad is getting ready to marry my Mom, Tammi.  Of course, my Grandmother made sure my Mom knew how to cook good Hungarian food before she married my Dad- you couldn’t become an Elek unless you could cook for an Elek, I think.

Great Grandma and Grandpa Szabo

Grandma and Grandpa Elek

A few years later, I was born, and a few years after that, my brother Daniel came along.  When we were growing up, my Grandma and Grandpa Elek lived in Oregon, and we didn’t get to see them very much.  But they came to visit, and I loved to have long phone conversations with my Grandma.  We were very close, and I always considered myself similar to her.  I could confess all my neurotic childhood worries to my Grandmother, and she would understand.  I loved my Elek family, all the Uncles and cousins and all the food.  Whenever we would all get together, there was always lots of food, and of course there was always Hungarian food.  I remember one of our big family reunions at my Uncle Dennis and Aunt Karen’s house in California.  Grandma made Kifli, my absolute favorite Hungarian pastry, and I reverently took a picture of it, all pristine and buttery and covered in powdered sugar.  Since my mother had been required to learn to make all this stuff, we ate it at home too.  My favorite dish ever, hands-down, was Chicken Paprikash.  Even when I went away to college, it was my most requested special coming home dish.

Grandma and me

So this blog is about Hungarian food because Hungarian food is my heritage.  I want to document and share all of this amazing food with everyone else out there, so they can enjoy the warmth and comfort that it brings as well.  My Grandmother was an amazing cook, and an even more amazing pastry chef, and Hungarian food is how our heritage was passed down to us.  My mother is also an amazing cook and pastry chef, and she actually taught me how to cook Hungarian.  Throughout this blog, I will be cooking and baking directly from my Grandmother’s recipes.  This may be a challenge, as Grandma can could cook and bake from memory and feel, and her recipes (and handwriting!) can be hard to decipher and are often missing crucial steps.  I will also be cooking and baking from a variety of Hungarian cookbooks, in an effort to explore new recipes and expand my understanding of Hungarian food.  My Grandmother’s traditional recipes could be called “country food”- they may be different than what you would get if you went to a four star restaurant in Budapest.  These are labor-intensive, fill-you-up, meat-and-potatoes type recipes.

Except for the part about “meat”.  The final thing I will be attempting to do through this blog is cook vegetarian Hungarian food.  I think the reasons why I am a vegetarian can be saved for another post, but for now I will say that I became a vegetarian in February of 2010, right after I started dating my amazing boyfriend, Misha.  I had already been trying to go vegetarian for awhile, and he already was, so it just made sense.  He is an incredible cook, and makes almost all of our meals for us (lucky me!), and of course they are vegetarian.  We still eat fish from time to time (who could give up sushi?), but we do not eat any other form of meat.  When I quit meat for good, one of the things I was most worried about was how I would survive without Chicken Paprikash.  In the year and four months that I have been a vegetarian, I have become convinced that I can convert many of these Hungarian meals I love so much to meat-free without losing their essence.  This will be an experiment, and many tests will have to be done, but I believe at the end we will have vegetarian Hungarian food even my grandmother would love.