Palacsinta - Hungarian "Pancakes"

Though I have posted various recipes over the past weeks, this is my first blog post since July!!! Part of the long gap can be accounted for by a sudden encounter with Baker’s Cyst – which has nothing to do with baking. I like to think of it as a “sports injury” since, as someone recently suggested – you don’t get it from being a couch potato. It did, however, turn me into a couch potato for several weeks. When you can’t stand or walk you are not blissfully in the kitchen.

Just before I met Baker C, we had made palacsinta [puh’ - luh - cheen - tuh] - which I usually describe as the Hungarian version of French crepes.  As I prepped the recipe for this site, I decided there was so much to say about this classic food that it deserved a blog post. So what follows are a lot of words – but here’s how I am framing it…

I recently sent my NYC tips to a friend. Told her if she was going to check out the High Line she should take time to watch this documentary. Why? Because in the words of Henry David Thoreau “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Surely it’s the same with food. The more we know about what we eat, the more we are “nourished” – in every way.

So, palacsinta… In my 1954 Art of Hungarian Cooking there is an entire chapter devoted to these delicate creations that came/come out of every single Hungarian kitchen - rich or poor. Wikipedia categorizes them as a pancake, which I suppose they are, but they are nothing like the thicker flapjacks North Americans are accustomed to. 

So are they a crepe? In truth, I have never eaten a bona fide crepe in France, but "crepe" does bring to mind a thin “pancake”. Crepes I have eaten in Quebec, while paper thin, have tended to be nutty brown and somewhat dry – and often immense in size. The Wikipedia entry for crepes claims Brittany / France as the origin and stresses they are made with wheat flour or buckwheat. That, for sure, accounts for the nutty brown look of Quebec crepes, and the first photo at Wikipedia offers an accurate image of these light brown papery creations.

That left me reconsidering my habit of calling palacsinta - crepes. Yes, they are thin, but never dry. They are pale with golden highlights, soft and moist, and almost transparent. The only things I have ever seen or eaten that resemble palacsinta are blintzes - which, it seems, have Russian origins, but are popular in Jewish cuisine.

If they are not really “crepes”, do they have links to France? My old Hungarian cookbook refers to their appearance in Rome and even Egypt. Given the expanse and influence of the large Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 to 1918) it is not surprising that there are versions of palacsinta in many Eastern European cuisines - mind you... who influenced who? Much to my surprise, even Turkey has a version called krep. Hungarians familiar with their history know that the Ottoman Turks did get as far as Hungary in the 1500s (1541 to 1699). Did they bring the “krep” tradition or was it the other way around? Recently, flipping through a Food and Wine magazine, I also stumbled across a story about the Philippines where it seems Hungarian-type crepes are a big hit – filled with almost anything imaginable – think mango... Sure enough, the cuisine of Portugal and Spain also have a version of these delicate “pancakes” and must have “exported” it during their years of colonization.

[I am adding this after first publishing this blog post - just came across an ATK recipe for Swedish "pancakes" which appear to be like palacsinta - and as mentioned as an option in the recipe I share, they add soda water to the batter. Check out the descriptions of pancakes all over the world.]

My research has left me astonished about the global popularity of palacsinta-type "pancakes" – yet here it appears rarely on a menu. There was a time when one could get an authentic Hungarian palacsinta at the Coffee Mill in Yorkville (which, sadly, closed in 2014). Bloor Street’s Country Style is a last bastion of Hungarian cuisine in Toronto.

Whereas pancakes are breakfast (brunch) food, palacsinta is never a breakfast – unless you are inclined to eat leftovers for breakfast. They can be an appetizer or main dish – and are often dessert. How is it that a full chapter is devoted to palacsinta in my 1954 book? They offer one basic recipe (the one I use) and say it is common to eat it with a ham filling (though I have never seen or experienced that). Other options described are mushroom or cabbage fillings. Dessert options can also include ground walnut or almond filling. Some recipes suggest cutting the palacsinta into long broad “noodles” and mixing / serving them with whatever – even chicken paprikas. A dessert suggestion is to create a pile of palacsinta with cocoa between each and then slicing and serving this like a cake of many, many layers. In the KB kitchen palacsinta filled with ricotta, apricot jam or chocolate were/are the main event – they are supper – period. 

Hungarian cooks are under no pressure to serve meat at every meal, and when they do it is most often pork or chicken. Imagine the fantastic flavour combo in the Hungarian dish called “Hortobágyi Palacsinta” - shredded delectable, soft, pork or veal paprikas porkolt (stew), enfolded in a palacsinta and drowning in a paprika sauce – so yummy. 

The most famous dessert palacsinta is called “Gundel Palacsinta” – named for the iconic restaurant that lays claim to its creation. The Gundel first opened in 1910 and survived two wars and communism, continuing to operate today serving classic unadulterated Hungarian cuisine. Their signature palacsinta is presented not rolled, but folded twice into a triangle that is filled with a mixture of rum, raisins, ground walnuts, candied orange peel and whipping cream. This is all topped with a delicate chocolate syrup. I dusted off  Károly Gundel's cookbook, originally published in 1934. His book was apparently a huge success, translated into many languages including Japanese. He may well have been a celebrity chef of his times. He notes that in his own research of Hungarian cuisine he finds no reference to paprika – the national spice – until the 19th century. He suspects that it was the Turks who introduced paprika to Hungary and so it may well be that they deserve credit for palacsinta as well. I will have to stop comparing them to “French crepes”.

Here's the recipe. Will you make ever this? Some friends are waiting for me to post the recipe, so I suppose we shall see. Part of my blog goal is “legacy/archive” and so the recipe is now here as a torch for family and friends to pick up and carry on.

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