BUDAPEST — When The Times of Israel joined Rachel Raj at her publisher’s test kitchen during a photoshoot for her upcoming cookbook, the celeb baker and chef was ready and waiting with a heaping plate of hamantaschen, a traditional Purim holiday treat.
It wasn’t Purim — the holiday usually falls out in February or March — but one taste of the triangular cookies quickly put such semantics to rest on that sizzling July day. Soft, chewy (unlike many of the more crumby alternatives), and covered with a generous dusting of powdered sugar, Raj’s hamantaschen were filled with plum jam — a key component in her signature flodni.
Raj (pronounced “Roy”) is well-known throughout Hungary for her baked goods, but she built her reputation on her flodni — a traditional Hungarian Jewish pastry made up of apple, walnut, plum, and poppy seed fillings sandwiched between layers of flakey dough. Flodni plays no small part in Hungary’s rekindled romance with Jewish food, and it can be found in bakeries, cafes, and restaurants throughout the country. If you’re in a decent Jewish establishment, odds are they source their flodni from Raj.
The confection has earned Raj accolades and awards, including the coveted Best of Budapest and Hungary prize for Best Bakery in 2014. She now operates three bakeries, has hosted her own cooking show, and can often be seen making appearances at local events. Raj is also a judge for the prestigious Chaine des Rotisseurs Young Chefs competition, though she’s quick to point out that she is a kitchen judge, not a tasting judge, as she doesn’t eat pork.
“My favorite flavoring to use in the kitchen is smoked duck breast. I use it instead of pancetta,” Raj told The Times of Israel in an interview a few weeks before the release of her newest cookbook, “Eletem a Konyaban,” which is Hungarian for “My Life in the Kitchen,” on November 9.
The book’s title is quite literal. Divided into sections which include Shabbat and holiday meals, recipes she learned from her mother, and favorites that she makes for her husband and two boys, the book is inspired by handwritten food diaries Raj has kept over her life. Peter Szeplaki, founder of popular Hungarian cookbook publishing house Boook, told The Times of Israel that an English language version is in the works.
Because the cookbook covers so many facets of Raj’s life, recipes such as curry chicken can be found alongside more traditional Jewish fare like hremzli, a pancake-sized version of what many readers might know as matzah brei. For her sons, aged 11 and 9, Raj makes an updated version topped with white chocolate and Smarties candy.
“The first time I made it for them, they looked at me and said, ‘Mama, now we know why you won that award,’” Raj laughed. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is why.’”
“My Life in the Kitchen” also includes two versions of Hanukkah latkes – or latkesz, as they are spelled in Hungarian. The recipe simply known as latkes is made with matzah meal; Raj likes to garnish hers with sour cream and arugula. (That recipe is included below.) What the book specifies as potato latkes are similar to those prepared in homes in Israel and the United States during Hanukkah.
“[Matzah meal] latkes are the original,” said Raj. “My mother also sometimes made them with potatoes, but she called those Polish latkes.”
“For Hanukkah I always do a big dinner, but my mom would say Hanukkah wasn’t originally intended to be a huge holiday, so she would make simple stuff, latkes or hremzli [matzah brei pancake] — not like a roasted duck or anything,” Raj said. “She’d also make the latkes for everyday dinner if she had no idea what to make — you know, because they’re super easy.”
Raj remembers composing the first handwritten entry in her food journal when she and her now-husband Miklos Maloschik hosted their first Shabbat meal in their small and relatively unequipped apartment.
“It was a 23 square meter [247 square foot] apartment, just imagine,” she said. “But we had a beautiful garden and it was very romantic. So I was there and started to do dinner there for eight people – I didn’t even have an oven. I had something like a microwave, which was very cute. So I started like that, writing ‘I made something special,’ and that all eight of us had to keep our plates in our lap.”
“I started to write things I liked to make, but I was always dreaming about having my own home to host Shabbat dinners,” she said. “Because I always knew that my home will be this place where I make a lot of food and all our friends are coming, a sort of Shabbat center. I wouldn’t even need to invite people, they would just call me up and say yes or no, if they are coming or not.”
Now in a home just around the corner from that starter apartment, Raj is known for the lavish Shabbat meals she regularly hosts.
Raj likely inherited the hosting gene from her parents — her mother, Maja Raj, is a cook, businesswoman, and Hebrew teacher, who owned Café Noe (since taken over by Rachel Raj), alongside a still-operating Judaica store in Budapest’s historically Jewish 7th District. Raj’s father, the late Rabbi Tamas Raj, served as Hungary’s chief rabbi when public displays of religion were once again allowed after the fall of the communist regime in 1989.
Her parents would often host “cholent parties” in their home, Raj said, with large numbers of illustrious guests gathering to have intellectual debates over steaming bowls of her mother’s Sabbath morning stew.
“I learned everything about how to cook from my mama,” said Raj, who studied fashion design prior to taking the helm at Café Noe. “I loved being in the kitchen with her. It was always fun, never a drag. She put so much love into what she was doing.”
Raj said working in the food industry isn’t always easy — “It’s very difficult to be a woman in the gastronomic world because it’s very patriarchal, and I have to simultaneously be strong, and easygoing, and straightforward about my ideas” — but she still gets a kick out of cooking on her own time. And, she said, she wants readers of her cookbook to do the same.
“It’s like a window into how I’m living, how I think about this food, and that’s really a home thing — not like the professional stuff. It’s like, what am I doing at home?” Raj said. “This time in the kitchen is your time to enjoy making food, giving food with love.”
“I’m a modern Yiddishe mama,” she said, using the Yiddish term for Jewish mother. “I can have my career and also make my time where I enjoy being in the kitchen. And I think this comes out in the book, and this is my goal. To help people find their fun in the kitchen, and not have cooking be just another chore that you have to do.”
Rachel Raj’s Hanukkah latke recipe
“My mom’s light dinner,” Raj writes. “It’s traditionally a Hanukkah food, but it reminds me of my childhood evenings.”
Ingredients: (makes one large pancake; multiply by number of people)
30 grams (1/4 cup) matzah meal
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons oil
2-3 tablespoons sour cream
Handful of arugula
Mix the flour with the eggs, season with salt and pepper, and then beat with a fork as much as possible.
Heat the oil in a pan over a medium flame, and then pour in the batter.
When the pancake begins to brown along the edge, flip it over and fry the other side.
Garnish with the sour cream and arugula, adding a light sprinkle of salt if needed.
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