Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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'Tis the season for tasty poppyseed rolls, nut rolls, and kifli


An unsliced poppyseed roll, left, and slices of a nut roll, made by Mary Lou Tomsic are served on Hungarian plates that the family treasures.

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The week before Christmas, many Toledoans of Hungarian heritage will be baking poppyseed rolls and nut rolls, apricot or nut-filled pastries called kifli, and layered apricot tortes.

Those with Hungarian roots will tell you that it just isn't Christmas without these ethnic treats.

If you don't make your own, you can buy them.

Volunteers at Hungarian churches such as Calvin United Church of Christ and St. Stephen's Catholic Church in East Toledo's Birmingham neighborhood make and sell these pastries within their congregations. And entrepreneurs such as Marlene Danko of Berry's Goods based in Curtice sell the baked goods at festivals, craft shows, and shops.

Last weekend, I even saw kifli on the bakery table of a local supermarket.

Does the ease of buying these Hungarian pastries encourage home cooks to buy rather than bake?

"Our generation lost the art," says one longtime baker. "We went to work."

Yes, these pastries are time-consuming to make. But even more daunting may be getting the right recipe - the one that yields pastries like grandma used to make.

Every baker has an individual style. And recipes passed from generation to generation are often vague. While grandma followed the recipe for ingredients, she may have rolled the dough a little differently or used a different filling.

David Tomsic uses his grandmother's recipe for poppyseed rolls, nut rolls, and kifli crescents filled with apricot, raspberry, or prune. A meat cutter at Malcolm Meats by profession, Mr. Tomsic makes the pastries at home three to four times a year, including in early December. One year, he sold 120 rolls.

Everyone in the Tomsic family - including Mr. Tomsic's brother, Doug, their mother and father, Betty and Steve Tomsic, and Doug's wife, Mary Lou - knows how to make these favorites. They think the recipe dates from the early 1900s.

Now Mary Lou and Doug Tomsic are passing the tradition onto their daughters, Lisa, 16, and Michelle, 14. Both girls have an appreciation for their heritage and have danced in a Hungarian dance troupe.

"They do help me bake. It's a marathon thing," says Mary Lou Tomsic, who makes as many as 15 to 18 nut rolls at a time. (Each recipe makes three rolls.) "We make them just before Christmas so they are fresh. I don't freeze them." She gives them as gifts and takes them to family parties.

Her brother-in-law uses the food processor for the dough and makes his rolls a little thicker. Mary Lou prefers the old tradition of mixing with a wooden spoon and finally her hands to get the right consistency. "The thinner you roll it, the more rolls of filling you get," she says.

Some families rely on one member to carry on family recipes.

"My mother made the best Hungarian pastries in the world," says Joyce Ejhinger. "She is 86 and has Alzheimer's. Her recipes were the first thing she forgot. She forgot how to make the apricot nut torte.

"We have all her recipes. We all want to go through them and study them and try them out. My mother had her own flair to them. For some reason when we make it, it's not the same."

Now Ms. Ejhinger's sister Carol Konieczny makes the treasured recipes. "My father, who died in 1997, was Hungarian, but he was born in East Toledo," says Ms. Ejhinger. "My mother learned how to make the recipes from the Hungarian ladies who went to St. Stephen's. She taught us girls, but I'm not that good. My sister Carol is the baker in the family."

Mrs. Konieczny makes kifli and Hungarian Party Cake. "I make it just before Christmas. You layer the dough, the nuts, the apricot, and the lattice work," she says. "I like them as fresh as can be." She also makes these the week of Easter.

That recipe is listed in The Secrets of Hungarian Cookery, a 1960 volume edited by Mrs. J. Oscar Kinsey and Mrs. Frank Toth of St. Stephen's.

She adapted the Hungarian Cookies for Beginners to make kifli. But the vagueness of the recipe means a baker unfamiliar with it should watch someone make the pastry or contact a friend who uses the recipe.

While Mrs. Konieczny's kifli is made with a three-inch square of rolled dough with opposite corners folded over the filling, Mrs. Danko's kifli is made with a round of dough.

"Mine is an easy recipe," says Mrs. Danko. "My mom used a fancy square and taught me to make these. But I learned to use a round disc at St. Stephen's using a three-inch cutter." She then uses a pastry bag filled with apricot butter and places a dollop in the center of each disc; then each disc is folded in half and slits are cut on the edges. She places the unbaked pastries on a parchment-covered baking pan, giving each a little twist so that it becomes a crescent.

"Don't mix fruit-filled and nut-filled on the same pan when baking," she cautions. "The nut-filled bake in less time than the apricot."

Mrs. Danko's business, Berry's Goods, sells kifli at craft fairs, and festivals. Her Hungarian pastries are also sold at Country Lane Tree Farm in Clay Center and the Cake Nook in East Toledo.

I found a third version of kifli via Marge Roller, who has shared her kifli recipe with friends through the years; but she credits her sister Irene Bilski with carrying on the family tradition today.

"Everybody has a different version," says Mrs. Bilski, who makes kifli as gifts for friends and family. "They're time-consuming. My mother's recipe came from Hungary."

The dough must be kneaded every half hour. Some liken it to a puff pastry. "It looks like a star," she says. "You can also make it into a crescent and different shapes. You can make the dough ahead and refrigerate it."

While many of these recipes come from different migrations of Hungarian immigrants - the late 1800s or 1958 - these pastries are still made in Hungary, according to Rick Rodgers, author of Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts From the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague (Potter, $37.50).

He includes the Walnut Crescent Cookie from Pozsony in the book, which he likens to a croissant. "Originally the croissant was from Vienna, not France," he said in a phone interview. Vanilla Crescents are a rolled cookie that he says is the Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookie.

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