Of Cabbages and Confections

20 Feb

We were two young American travelers abroad.  Thinking we had our fill of sophisticated Western Europe—the art, the food, the culture—Jessica and I headed east.  We were looking for the real, gritty, and unpretentious… and boy, did we find it.

Landing in Budapest, we made our way to the small, wine-producing town of Eger.  Immediately upon exiting the train we knew we had found what we were looking for.  Completely at odds with our subdued and decrepit surroundings, the two of us stuck out like sore thumbs— Jessica with her fire-engine red hair, I with my wild blond curls, and both of us decked out in brightly colored hats, tailored coats, and chic, oversized scarves.  We were two Los Angeles natives navigating the tiny, run-down streets of rural Hungary, knowing none of the landscape, language, or customs.  After miles of aimless meandering down dingy roads, heads constantly turning to gaze at us with avid curiosity and wild bemusement, we hailed a cab in an attempt to reach our destination.

“Valley of the Beautiful Women,” Jessica said to the cab driver, who looked perplexedly at us through round-rimmed glasses.  Unlike the incense and body-odoured cabs of New York that I was used to, this car had the distinct aroma of pickles and Goulash, a traditional Hungarian meat-stew. Rolling his eyes, the driver turned back toward the wheel and we puttered precariously down the rocky road toward our inappropriately named destination (neither is it a valley, nor does it boast beautiful women).  The “town,” rather, was a collection of about twenty-five cement wine cellars, offering free tastings and selling plastic jugs filled with sweet wines to the few patrons wandering the town’s small circumference… and nowhere could we find a “beautiful” woman under fifty years of age or under two hundred and fifty pounds.

Nevertheless, we emerged from the cab and hesitantly walked up to the first cellar, opened the heavy wooden door, and sat ourselves down at the long communal table.  As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit cellar, I noticed an old man with an unshaven face, rotund belly, and matted, wavy hair, wearing a wine-and-sweat-stained white t-shirt.  He was slumped behind a small bar that was lined with about ten plastic bottles filled with a spectrum of dark red to musty yellow liquids.  Clearly aware that we were American, the man addressed us with a gruff, heavily accented “Hello,” and proceeded to ask in broken English if we would like to try sweet or dry, red or white.

We chose a sweet red, and after drinking our rather large sample of the sickly sweet wine, Jessica and I emerged from the dark cellar and made our way next door to a similar, equally empty “bar” (if you could even call the shanty caves such a thing).  But despite their decrepitude and humble décor, they possessed an undeniable, rustic charm, and the two of us immersed ourselves whole-heartedly in the unrefined setting.

We spent the next two hours stumbling from cellar to cellar, sampling wines that slowly began to taste more and more indistinct—even the colors began to blend together in an amalgam of plastic-bottled inebriation.  The sun set and the night grew colder, but Jessica and I were too happy in our red-faced insobriety to notice or care.  We sat in the last of the cellars, sipping wine, discussing our travels, and laughing, in what I’m sure were loud, garrulous American voices.  Finally, we decided it was time to venture back to the station and return to our hostel in Budapest.  We somehow managed to secure a taxi and reach the station, where we continued our drunken conversations—discussing God-knows-what at an all too loud volume for the few downtrodden commuters to hear.  A train sat motionless on the tracks, and then departed, as the dingy station slowly emptied of people.

After twenty minutes or so of waiting, I looked down at my watch. It read 8:25.

“I thought the train was supposed to leave at 8:05,” Jessica mumbled.  Panic crossed both of our faces and we silently rushed to the information booth.  We managed, somehow, to communicate to the Hungarian worker that we were waiting for the train back to Budapest, and when would it be leaving? In broken and disjointed English, he informed us that the train left right on schedule, and the next one would not be for another 2 hours.

We were shocked and crushed.  Foolish and drunk, we had reached the station on time—early, in fact—but had distractedly let our train depart without us.  Slightly sobered by the situation, but still feeling the delirious effects of the wine, we decided the only reasonable solution would be to wait for the next train at the closest bar.  So, out we wandered once again—two tipsy tourists searching for a fix.  About half a block down from the station we found our means: a tiny, decrepit room with a flashing blue light outside that read “BAR.”  The interior was nothing short of Kafkaesque.  Drunken old Hungarian men stood throughout the minuscule, disconcertingly bright room sipping cheap beer out of glass bottles.  Upon our entrance, we were greeted by a patron wearing a shabby Santa Clause hat and bright red Christmas sweater, much like one you would expect to receive from a clueless Granny on Christmas morning.  Another customer swayed precariously in front of a videogame machine (a surprisingly high-tech device for the archaic and obviously unprofitable business).  We ignored the stares of disbelief at our obviously unexpected entrance and made our way across the room to the bar.

“Beer,” Jessica desperately attempted to communicate.  But despite several efforts, the barmaid could not understand our request and so, laughing, pulled me behind the counter and opened the one, practically bare refrigerator, gesturing me to take my pick.  Choosing two foreign beers, I handed her my random change and sat down with Jessica to continue our consumption.

After gulping down a few sips of beer, the bartender, taking obvious pity on the displaced and drunken American girls, set two plates down on our table.  A questionable looking confection sat in front of each of us.  A mix between Rugelach and a soggy burrito, the rolled up, stringy pastry looked more like burnt syrup and Spanakopita than anything else.  “Cabbage strudel,” the bartender explained in what I thought was faulty English.  Cabbage? No, she must not know the word.  Noodle, maybe.  Apple, possibly.  But cabbage? As a dessert? Impossible.

She eagerly awaited our first bite, and so, I reluctantly dug in.  A surprising mix of sweet and savory, this pastry was far superior to the glasses of sweet wines we had been throwing back all day.  And yes, amidst the raisins, nuts, and sugar, I could taste it! Cabbage. And I must say, despite the associations I now had of cabbage with our sauerkraut-scented taxi driver, it was delicious.  Sweet, crunchy, and oozing with butter and caramelized sugar.  I don’t know, maybe it was a much needed break from the Goulash and pickled vegetables, but to me, it tasted sweeter than Paris.

Sweet Cabbage Strudel


For filling:

  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1/2 head green cabbage, shredded
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark or light raisins
  • 1/4 cup walnut pieces, toasted

For pastry:

  • 3 sheets filo dough, thawed
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped


For the filling:
In a large skillet, melt the butter.  Add the cabbage and saute until tender, careful not to over brown.  Add salt and sugar and stir to dissolve.  Add raisins and cook a few minutes to reduce and thicken any juices.  Stir in the toasted walnuts.  Spread on a parchment-lined sheet pan to cool completely.

To assemble the strudel:
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place one sheet of filo dough on a parchment-lined baking pan.  Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with 1/3 of the sugar and 1/3 of the chopped walnuts. Place another sheet of  filo dough on top of the filling, brush with butter and sprinkle with 1/3 sugar and 1/3 chopped walnuts. Place the remaining sheet of filo dough on top of filling and brush with butter. Reserve any remaining butter and the last 1/3 sugar and walnuts for the top.

Turn the pan lengthwise, so the short end of filo is closest to your body.  Spread the cooled cabbage filling 2 inches from top and sides, but all the way to the edge closest to you.  Using the parchment paper to help you lift, roll the strudel away from you, encasing the filling and forming a cylinder. Move the strudel, seam side down, to the center of the parchment paper and tuck in the strudel ends. It’s okay if the filo tears a little bit, just think of it as giving your strudel more character.
Brush the entire surface with remaining melted butter, sugar, and walnuts. Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool on the pan for about 15 minutes.

Using a serrated knife, carefully cut into 8 pieces and serve warm. Garnish with an edible flower, if desired, whipped cream, or a sprinkle of confectioners’ sugar. Since it’s pretty sweet on it’s own, I thought it was best without extra sugar, and perhaps with a cup of tea.


3 Responses to “Of Cabbages and Confections”

  1. Monet February 21, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    As you might imagine, what I love most about your blog is the wonderful stories you pair with your recipes. Like a good glass of wine with a meal, your stories bring your recipes to life! I was completely transported today…remembering my own travels to Europe and the new foods I tried. Thank you for sharing your words and this recipe! And thank you for your sweet thoughts on my blog. I appreciate you!

  2. Nora@LifeLifeEatRight February 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Beautiful story, beautiful meal. So wish I could have been there. I love how you are able to relive moments and travel through a meal.

  3. Lawyer Loves Lunch February 22, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    I love travel tales, especially when food is involved! Can’t wait to read more about your tasty travels 🙂

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