Palacsinta Emlék (Pancake Memories)
My mother and father often told me stories of how much their lives changed when they arrived in Australia, having fled Sátoraljaújhely after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Some aspects of life for them as ‘New Australians’ changed for the better, while others took some getting used to.
Following a mammoth ocean crossing on ‘The Sydney’, the family arrived at the Bonegilla Migrant Camp in Wodonga, Victoria. My father ventured to Mildura for a time, picking grapes for a living; leaving Mum, my two brothers and my sister to fend for themselves among feuding groups of predominantly Italians and Yugoslavs. It was all so foreign, and day-to-day life in the camp wasn’t easy.
Food had the greatest impact, according to my parents. They yearned for their family members, they yearned for Sátoraljaújhely, but most of all they yearned for some gulyás or paprikás csirké. The unfamiliar meats, and the vegetables that had had every semblance of life cooked from them were stomach turning. The rank smell of the mutton served in the cafeteria was apparently enough to turn my father and sister off lamb for life, although dad did enjoy barbecued lamb forequarter chops in his latter years.
To appease my mother, dad rigged up a little burner of sorts and, to the delight of my brothers and my sister, Mum was able to cook their favourite palacsinta (pancakes). Pancakes were a much-loved tradition in my mother’s kitchen and from just a few simple ingredients, she made something really delicious.
Like everything else that she cooked, mum made large batches of them and she was deft at her craft. She and my brother, Alex, would have competitions to see who could flip the most pancakes. Despite Alex’s best efforts, there was no competition. My mother proved she was the Champion when she entered, and won, a competition in the ‘Monaro Mall’ (the 1960s version of ‘The Canberra Centre’). She tossed a pancake 32 times! If you have ever tried to flip a pancake, you will be aware that this takes some skill.
Palacsinta are hugely popular with Hungarians. In The Cuisine of Hungary, George Laing notes that ‘pancake making developed into a subtle and complex art in Hungarian and Austrian kitchens during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’. They are eaten as a sweet or savoury dish and can be made into layered cakes; or filled with ham, then breaded and fried. Other lovely fillings include quark or cottage cheese, ground poppy seeds and sugar cooked with a little hot milk, poached apple and pear (watch this space for that recipe), and the classic Gundel style with walnut rum filling and chocolate rum sauce! However, I like to serve them as my mother did, spread simply with homemade jam.
Here is my recipe for Palacsinta, adapted from my mother’s version that I tapped out on a little red Olivetti typewriter a few decades ago. How many pancakes can you eat in a sitting?
2 cups plain flour
1 tablespoon caster sugar
31/2 cups milk*
1 small vanilla bean, seeds scraped**
unsalted butter for cooking
Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the sugar, eggs and a little of the milk. Stir well with a spatula to prevent lumps forming. Gradually whisk in the rest of the milk and beat until the batter is smooth and creamy. Fold in the vanilla bean seeds. Allow the batter to rest for 30 minutes or more.
Heat a small fry pan or skillet and add 1/2 a teaspoon of butter, tilting the pan to allow the butter to cover the pan. Using a ladle pour in sufficient batter to cover the pan, tilting and twisting quickly to spread it. Cook until the underside is just golden then turn carefully with a spatula cooking the other side of the pancake for a few seconds. Remove and set aside. Continue this with the rest of the batter, using small amounts of butter as required.
If you are filling the pancakes with jam, do so while they are still warm, spreading a good teaspoon or more of jam onto each one. Roll up or fold into triangles. Dust with icing sugar if you like. Makes 10-12 reasonably thick pancakes.
* Add an extra egg for thicker pancakes or use more milk for thinner crepes.
** Store the scraped out vanilla pod in a jar of caster sugar.
For more information about Bonegilla and the migrant experience, visit http://www.bonegilla.org.au/
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I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.