BUDAPEST -- Even in the land of strudel and sour cream they are talking of new light cooking. Socialism notwithstanding, the streets of Budapest are lined with fast-food shops selling City Burgers, appliance stores selling Cocktail Blenders, and tourist shops selling dusty bottles of old tokay wines at premium prices even though tokays don't improve with age.
Budapest is so Westernized that taxi drivers carry sightseeing audiotapes in English and in a country restaurant a baked potato may come wrapped in foil. Huge Budapest supermarkets serve 25,000 shoppers a day and sell Mamma Mia frozen pizzas and ketchup in plastic bottles.
Concern with weight is replacing concern with sustenance. Budapest's first health food store opened recently, and in the utterly sophisticated Forum Hotel, chefs are garnishing plates more with vegetables and less with dumplings. Lard has been replaced with sunflower seed oil. The Gyula Sausage Factory, which exports sausages and salamis around the world, has developed a new, less fatty (and more spicy) sausage. Bookstores display the cookbooks of Julia Frank, prolific proponent of cooking light, Hungarian Style.
Even so, the best of the food is still the most traditional (which often means the heaviest). The black bread is better than the refined white bread, and the salamis are of higher quality than the beef fillets. Dumplings are a more developed art here than vegetable garnishes, which are often long-cooked to sogginess. And one of the most memorable tastes in Hungary is a street food called langos, a pretzel-shaped fried bread, at its best topped with grated sheep's-milk cheese and sour cream. It is caloric dynamite.
Julia Frank, new light cooking aside, clearly isn't dogmatic in her eating habits; she is about the shape of Paul Prudhomme. I began to suspect the seriousness of Hungarians' light eating when Frank served a lunch that started with salami in yogurt sauce (not a combination with a bright future), followed by dumpling soup and a main dish garnished with batter-fried pineapple and prune fritters.
Delicate portions are an alien concept in Hungary. At the elegant Wild Rose Restaurant, where Marcello Mastroianni and his film crew became familiars last spring, a serving of goose is a quarter of a bird and a portion of foie gras is three large slabs, enough for an entire table in an American restaurant. At such famous old pastry shops as Vorosmarty, a tea break likely includes several creamy layered pastries rather than one.
Gundel Restaurant, fashionable since its opening in 1873, is cutting back on bacon and using vegetable oil instead of lard in its roux. But it doesn't take this lightening-up very far. Its foie gras comes garnished with a little scoop of goose fat, and its venison -- larded with fat, of course -- is accompanied by cranberry tarts, stuffed tomatoes, potato pancakes, stuffed turnips and gherkin fritters. And one would hardly finish a meal at Gundel without its most famous dessert, Palatsinka Gundel -- crepes stuffed with nuts, drenched with chocolate rum sauce.
Then again, American restaurateurs report their diners order a diet lunch, then finish with a big gooey dessert.
Tabletalk Dining takes a nostalgic turn in New Orleans Dec. 10-27. Sixteen of the city's best-known restaurants are serving Reveillon dinners nightly, four or more courses of classic Creole cooking, including such Christmas-nostalgia dishes as turtle soup, roast duck or goose, homemade boudin, yule logs and fruitcakes. Prices range from $12 to $35, depending on the restaurant, and some of the feasts include cafe brulot or eggnog.
In this season of turkey sandwiches, keep in mind that Hellman's has produced 3.5 billion pounds of mayonnaise since it began production 75 years ago. And it all started in a small German deli on Columbus Avenue in New York.
PALATSINKA GUNDEL (6 servings)
FOR THE CREPES:
2 small eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup carbonated water
Clarified sweet butter for cooking pancakes
FOR THE FILLING:
1/4 cup chopped raisins
2 tablespoons rum
1/3 cup light cream
8 ounces walnuts, ground
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
FOR THE CHOCOLATE RUM SAUCE:
4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons powdered cocoa
1 tablespoon melted butter
2 tablespoons light rum
To make the crepes, beat eggs, flour, milk, sugar and salt until smooth. Refrigerate an hour or more. Stir in the carbonated water at the last moment, just before cooking the pancakes.
Heat an 8-inch frying pan, then add 1/4 teaspoon clarified butter. Swirl to cover bottom of the pan.
Pour a ladle of the batter into the pan, then gently tip and twist the pan so that the batter covers the surface, then pour any excess back into the bowl. When the top of the batter bubbles, turn the pancake over and cook for 4 or 5 seconds longer. Remove the cooked pancake.
Continue until the batter is all cooked; add butter before cooking each pancake.
To make the filling: If you have time, soak the raisins in 2 tablespoons rum for 24 hours, then drain, reserving the rum to use later. Bring cream to a boil, add nuts, sugar, raisins, orange rind and cinnamon, and cook it into a paste. (If necessary, add a little milk.) Let the mixture cool partially and add the 2 tablespoons of rum.
Place the filling in a line on each crepe and roll it up. Keep the crepes warm.
For the sauce: Melt the chocolate in the milk, add vanilla. Whip chocolate mixture into egg yolks. Mix in sugar, cocoa, butter and rum, and stir till smooth. Adjust thickness by adding a little more milk if sauce is too thick to pour.
Pour the sauce over pancakes, serving 2 pancakes per person.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group