Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kifli again: Hungarian Christmas Cakes revisited

Some of you may have read this article when it was posted last Wednesday, December 2, and are wondering why it has reappeared this week. It was posted earlier on Day 2 of the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2009 (theme: Holiday Foods) and also submitted to the GeneaBloggers Holiday 2009 Recipe Contest and Holiday Cookbook, but I couldn't resist sharing it again this week to be included within the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2009 Day 8: Christmas Cookies. And by the way, if you haven't gotten around to trying your hand at making your own kifli, here's one more reminder before Christmas Day!

One of the most enjoyable holiday treats in my childhood memory (counting all the holidays) was one of my grandmother's specialties. Everyone in our family calls them "Gramma's Christmas Cakes". When I was a child and the Christmas season rolled around we could always be sure that these delicious treats would make an appearance. Sometimes we would hear in advance that Gramma was working on them. (Later in life I learned how labor intensive they were.) Other times we would be surprised by the sudden appearance of a pretty doily-decorated plate loaded with the apricot jelly-filled crescent-shaped goodies. Every now and then Gramma's beloved Christmas Cakes would make an appearance at Easter, to the great delight of those who enjoyed them the most.

Inspired to carry on the tradition of baking these holiday goodies, I invited Gramma over to my home one day to have her teach me how to do it. I learned that day just what a labor of love Gramma had performed for her family for so many years. With my own small children causing distractions underfoot throughout the whole process, I gained a new appreciation for my dear grandmother and her patience and dedication to Christmas Cakes and her role as grandmother and great-grandmother.

Gramma had learned to make Christmas Cakes by watching her mother-in-law, who had immigrated to America from northeastern Hungary. Because of this I assumed that the recipe was probably something from that region. It was only a few short years ago that I learned, thanks to a letter from a family member of my grandmother's generation, the true identity of these goodies. Like so many of our ancestors who emigrated from their home countries and found it more convenient to Americanize their names, the Christmas Cakes had done the same. Their Hungarian name was Kifli. I was thrilled to learn this and also to find that recipes for them were found in many Hungarian cookbooks and orders could be placed for them with Hungarian bakeries even in the U.S.

Of course, nothing can replace the taste of Gramma's own version of kifli. With the understanding that written directions can never replace watching and learning from an expert like Gramma, here is my version of Gramma's recipe for those of you that are interested in giving them a try:

100 Years in America's
Family Kifli Recipe
Otherwise known as "Gramma's Christmas Cakes"Apricot Jelly3 lbs. apricots
1 1/2 cups sugar

Put them in a pot with enough water to cover them plus about 1 inch more
Cook for about 45 minutes until soft, stirring frequently
Mash the apricots
Add sugar
Cook about 1 1/2 to 2 hours until very thick (the longer the better), stirring frequently
Sprinkle the jelly with cinnamon

Christmas Cakes4 cups flour
1/2 lb. sweet butter at room temperature
6 eggs - separated - at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 oz. sour cream at room temperature
4 tablespoons sugar
1 packet of yeast (prepared by mixing with 1 teaspoon sugar & about 1/4 cup milk)
Homemade apricot jelly
1 lb. walnuts (add 4 teaspoons sugar to each lb. when chopped)
Confectioner's sugar

Mix flour with butter and then salt and sugar
Make a well in the middle - add egg yolks, vanilla and sour cream gradually
Mix and kneed until smooth (keep working the dough until ready)
Use flour to make it not too sticky (can freeze - wrap in freezer paper and cover with flour)
Roll out dough
Cut the dough into 4 pieces
Chop walnuts and whip egg whites
Roll out one of the 4 pieces of dough
Cut into individual 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 squares and fill with a heaping teaspoon of homemade apricot jelly
Roll each into a horn (crescent)
Top each with egg whites and nuts
Bake in the oven at 350 degrees until light brown (about 30-35 minutes)

Kifli may also be served with a prune filling (prepared similarly to the apricot filling) or a walnut filling, although the apricot kind has always been the favorite in my family. If using walnut filling, add boiled milk to the nuts until pasty, then grated lemon rind.

I am always happy to hear that family members are baking a batch of Christmas Cakes and continuing to keep them in the family for the future generations to enjoy and remember.

We join with generations of Hungarian families that have made and enjoyed these goodies. In fact, the origin of kifli may go back to the 17th century. According to The Urban Fakanál by Andrea Miklós on The New Hungarian Voice webpage, legend has it that Budapest was threated by Ottoman Turks at the end of the 1600's. Supposedly the Turks intended to capture the city by building tunnels under the city wall. Hungarian bakers, who worked the early shift, caught the Turks in action and the attempt failed. To remember their success, the city's bakers baked bread in the shape of the Turkish Empire's emblem: the crescent. Kifli immediately became popular in Budapest and Vienna. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette may have brought kifli back to Paris, inspiring the French to make their own version: the famous French croissant.

If you're pressed for time or not brave enough to try making your own kifli, here are a few bakeries in the U.S. that offer them for purchase:

Kifli image copyright © 2007 by Smallest Leaf Press. All Rights Reserved.
This article is part of a series written in celebration of the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is included this year as part of the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2009 Day 2: Holiday Foods and Day 8: Christmas Cookies. Make a visit to Thomas MacEntee's GeneaBloggers website for some additional inspiration to get yourself in the holiday spirit!

The article originally appeared here at 100 Years in America and was included in Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2007.


  1. Oh Lisa, my Great Grandma Orshoski used to make cookies that looked just like yours, except she filled them with a walnut filling.
    My mom (who has NO Hungarian heritage...she "married into the Orshoski family) always loved them, and Grandma would make my mom a batch just for her!
    Thanks for reminding me of those Christmas goodies from mmy childhood!!

  2. Lisa... I'm the 55 year old son of a Hungarian Mother whose parents(Borzsei) came to the USA in the early 1900's. She passed away 8 years ago and I've been searching for a great Kifli recipe every Christmas since.
    Thanks to you, I've finally found it! They're exactly like my Mom's!
    Thank you, my children thank you, too.

  3. I'm so happy to hear from both of you, Dorene and Carl, about your own affinity for kifli.

    Carl, your story about a search for a Hungarian Christmas Cake recipe means a lot to me. I had hoped that placing the recipe here at 100 Years in America would enable others to continue this delicious tradition within their holiday festivities. Your story is heart-warming to this blogger who shares your Hungarian heritage and love for kifli.

    Have a wonderful Christmas celebration. I hope you are able to perfect the kifli baking process, and enjoy eating these delicious treats with your family for many years to come.


  4. Thankyou. I lost my Grandma Marcin (Tegda) 6 years ago and have not had a single Kifli since she died...no other recipes sounded like the one that she used to make. I am going to make some today as a surprise to my mom, her youngest daughter. My grandma used to stuff them with prunes, walnuts or apricots (which were also my favorites!) I miss her stories about being in Hungary during WW1, the trip to this country, and all...but now I can make the cookies and at least re-live the flavors of her home at Christmas! Thankyou again!

  5. Thanks so much for writing, Kathy. I hope your Kifli turned out tasting delicious and that you enjoyed the baking process. Merry Christmas and many happy Kifli baking days to you in the coming years!


  6. Lisa...I just ran across your Family Web page. Great job. I have been working on my Hungarian-Croatian Heritage for the past 10 years now...have over 3,000 in my family tree.
    I also share the Kifli recipe with you. Same as my Mother's and her Mother's. My Mother just past away at the age of 95 and she still had her memory. She passed the Kifli recipe onto me from her Mother. Her Mother immigrated to the US in 1909 from Devecser Hungary. Thanks so much for posting the recipe! My Mother also filled it with fruit filling but over the years people have loved it filled with Walnuts and also wonderful poppyseed. Thanks Again Lisa.....

  7. I have no Hungarian heritage, but they look SOOOO good - I've copied the recipe and will give Gramma's Christmas Cakes a go, starting with the apricot! Thank you and Merry Christmas.

  8. What a wonderful article about Kifli which is also a Christmas tradition in our home. My great Grandmother was Hungarian and throughout the years we have used her recipe to share with loved one's! Now we have a 5th generation learning to love and continue the tradition. Thank you!

  9. Hello over there, my great grandmother was born in Hungary late 1800, emigrated to Croatia and married with a german-croatian, her eldest daughter emigrated to venezuela after WWII, and all her grandchildren over here in south america, have all enjoyed her kifli, strudels, and my favorite: orahnjaca ( or beigli ) which I do make sometimes. Their beautiful traditions have traveled all over the world. God bless all those great grandmothers.

  10. Oh how I *love* Kifli!!! It's so nice to see how many others have loved it, too! :-) Thanks so much for your post! When I moved out to IL and then WI, my hubby surprised me with some Polish made Kifli he had found at a multi-ethnic grocery store! :-)

    My Nagymama (Biro/Varga) used to make it as well as my cousin Helen whom we called Helen Neyne (Gyorfy). For a fair when I was in elementary school, I made it for a baking contest and won first place!!! It's been decades since my mom or I have made it, and now I sadly have to try and make them gluten-free. I loved the nut filling, too. My mom's family is from north western Hungary, and my dad (Kovacs) grew up about 1 hour south east from my mom. They met in NYC on a blind date! :-)

    Anita, my ENT doc and his family fled over to South America before Hungary went communist, then moved to NJ.


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