When I first moved to Budapest last year from New York, the abundance of atmospheric cukrászdas—confectioneries gushing retro charm—provided comfort in a new place. Rows of artful cakes with glistening raspberries or fluffy towers of sponge torte talked to me daily from behind glass.
One by one, I delightfully discovered classic Hungarian desserts, from slabs of chocolate mousse-filled Rigó Jancsi to somlói, raisin-strewn trifle blanketed in whipped cream. Over the holidays, as locals planned their intimate Christmas Eves revolving around halászlé, a paprika-laden fisherman’s soup, and stuffed cabbage drenched in sour cream, I became acquainted with beigli. This pastry, its innards a festive swirl of walnuts or poppy seeds, is a Christmastime fixture, a tradition that dates back to the mid-19th century.
“Everything related to Christmas in Hungary is German in origin with a little Austrian mediation. It’s hard to disentangle within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
So says Pierre Vajda, food critic of Gastroguide.hu and respected authority on all manner of Hungarian culinary history. “The only thing that is sure about the beigli, a German-Yiddish word meaning horseshoe or ‘to bend’, is that it appears in the 1830 edition of István Czifray’s Hungarian National Cookbook—or at least a crescent-shaped pastry with poppy seed filling does.”
That the poppy seed made a cameo in a French-inspired tome meant for aristocratic readers only underscores its importance to regional cooking. The humble seed arrived with the Turks, who ruled Hungary for 150 years before the Hapsburgs arrived. Beigli’s flavors perhaps most closely mimic flódni, a not-too-sweet cube stacked with layers of apple, walnut, and poppy seed that is synonymous with Jewish-Hungarian cuisine.
But it’s beigli that’s reserved for the holidays. Vajda explains that making it was long a beloved all-day activity where parents and children “cracked the walnuts, ground them and the poppy, kneaded and stretched the dough, then baked the rolls. This ritual strengthened the familial bond of Christmas because the whole family was bustling in the kitchen.”
By the time the holiday comes around, the beigli is ubiquitous in cukrászdas, home kitchens, and supermarkets alike. Each location has a tradition unto itself.
Beigli at the cukrászdas
Édesem is my favorite bakery in Budapest. A petite, natural light-bathed retreat where the walls are shrouded in vintage recipes, it’s sought after for owner Szonja Márk’s avant-garde creations. Márk, who just unveiled a beautiful cookbook, breaks from the predictable trappings of Hungarian repertoire to whip up the likes of fig rugelach, mango panna cotta, and whiskey-Nutella cake. But she wouldn’t dare not offer her patrons beigli. A few days before Christmas, “everyone wants beigli and nothing else,” she says. “The queues outside the famous shops like Auguszt and Daubner are out the door.”
Growing up in Hungary, Márk devoured beigli like everyone else, but she “never found it interesting,” much preferring, say, mákos guba, the poppy seed-studded bread pudding that is another seasonal favorite. “Usually, beigli is a ratio of half a kilo filling to half a kilo pastry, but everyone makes it a different way,” she says. “It’s hard to find a good one because they are often dry and sometimes made with bad ingredients like poppy seeds cut with semolina.”
Márk does not skimp. She brightens her poppy seed version with grated lemon peel; her walnut one flaunts candied orange and apricot preserves. “The dough is crumbly, buttery, almost shortbread-like, but with a tiny amount of yeast in it,” Márk explains. “It's very delicate, so you must follow the baking and resting method precisely. If you don't do it properly, the top will crack during baking, especially if you roll in too much filling. It’s not so easy to avoid this mistake as more filling and less pastry is much more delicious.” In keeping with the imaginative spirit of Édesem, she also makes an unconventional chestnut rendition speckled with dark chocolate and a hearty cranberry-almond interpretation.
Beigli at home
Preparing beigli is time consuming—there’s the dough to knead and refrigerate and the filling to assemble, followed by the rolling, folding, and generous brushing of egg yolks. After that dries, it must be further coated with egg whites. Families usually don’t bother with just one lonely beigli, though, Márk says, noting that some churn out as many as 40, which are then offered as gifts to friends and relatives. “Usually everyone bakes much more than they are able to eat. That’s why you still have it on New Year's Eve,” she adds.
While this laborious process is still embraced by numerous purists who relish the yearly dose of nostalgia in the contemporary Hungarian kitchen, Vajda says that as with most things, Christmas “was also industrialized, so bakers began making beigli in huge quantities.”
It’s become easier for time-strapped Hungarians to stand in line and buy ready-made beigli, a shift that has spawned yet another custom among families: “A contest where people compare where they bought their beigli,” says Vajda.
“This can also be a source of pride for them.”
Beigli with Poppy Seed Filling
- 290 grams all-purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 30 grams powdered sugar
- 90 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
- 60 grams cold lard, cut into small pieces
- 60 grams cold whole milk
- 5 grams fresh (not instant) yeast
- 30 grams egg yolks (from about 1 1/2 eggs)
- 120 grams whole milk
- 30 grams honey
- 100 grams granulated sugar
- 250 grams poppy seeds, ground (grind in a coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle)
- 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel
- Pinch ground cloves
- 2 tablespoons applesauce
- 50 grams graham cracker crumbs or shortbread cookies, ground
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 egg white
- 1 tablespoon whole poppy seeds