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Cottage cheese tart from Hódmezővásárhely

The most popular cake in the folk diet of the 19th century in the whole of the Great Plain, and thus the most famous dish of the time in Vásárhely, was the cottage cheese tart, which was considered the prince of food here. It had a prominent place in the festive diet: christenings, name days, funeral cakes, Christmas or even the guilds’ carnival celebrations, and it was impossible to imagine life without a Cottage cheese tart. It was also part of the weekly diet, baked every Saturday on cow farms.

In 1890, the historian Aladár Ballagi wrote of the popularity of the vásárhelyer tart in the pages of the Geographical Bulletin: ‘The vásárhelyer curd tart is famous far and wide, baked every Saturday by a good farmer’s wife for her summer workers, and it would not be ashamed to be served at a gentleman’s table. They are also proud of the cottage cheese tarts made from kneaded dough, which they say cannot be made anywhere else in the country as here. The children consider Saturday a holiday because of the tart, and from midweek onwards they keep on making it.

The characteristic feature of the traditional Hódmezővásárhely Cottage cheese tart  is that it has a kneaded bottom, is salty and is not baked in a pan, but the dough is placed directly in the bottom of the oven using a baking tray. Hence the local name: bottom-fried flatbread.

The dough was kneaded until it was stiff, stretched into a round the size of a baking sheet and the edges were folded up to prevent the filling from dripping out. Lajos Kiss, the town’s Kossuth Prize-winning ethnographer, described its preparation in 1923 as follows:

„The woman first prepares the bottom of the tart. The bottom of a not small, not big pie needs three cakes of flour, which the woman crumbles in a bowl with a spoonful of frozen fat, and when she has rubbed it with the fat, she beats two eggs in the middle of the flour and kneads them with salted water, Then, on a table or a kneading board, she stretches it with a wooden stretcher to the thickness of a knife (2 mm) and to the shape of a round baking sheet, and rolls up the edges with the tips of her fingers, holding them with her thumb and forefinger. […]
Next, put as much curd as you want for the bottom of a pie, knead it with half a grain of flour and enough milk to make it spreadable, spread it on the bottom of the pie, adjust it proportionally, spread it on top. Beat one or two eggs into more milk than there are curds (the egg whites are also mixed into the curds and the yolks into the milk), adding a pinch of salt:
Mix it. This egg and milk mixture is poured over the curd only when the tart is about to be put in the oven, otherwise it will soak the bottom of the pastry. The filling of the pie is two fingers thick.””

The baked flat cake was cut into round pieces and bitten into dovetails while still warm, i.e. the curled end was taken in the hand and started at the pointed end.

A particularly large quantity of cottage cheese was consumed in the summer at harvest time, when it was also used to feed sharecroppers. In the case of large farmers, it was baked in the oven. Some farmers’ wives also sold the Cottage cheese tart  at markets and fairs to earn a little extra income.

In the 20th century, with the abolition of the ovens, the traditional kneaded-bottom cake began to be baked in pans. The exact recipe is given by Mihály Herczeg:

„Bottom dough: Ingredients: ½ kg flour, 20 dkg fat, 3 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon sour cream, 1/2 tablespoon salt. For the filling: 1 kg cottage cheese, 1 egg, 1 dl milk, 2 tbsp flour, pinch of salt, for the top: 6-8 dl sour cream, 5 eggs, 1 tsp salt.
Preparation: Add the egg and sour cream and knead with the salted water until it is elastic. Shape into shoes and leave to rest. Stretch it to the size of a knife and place it on a greased and floured baking tray. […]
Stuffing: make a spreadable mixture of cottage cheese, egg, milk and a little flour, spoon it onto the dough, then pour the sour cream mixed with egg and salt over it. Bake in a low oven until the top is nicely browned.”

At that time, the varieties that were fashionable elsewhere had already appeared here, mainly as a result of cookery books: with a crust, flavoured with dill or sweet, but in Vásárhely the most popular is still the savoury tart with a kneaded crust. Some restaurants still sell this version, for example in the market.