In the most ancient of Hungarian folktales when the youngest of three sons sets out to explore the world, his mother packs for him “hamuban sült pogácsa” or biscuits baked in the ashes of a familiar fireplace. On my most recent trip to Hungary I encountered several homemade versions among the hors d’oeuvres served before the Christmas meal, of which I indulged in four in three days. The tradition is alive and well in both Budapest and the countryside. Markets sell out of them early Sunday morning. It was a pleasant surprise to come across a bakery in Istanbul with a neon light flashing poğaça under a display of fresh pastries. I had been ignorant of the origins of our most beloved of baked goods and it was kind of cool to learn that they’d been adopted from the Ottomans. It’s always kind of cool when things are adopted from the Ottomans, especially when there’s linguistic borrowing involved.
Turkish poğaça is a fluffy, airy thing folded over itself with something in the middle. It’s made with baking powder and no yeast. It includes yogurt in its recipe. I opted for a cheese filling, which was a goat curd tulum but only a very thin layer that got lost in all the dough. I was used to Hungarian pogácsa and was expecting something similar and I was disappointed at the total lack of textural intrigue in this distant cousin of our cherished staple. It was basically just a bread roll with a glossy, well browned top brought about with egg yolk suitably applied. But it was bread, fluffy and boring with a very slight sweetness that amounted to little flavor and after digging through the pasty’s bright white bread flesh for hours in search of cheese to give salt, softness and brine what I encountered was minimal and not barely enough to sustain me. Sure, for a bread bun it’s fine. Toasted with butter and toppings it’s probably pretty legit. But as a midday snack it’s dry, flavorless and nothing like the pogácsa I know and love. Luckily in this case the apple falls quite far from the tree.
Pogácsa is a completely other story, one actually worth telling. The Hungarian version is always made with yeast and butter. Sour cream replaces yogurt. It’s a layered pastry akin to a biscuit and it has a bit of hard cheese and caraway seeds or goose cracklings and black pepper baked crunchy over the top. When pulled apart it separates into buttery round layers that are crispy around the rim but doughy and dense inside. The doughy denseness is fine though because each layer is thin and they can be eaten separately with the crunchy exterior contrasting. Hungarian pogácsa is generally seasoned with plenty of salt and black pepper so that each bite is satisfying, not just the tanned top-hat. Instead the top is lined with a crunchy layer of smokey gruyere or delightfully crunchy cubes of dough made by checkering the top before egg-washing and baking it. When fresh it’s always tasty and satisfying on its own or as a side to booze. It appears in neat piles on grandma’s porcelain serving tray and with napkins in baskets at a bar with beer or palinka. They bring a smile to the face of the most sniveling, angsty teen. Nobody can resist those buttery, flaky layers or that golden brown burst of flavor capping the top.
As the brave young lad embarking on a journey into a world so full of danger, sin and sorrow I know which version of this pastry I’d rather have wrapped up in the olde proverbial bindle. I admit, of course, to the obvious bias, but pogácsa seems the clear winner to me.