Hungarians don't talk half as much about food as Americans do, but they love to eat. Eating is sacred and home cooking is present in every household. A regular meal consists of a hearty dish followed by a fruity desserts. Zserbó is one of the latter. It is one of the most famous Hungarian desserts, along with Somlói Galuska and Kürtőskalács. Interestingly enough, all three of them have walnuts as a main ingredient.
The cake was invented by a Swiss chocolatier named Emil Gerbeaud who moved to Budapest in 1884 to take charge of a famous patisserie called Kugler. His staple dessert, a layered apricot and walnut cake (zserbó), slowly became famous all over Hungary. Although the original recipe calls for apricot preserves, it is not unusual to find the cake using ginger and apple, plum jam or honey and walnut filling.
Even though I am not a big fan of sweets, growing up I couldn't ever resist zserbó. My Hungarian grandma, Iolika, made this cake all the time. The main reason was that she and my grandpa had a huge apricot tree with a bench under it right next to their kitchen. As a kid I couldn't wait for June and July to come, not only because of my birthday and summer break, but also because that was the time when the cherries and apricots ripened. All the fruit trees were so full that often times I didn't even have to climb them (or the bench for that matter) to get to fresh juicy fruits. The branches would bend under the weight of the apricots, cherries or pears to the right height for the little chubster Aurel to reach them.
While my other grandpa, Bunu, grew amazing vegetables, grandpa Tatus (his name was Aurel like mine and my father's) had a huge orchard in his backyard. He had a variety of trees and bushes full of red and black currants, strawberries, cantaloupes, grapevines, apricots, white peaches, cherries, pears, apples, quince and plums. Can you imagine spending summers there and eating all of these homegrown fruits? No wonder the first thing on my shopping list to this day is fruit.
July, August and September were also the months Iolika would make preserves out of the fruit we couldn't eat during the summer. It was a delight to open a jar of sour cherry compote during the cold winter nights and eat it while Tatus was watching soccer and drinking homemade wine. Breakfasts during during those days consisted of apricot or plum jam thickly spread over an equally thick loaf of fresh, warm bread and huge cup of chocolate milk.
My grandpa Tatus was a big man. Over 6 feet tall and probably around 300 pounds on a good day. He loved eating and I inherited that habit from him. As a kid, I used to have eating contests with him. I remember one time, I must have been 5 or 6, for dinner we each ate seven loafs of bread with homemade dry sausage, tomatoes, peppers, onions and radishes. The memory of that night is still sharp in my mind, not only because I was able to eat as much as Tatus for the first and probably last time in my life (although I'm sure he had more once I fell into a food coma and passed out), but also because it was the best day I ever spent with him.
When Iolika was baking or preparing homemade noodles and pasta, she would pass me a piece of the dough to knead, roll and shape to my liking. I remember the little green chair I used to sit on while she was at the table doing serious stuff. I didn't have my own mini table, but I was given a big white chair to serve as my work station instead. I even had my own mini rolling pin. We listened to the radio and sang Hungarian songs while the kitchen filled with the smell of freshly baked goods. It was amazing and I am so grateful to have lived such a great childhood.
This cake has new meaning to me nowadays. On my first date with Roni, one of her questions after finding out my Hungarian heritage was if I could make zserbó. Without any hesitation I replied, "Of course, I can." even though I had never made one before on my own. I liked her way too much to let her slip between my fingers just because of a stupid cake that I've seen my grandma make several times before.
Roni's obsession with with this Hungarian delight comes from her own heritage. Her maternal grandparents were Hungarian and her whole family is crazy about zserbó . Last year when I went home to visit my family, Roni asked me to bring her zserbó. I wasn't sure if she was kidding or not, so I decided not to take the risk and actually did it. Imagine how awesome it was going through 3 airports with a cake in my hand. In the end, the airline made me check in my carry-on, which they in turn lost, and the zserbó arrived several days later in broken chunks and crumbs. Roni polished it off anyway.
Every time I make it, Roni's mom, Rachel,stops by our place as soon as the cake is done. Last time I made it, I had to put the cake in the freezer so that they could eat it sooner. If we happen to have leftovers the next day, Rachel usually comes over again and leaves with a tupperware full of cake. All of this makes me happy though, because the best reward I get out of cooking is making my beloved ones happy. After all, Roni's family is my family here in the U.S.
This recipe belongs to my mother, though. Shortly after committing to making the cake for Roni I Skyped my mom and asked for the recipe. I had to do all the translation and conversion from the metric system though, so I feel like it's partially mine, too.
I also added a little spin by making my own apricot jam, mainly because I find the preserves to be too sweet here in the U.S. but also because apricots were on sale. You can save 20-30 minutes by using only store-bought apricot jam (one 14oz jar will do), but I recommend you adding a little bit of orange or lemon juice to make it more tart. I hope you'll try this amazing dessert and if you're going to like it at least half as much as Roni's family, I will consider it a huge success.
ZSERBÓ Cake (Gerbeaud Cake)
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Inactive time: 1 hour
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 3/8 oz dry yeast (1 packet)
- 1 tsp cane sugar
- 3 cups flour, all-purpose
- 8 oz unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
- 1-2 eggs, pasture raised
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3 1/2 oz sugar, powdered, brown or mix of both
- 3 1/2 cups walnut halves
- 3/4 cup sugar, brown, powdered or mix of both
- 1 lemon, zested
Apricot Jam Filling
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 pound apricots, pitted and quartered
- 6 cardamom pods
- 8 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 6 oz apricot preserves
- 2 TBS brown sugar
- 2 TBS unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 TBS water
- 4 oz dark chocolate, chopped
- 2 oz unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 365F (185C). Heat up milk to around 110F (45C). Add yeast, 1 teaspoon sugar and mix well. Set aside for 10-15 minutes until the milk starts to bloom (you'll see it bubble up).
- In the meantime, combine flour, chunks of soft butter butter, egg, salt and baking soda. Mix it well and then add the rest of the sugar and yeast mixture. If using a stand mixer with a dough hook set it to low and let it run until the dough becomes smooth, but still sticky. I prefer kneading it with my hands, but that's just a personal preference. Once the dough is nice and smooth, put it in a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest for 20-30 minutes.
- While the dough is rising, put walnuts, sugar and lemon zest into food processor and pulse a few times until the walnuts are finely chopped. I prefer it chunkier, but smooth is fine, too.
- Heat sugar in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, stirring constantly with a spatula or wooden spoon for about 5 minutes. Toss in the apricots, cardamom pods and mint and cook for about 5 minutes. Carefully pour in brandy. Ignite mixture with a matchstick or by slowly tilting the pan to the side so the flames can reach it. Let the flames die out and cook for another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove cardamom pods and mint leaves and transfer the mixture to a food processor. Add apricot preserves and pulse until you get a jam like consistency.
- Butter a 13x9-inch baking pan. Alternatively you can use parchment-paper to line the baking pan.
- Divide the dough into 3 equal parts. Roll them out to the size of the baking sheet. Transfer one layer of dough into the pan, pressing it into the corners to fit. Spread half the apricot preserves over the entire layer, followed by a layer of walnuts mixture. Repeat the dough/jam/walnut procedure one more time then cover with the third layer of dough. Using a fork, poke a few holes in the top layer. That will keep the dough from bubbling up. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown. I using more than 3 layers you may have to bake it longer.
- Remove from the oven and let is cool for about 30 minutes.
- While the cake is cooling prepare the chocolate glaze by dissolving sugar and cocoa powder in water over medium heat in a small saucepan or a double boiler. Add chocolate chunks and using a whisk stir until the chocolate is melted. Bring mixture to a boil and add the butter. Remove the saucepan/double boiler from the heat and mix well until the butter is completely melted.
- Cool the mixture for about 5 minutes and then stir the glaze again. The consistency is right when the glaze is thick enough to coat the spoon you're using for tasting. When it's ready it will be warm and still pourable.
- Pour evenly over the cake. Chill for at least one hour before serving. If you have any walnut filling left sprinkle it over the top. It's not the traditional way, but I don't like wasting anything.