When a Family Was Deported, Their Cook Saved Treasured Recipes

Make the Walnut Cream Cake

The Fenyves family at their vineyard in what was then Subotica, Yugoslavia, circa 1935–38. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Steven J. Fenves

In 1944, 12-year-old Steven Fenves and his family were forced into a Jewish ghetto in their hometown of Subotica, part of Axis-occupied Yugoslavia. Neighbors awaited the family’s eviction so they could rush in and loot their belongings. Their former cook, Maris, was able to save a few treasured items. After the war, she returned those pieces — including artwork and a recipe book — to the family.

Watch Steven tell about his family’s experience

Handwritten pages from the Fenyves family recipe book. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Steven J. Fenves

The Fenyves family recipe book—which Steven and his sister, Estera, donated to the Museum—offers a glimpse into one family’s life before the Holocaust. It was handwritten by Steven’s mother, Klara Fenyves, who was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The recipes include both family favorites and dishes made for special occasions.

These recipes were not accessible to the general public before chef Alon Shaya discovered the book in the Museum’s collection. “As a chef … I want to cook food that has meaning and stories to it. I think that adds to what I love so much about food,” said the Israel-born, James Beard Award-winning chef. When Alon discovered that Steven volunteers at the Museum, he reached out to him. Steven translated 13 out of more than 140 recipes so the chef could adapt them for today’s cooks.

Steven Fenyves and his older sister, Estera —Courtesy of Steven J. Fenves

Steven singled out the recipe for walnut cream cake, which had been one of his favorite childhood desserts. For an upcoming live online program, Alon chose that cake to make and to invite the audience to make in advance as well (see below for the recipe).

Walnuts are a popular ingredient in Hungarian cooking, Alon said. Subotica, Steven’s hometown, was heavily influenced by Hungary for centuries. Today, Subotica sits on the Serbian side of the Serbo-Hungarian border. Before World War II and through the present day, many Subotica residents spoke Hungarian and identified with Hungarian culture.

“I found the process of grinding the walnuts through a food grinder very satisfying and it allowed an extremely consistent texture of the nuts within the cake and the icing,” Alon said. In the early and mid-20th century, he added, many home kitchens had a meat grinder that clamped to a work surface and was also used to grind nuts. He notes the recipe uses no wheat flour, making it usable for Passover and also gluten-free.

Tune in on Wednesday, December 16, 2020, at 9:30 a.m. ET at facebook.com/holocaustmuseum for the live program about Steven’s life and the rescued recipes from his childhood. In advance, you might wish to make walnut cream cake to taste along with Steven and Alon:

Walnut Cream Cake

Yields one 9”x5” cake

8 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar, divided
Zest of 2 lemons, divided
2 cups dark chocolate chips or chopped pieces, divided
5 cups walnut pieces or halves, divided
¾ cup almond flour
1 cup whole milk
12 ounces soft unsalted butter
1 ½ cups of powdered sugar
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract

Walnut cream cake made from the Fenyves family recipe. —Photograph by Emily Shaya

Preheat the oven to 300F and toast the walnut pieces for 15 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Place ½ cup of toasted walnuts aside for garnish. Grind the remaining walnuts through a meat grinder so they are evenly ground and fluffy. You can also chop in a food processor or with a knife but make sure you get the mixture chopped fine and evenly. Set aside.

Prepare a 9”x5” loaf pan by lining it with buttered parchment. Preheat the oven to 350F.

In a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar until stiff peaks form then incorporate 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt.

Remove the whipped egg whites from the stand mixer bowl and place into a separate bowl. Set aside. Wash and dry the mixer bowl and place in the egg yolks with ½ cup of the granulated sugar and zest of one lemon. Whisk on high speed until pale in color and it has a light and fluffy texture. You will need to scrape a few times to make sure it’s evenly combined. Melt 1 cup of the chocolate in the microwave or over a double boiler. Pour the melted chocolate into the whipped yolk mixture and whisk well.

Fold in 1 cup of the ground walnuts as well as the almond flour into the yolk mixture. Make sure it is well combined, then add ⅓ of the whipped egg whites into the bowl. Lightly fold in being careful to keep as much of the air in the mixture as possible. Repeat two more times only folding in ⅓ of the whites at a time. Once fully incorporated, pour the batter into the lined loaf pan and bake for 40–45 minutes or until the cake has reached an internal temperature of 208F, or a butter knife comes out clean with no raw batter attached to the blade.

Let the cake cool for 15 minutes in the pan then remove and place on wire rack to cool completely to room temperature. Slice the cake into thirds along the length of loaf.

To make the filling:

Place 2 cups of the ground walnuts, the milk and ¾ cup of granulated sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and let cook for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and fold in the remaining 1 cup of chocolate. Stir until well combined and let cool to room temperature.

Layer the cake by placing half of the filling on the first layer and half on the second layer. Top with the last slice of cake and place in the refrigerator for two hours to chill. Remove and trim the cake so it is a rectangle with straight edges. Keep the pieces you trimmed off for snacks.

To make the icing:

In the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, place the softened butter, the powdered sugar, the vanilla, the remaining cup of ground walnuts, the zest of the remaining lemon, and the remaining teaspoon of salt. Whip on high speed until light and fluffy. You’ll have to scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula to make sure it’s evenly combined. Ice the cake and garnish with toasted walnut halves. Best to serve at room temperature.

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