Honey cake, a springy loaf called lekach in Yiddish and traditionally served at Rosh Hashana, is not my favorite holiday dessert. So I was thrilled when, in the 1990s, Charles Fenyvesi, a colleague of mine at The Washington Post, shared a tantalizing family recipe for a Hungarian honey cake with thin, biscuit-like gingerbread layers.
Essentially, it’s an icebox cake with a gingerbread crust. Layered with a buttercream based on Cream of Wheat (yes, Cream of Wheat) and either apricot or sour cherry jam, it must sit to soften for a day.
But the recipe didn’t quite work as I’d hoped. (“The torte is more like a stack of thick graham crackers and the filling a runny soupy mess,” read one comment on Epicurious, where it was published, in addition to one of my cookbooks.)
Recently, I tried a better version of this cake, making it for Steven Fenves, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor whose family recipes had been preserved and translated.
At age 13, Mr. Fenves was taken from his home in Hungarian-occupied Subotica, in what is now Serbia, and sent to Auschwitz, where he was separated from his family. As locals looted the Fenveses’ house, Maris, the family cook, grabbed a red-clothed book of handwritten recipes.
Mr. Fenves’s mother and grandmother died at Auschwitz, and his father, so weakened by the experience in the camps, died shortly after they were released in 1945. The two children returned to Subotica, where Maris cared for them; she returned the slim handwritten cookbook 16 years later, when they had settled in Chicago with relatives.
A year or so ago, Alon Shaya, the chef of Saba in New Orleans, shared the contents of the book with me. Among them was a minimalist recipe for mézeskalács from Mr. Fenves’s grandmother: just a paragraph for the gingerbready dough with a few measurements in dekagrams and vague instructions describing thin layers of cake.
Cakes with thin layers, called flodni in Hungarian or fluden in Yiddish, have long been trademarks of Hungarian and Hungarian Jewish baking. András Koerner, author of “Jewish Cuisine in Hungary,” suggests that they were invented in the second half of the 19th century, an evolution of a medieval filled pastry. The Cream of Wheat filling — a far more recent addition — is meant to mimic a European gruel called griess, made with semolina or any hard wheat flour.
Last spring, when Mr. Shaya was looking for a space to prepare some of Mr. Fenves’s dishes for supporters of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I agreed to hold the event at my home. For two days, Mr. Shaya’s chefs took over my kitchen, preparing beef and vegetable goulash with noodles, crisp semolina sticks, sweet-and-sour cabbage, walnut cream cake, recipes reconstructed from a family’s distant past. As the almost 100 guests, including Mr. Fenves and his family, tasted the dishes at a buffet in my dining room, I waited for the right moment to present him with a version of his grandmother’s cake, which I layered with jam and cream fillings.
Bringing out a slice, I watched as Mr. Fenves lifted his fork and tasted. He took another bite. A faint glimmer of memory took hold in his eyes.
“All of a sudden, I remembered our dinner table,” he told me later. “Of my sister quibbling about something, my father who was a newspaper publisher coming straight out of his office and telling us about world events, even at my very young age.”
As Mr. Fenves dipped his fork into the rich cake again and again, he asked politely if he could take the rest of the cake home.
Recipe: Hungarian Honey Cake