Sunday, January 8, 2012

Kiffle Kulture: Technique for Making the Perfect Traditional Hungarian Kiffle

(Video of Kiffle Making Process Included at Bottom)

One of the big themes I want to emphasize about Allentown is cultural interaction and growth.  A fundamental qualitiy of American life is inclusiveness of different cultures.  It is with pride that we call our selves "the melting pot" of the world.  Granted, there is always friction at the edges, but, the history of America is the history of cultural inclusion, growth, and opportunity.

The real Flakey Deal

It is possible to watch the interactions of people through the foods that they eat.  We are programmed from birth to appreciate certain familiar flavor palates and foods.  We are often suspicious of a new food or flavor when it is presented to us.  Its part of a natural conservatism, probably with evolutionary roots, meant to protect ourselves from possibly harmful foods.  However, because of it power to prevent us from trying things outside of the familiar, it also has a social tendency to create barriers between different peoples--to form in groups and out groups.

As an example, think of the countless representations in film of someone (say a businessman) going to a new culture and eating its local foods in front of the group of local people.  The apprehension and tittering are all about the interaction of an outsider with a group of people tightly connected through the foods that they eat.  The businessman shows that he is willing to break through the apprehension of the cultural clash by engaging with an act fundmental to members of a another culture.

I think that there is particular power in food to break down these cultural boundaries for two reasons.  The first is because food culture is so deeply ingrained within us.  Our flavor palates are formed since the time of birth.  Even before real consciousness, our minds are being stimulated with certain textures, flavors, and smells.  The strength of the neural pathways these form must be of immense strength.  Just consider, for instance, the often physical and primal reaction people can have to food taboos.  Thus, when one chooses to overcome that barrier, they are showing a real commitment to accepting another culture.  The second reason has to do with the universality of the act of eating.  Like rational thought, aesthetics, and morality, every human, universally, must engage with food.  We all have similar fundamental taste sensations, like sweetness, sourness, heat, and bitter.  Therefore, like an artwork of another culture, we are often able to see a universality of meaning in the things we eat.

That is to say, we can appreciate the other by reckoning that the experience they have when eating their own food is similar both to what i) I enjoy when eating their food, and ii) more generally that what their culture hopes to achieve in preparing their own dishes is also what my culture hopes to achieve in preparing its own dishes.  A lot of cultural distance can be covered with a fork.  And, incidentally, it might be one of the reasons that America has such an inclusive food palate.  Regional American specialties, and even international specialties, predominate in restaurants over the the regional food of one place anymore.  Though these restaurants may normalize the dishes to an American palate, we choose to draw from a tremendous number of different cultural influences in our food.

Kiffle's all in a row before baking.

And, so, this brings me to the humble kiffle.  Anymore, the kiffle is ubiquitous around homes in the Lehigh Valley and can even be found in local supermarkets depending on the time of year.  However, the kiffle is not traditional to the Pa. Dutch nor was it traditional to the Palatine on the Rhine region of Germany from which the Pa. Dutch emigrated.  In fact, the kiffle's roots are much further East in the Austro-Hungarian empire.  It was brought to the Lehigh Valley by eastern-European and Slavic immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century.

I have to feel that for the traditional Pa. Dutch, this influx of Eastern European immigrants would have been culturally difficult.  Not only were the languages spoken entirely dissimilar to Latinate and Germanic families, but, the religions that the new immigrants practiced was also markedly different.  While the Pa. Dutch favored modest rectangular churches in the Lutheran tradition, the new Eastern Orthodox churches were baroque, heavily adorned, full of incense, and topped by strange onion shaped domes.

It was into this culture that my paternal grandmother immigrated to from Hungary after the first world war.  She learned kiffle making from her grandmother and recorded the recipe on a simple 3x5 card:

The Orginal Recipie

Later, my grandmother, Helen, would marry my grandfather, Peter, whose family was of Russian decent and lived in Carbon County.  Together, they had my Father who married my mother who was of German and English descent.  Thus, within one generation, people in the two cultures were mingling enough to marry and have children.  That's really the promise and pride of the America experiment right there.  And, at the heart of it is food breaking down barriers.  My mom, when she asks after my paternal grandmother, always asks if she is still making kiffles.  They really are that good and that powerful.

I don't know too much about the food-history of the kiffle.  I can't even find an etymology of the word in Hungarian, English, or German.  They are a simple pastry made from flour, eggs, butter, and cream cheese.  Unfortunately, they have to be homemade if you want top quality.  Kiffles bought from the store taste flat and dull to me.  (They are also quite expensive and not worth the money).  Additionally, I am told that there is only one commercial baker in the Lehigh Valley who supplies all other retail markets so it is unlikely that quality in the retail kiffle market is going to rise anytime soon.

That said, a properly made kiffle is an incredibly light, flakey and buttery treat, with a slight hint of sour around the sides of the tongue from the cream cheese and a mild sweetness from the apricot or other filling.  If you have never had a real one and enjoy baking, it is worth the effort.  And it is a good reminder that even in the heart of Pa. Dutch country, cultural interactions happen and benefit everyone.  Which might also be a good reminder to get downtown and try a few of the Caribbean restaurants that are now open too!

Austro-Hungarian Kiffles

6 oz Cream Cheese
2 egg yolks
2 sticks salted butter (1/2 lb)
2 cups all-purpose or pastry flour
Pastry Filling (available from a bakery supply company or homemade)

1.  Two hours before work is to begin, remove the cream cheese, eggs, and butter from the refrigerator.  Allow the ingredients to come to room temperature.

Allow to come to room temp.

2.  If possible, employ your Austro-Hungarian grandmother.  She will probably work for kiffles.

3.  Cream together the egg yolks, cream cheese, and butter until smooth.

Cream baby cream. . .
4.  Slowly, about a 1/4 cup at a time, add the flour.  Start the process stiring gently with a spoon, however, the dough may become too dense and if it does, knead the flour in gently with the hands.  Do not over work the dough.

5.  The dough is ready when it no longer sticks to the hands.  Once this point is reached, pull off about three-quarters of an ounce of dough and roll it in the hands to form a ball.  Place this ball in a baking dish that has been covered with a light sprinkling of table sugar.

Ummm, dough balls...

6.  Cover the baking dish with a piece of parchment paper.  Then, place the covered dish in the refrigerator for at least two hours to rest and chill.

7.  After the dough balls have rested, remove them, several at a time from the refrigerator.  It is important for the rolling process that they remain chilled.  Place the balls, one at a time on a lightly sugared counter top.  The ball is now rolled out into a disk.  To do so, the rolling pin is placed on the ball and pushed vertically once.  The oval disk is then turned 90 degrees and a second push is made in a direction perpendicular to the first push (see video).  This creates a thin dough disk about an 1/8 of an inch thick.  It takes a little practice to get right.

8.  The disk, while still cool, is then filled with about a teaspoon of pastry filling.  The filling should be spread on the disk in a thin layer, leaving about a centimeter around the edge of the disk without filling.  (See video).

Notice the Space along the Edge without Filling

9.  The kiffle is then rolled into shape.  Start from one end and begin to roll.  However, as you are rolling also gently pull outward in the direction perpendicular to the roll to create the ovoid shape.  (See video).

10.  Place the kiffles seam side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Bake in a 350 degree over for about 20 minutes (this time is approximate and can vary).  Start the kiffles in the middle position in the oven.  Then, once the bottom has browned, move the sheet to the top rack to slightly brown the tops.  (The kiffles will darken slightly even after removed from the oven).

11.  Remove to a counter lined with parchment.

12.  Enjoy this Hungarian treat.

Video of Kiffle Baking


  1. Hi John,
    Yes I will link this recipe. I can just remember them as a real treat fom my Grandmother. Thanks.

  2. First, nice pictures! What type of Camera do you use?

    Second, I've been told by my Hungarian family that a "Kiffle" is indeed a unique food to PA that resulted from the mixing of Hungarian and PA Dutch cultures. In Hungary, the pastry was a "Kifli" which was a crescent-shaped cookie that was usually made with sour cream or cream cheese and most frequently had walnuts inside.

    When I looked up pictures of "Kifli" I found some that looked like what I would call a Kiffle, and some that looked like what I would call a Ruggelah, which is a traditional jewish cookie that probably originated also in the austro-hungarian empire. Now that I think of it, a ruggelah is virtually the same thing as a kiffle except with a slightly different shape and usually a slightly chewier texture - its a cookie made with sour cream or cream cheese in the dough and filled with nuts, poppies, or fruit preserves.

    I think if you were looking for etymology, you would look to kipferl, which is German / Austrian and describes a sweet croissant-style roll.

    Welcome to the LV Blogosphere. I wish you lots of luck and many readers in your endeavor.

    1. The picture and video were taken with an Olympus Ep-1 with 17 mm pancake lens. Thanks for asking! And, i totally recommend the Olympus kit, it take professional photos and still easily fits in a pocket. Also thanks for your comment--great info!

  3. viel Spass und Glueck mit deinem Blog

    was essen Eishockey und Fussballspieler gern?


  4. For the filling, our family has been using Solo canned fillings for generations - usually prune, apricot and cherry for kifli. They also have poppy seed and almond paste, you you can knock out some lekvar or nut rolls with the same dough!

    You can find Solo in the bakery aisle of most large supermarkets (like Shop-Rite.)

  5. I am so happy to find this recipe! I used to make these when I was little with my Gram who in turn learned it from hers. I live in Johnstown, Pa and having them at Christmastime was always a very big deal to me because it was something we'd do together. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Thank you for this wonderful blog. I grew up in Harmony, NJ, and my mother makes these every year from a recipe from my Dad's Hungarian mother and grandmothers. I never knew how to spell the word until I stumbled upon them in a cookie cook book. My mom's recipe say Keeflees at the top, which is how it sounds. Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Glad that the blog helped you out! Keep baking :)

  7. I love all this Kiffle talk! I am a dyed in the wool SLOVAK and my great grandmother taught me how to make these - 4-1-1 (INFORMATION) is the BEST and easiest recipe - 4 cups flour, 1 pound butter, 1 pound cream cheese - no matter what your filling is - no need for eggs and/or sour cream. I DO NOT chill the dough - I mix it up roll it out, fill it, shape it, roll it in granulated Baker's sugar, and bake!

    1. Thats so funny! My slovak ancestors taught me the opposite, just the three ingredients but instead of cream cheese, we always use sour cream!Everything else about what you said is pretty much the same except we sprinkle ours with powdered sugar after pulling them out of the oven. My grandparents lived in Ohio from the time they came off the boat.This recipe makes a TON of kiffles as well, we always run out of filling before we run out of dough. lol :D

  8. I have been looking at kiffles recipes to see if it would help me execute my moms recipe. (Mom was not so good with giving measurements, as most recipes handed down call for a big scoop of so and so or " add some...). A way I am a bit surprised most recipes I am finding call for butter. Mom was born and raised in Carbon County from a Hungarian mother and PA Dutch father. Her kiffles were amazing. No eggs, no butter. Just Oleo (you can google), cream cheese and flour. Since you can't purchase Oleo anymore, I am going to try a combo of crisco and margarine. Hope they turn out half as good as moms used to.

    1. im glad this helped you out. I should try to repost the photos tomorrow. try it with margarine if you like, thought the texture of these all butter ones is really superb. you can see the flakiness in the cross section in the video. good luck!

  9. Coming from nj to allentown for me meant abandoning the hungarian and polish food Igrew up eating. It seems all german and pa dutch here. I was so happy to see "kiffles" everywhere though. Christmas wouldn't be christmas without my hungarian-slovak gypsy family's kiepfel recipe. We make them slightly different, but the love and togetherness of these cookies is the same in every culture :)