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pear and walnut bread

2019 Grateful 36: Burnt offerings

I can’t remember if I was asked or whether I volunteered. Most likely I volunteered. Mainly because I like the lads behind 6:3 Borozó and had planned to attend their wine-tasting anyway. They needed some nutty bread to go with their award-winning asparagus pesto. They’d tried out my cherry and orange bread and my pear and walnut bread before (variations on the traditional banana bread) but this time I planned to also try my take on a traditional French walnut bread recipe where I used dark beer instead of tepid water with strong white flour instead of a white/brown flour mix – mainly because I couldn’t find brown flour and I could find beer.

The experimental batch turned out lovely even if I messed up the temperature settings. My non-regulating oven is quirky at the best of times and after nearly three years, I had thought we’d reached an understanding.

Wednesday evening I set to work. I was down to the last jar of pear preserves (I like to use local ingredients – I’ve even managed to find flour that is milled in the county) and was dredging the last of JFW’s walnuts. The first two pear and walnut bread loaves burned in places I didn’t expect. Usually, if I don’t watch carefully, the bottom gets a bit brown, but I had burn creep up and over the sides. The walnuts on top practically roasted. I was annoyed. So I made two more without the added walnuts on top. And they were worse. There was no way I could give them to anyone. They looked awful.

The next morning, I was booked on the 10 am train to the city. I got up at 6 am to start on the French bread. All went well until I got distracted. I failed to score them (that deep cross-like incision that lets the dough breathe) and I forgot to glaze them. They looked less like loaves of bread and more like smooth stones. Another failure. I was incensed. I ran the full gamut of self-recriminations loaded with expletives and salted with a few tears (I’m not at my best that early in the morning).

Back in the city, I searched three bakeries looking for a nut bread and had to settle for less. And funnily, in comparison, mine didn’t look half bad. I’d brought a loaf of each of the burnt offerings with me and duly delivered them to the lads who weren’t at all phased. They trimmed and sliced and served and the compliments rolled in. Delicious. Fab. Amazing.

All this made me stop and think about how wrapped up I am in external appearances. If it doesn’t look close to perfect then it’s an automatic fail. No matter that it looked a little burnt on the outside – inside it was fresh and tasty and full of homemade goodness. There’s a lesson in that, one I’m grateful to have been reminded of. Appearances can be deceiving. And just as ugly on the outside doesn’t mean ugly on the inside, neither does pretty on the outside mean pretty on the inside. Time (and taste) tells.

Pear and Walnut bread recipe

In one bowl, mix 3 cups of flour, 1 tsp of baking soda, 1 tsp of baking powder, 1 tsp of salt (and an optional half-cup of fine-ground walnuts). In another bowl whisk three eggs with 1 cup of vegetable oil, 2 tsp of vanilla essence and1 cup of sugar until smooth. Then gradually fold the dry mix into this, adding 2 cups of liquidised pears towards the end. Then add a  cup of coarsely chopped walnuts. Mix well. Divide into two rectuangular loaf tins and bake. I can’t help you with the temp or the time as my oven is contrary – I put it is about 8 pm on the dial and check it after 20 mins, turning if the back side seems browner than the front. So maybe 325 F or 165 C for anywhere between 30 to 50 minutes. Keep an eye on it. Be sure to preheat the oven though, as this helps. Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes and then upend onto a rack to completely cool. It freezes well and keeps in a tin for days.

Pear and walnut bread

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010