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Hungarian Cheese Biscuits (Pogácsa): A delicious break from sugary treats

Hungarian Cheese Biscuits (Pogácsa): A delicious break from sugary treats

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Take a break from baking sugary treats, and make these cheesy Hungarian pogácsa (pronounced po-GA-tcha). They’ll remind you of our classic American biscuits in shape, but they’re made with yeast instead of baking powder or baking soda. And eggs and sour cream replace the buttermilk.

The Hungarian word for biscuit, roughly translated, is pogácsa, and there are two basic types: salty and sweet. But within each category huge variations exist. A few years ago I got to bake with a real live Hungarian baker in my home kitchen, and she taught me how to make these marvelous tidbits — great to nibble on anytime and to serve with drinks.

I met Marika Pal, my new Hungarian friend, one summer when she came to visit her son, Robert and his wife, Judit, in Missoula. Marika baked with me for a couple of days, and we had a marvelous time. She doesn’t speak English, so Judit acted as our interpreter.

Since so much of baking is visual and tactile, we really didn’t need many words to understand each other. All of Marika’s measurements are metric, and she weighs all her dry ingredients. The metric system is sensible and easy so long as you own a kitchen scale. For convenience, I’ve converted her weights and measures to ounces and cups.

This recipe makes a large yield, a few dozen pogácsa. You could easily cut quantities in half, but I suggest making the full recipe and freezing leftover biscuits to reheat whenever an unexpected hunger for them strikes. Happy baking!

Simple Cheese Pogácsa

Makes 3 to 4 dozen small biscuits

These scrumptious biscuits are crispy on the outside and tender inside. Even though the dough is made with yeast, you don’t let the biscuits rise before baking. The rise happens in the oven.

Marika had me mix the dough in my 5-quart KitchenAid mixer with the flat beater. You can easily make the dough by hand in a large mixing bowl. To do that, cut the butter into the flour with a pastry blender or use frozen butter and shred it through the coarse holes of a box grater. Mix in everything else with a wooden spoon.

After rolling the dough — no thinner than 1/2-inch — Marika scores it in a cross-hatch pattern and brushes it with egg yolk. No matter what kind of pogácsa one is making, the scoring pattern is traditional.

For the cheese, Marika chose Swiss Gruyère, but you can use any grating cheese you like. Sharp cheddar is excellent.

After brushing the entire surface of the dough with the yolk, Marika grates a bit more cheese on top and stamps out rounds of dough using a 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-inch cutter. She reshapes each biscuit between the cupped palms of her hands to smooth the sides and places the biscuits fairly close together on a baking sheet lined with cooking parchment. And that’s it!

Dough

1/2 cup whole milk, heated to 110-115 degrees F.

1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 20 ounces (dip dry measure into flour container, fill to overflowing, and sweep off excess with a straightedge to level)

1 tablespoon table salt

8 ounces (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces or frozen and shredded

5 ounces finely shredded Gruyère or other grating cheese

2 large eggs, lightly beaten with a fork

1/2 to 1 cup sour cream

Topping

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon water

2 to 3 ounces finely grated Gruyère or other cheese

1. To heat the milk, I measure it into a 1-cup heatproof glass measure with pouring spout and microwave it for about 20 seconds. The milk should feel nicely warm to a fingertip. Not hot, or you’ll kill the yeast! Sprinkle in the yeast and sugar, give a quick stir, and let stand until the liquid rises and is bubbly, about 10 minutes.

2. Put the flour and salt into the large bowl of a stand mixer and stir to combine. Attach the flat beater. If using cold butter, add the pieces and mix on low speed for about 3 minutes until the butter is in pea-sized bits. If using frozen shredded butter, just mix it in on low speed for about 1 minute.

3. Add the 5 ounces of cheese, the eggs, softened yeast, and 1/2 cup sour cream. Mix on low speed with the flat beater until the dough masses on the blade. If the dough seems dry, add a bit more sour cream. Beat on medium speed 1 minute. The dough should be nice and smooth and non-sticky. If making the dough by hand, stir everything together with a wooden spoon until the dough gathers into a coherent mass. Add more sour cream if the dough seems too dry.

4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. If you’ve made it by hand, knead briefly to make sure it is nice and smooth and non-sticky. If made with the mixer, just coat it lightly with the flour.

5. Line a large baking sheet (17 x 12 inches) with cooking parchment. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position but do not turn the oven on.

6. Roll the dough 1/2-inch-thick (no thinner!) on the lightly floured surface. An 11- to 12-inch diameter circle will give you the right thickness. Make a shallow cross-hatched pattern, about 1/2-inch, with a sharp knife all over the dough surface. Combine the egg yolk and water in a small bowl, and brush all over the rolled dough. Sprinkle the cheese on top and press it very gently to stick to the yolk.

7. With a floured cutter, stamp out rounds with a 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-inch diameter. If the biscuits stick to the cutter, nudge them loose with the tip of a paring knife. If you wish, cup the palms of your hands around each biscuit to smooth the sides. Gather the leftover dough and reshape into a ball. Roll out and cut our circles as before. I don’t bother glazing them with egg yolk or topping with cheese.

5. Arrange the biscuits in rows about 1/2-inch apart. Put the pan in the oven and turn the oven on to 400 degrees F. Bake about 25 minutes, until the pogácsa are nicely browned on their tops and bottoms. Cool completely and store airtight.

6. Pogácsa may also be frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw and reheat in a moderate oven to refresh them.

Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog, www.thebakingwizard.com, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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