Life & Culture

My grandma’s egg and potato pie is delicious. But is it Jewish?

Giles Coren asks has anyone else ever heard of Rakott Krumpli?


Today, I have a Jewish recipe for you that you will not find anywhere else. No, sirree. Nowhere. It is not to be found in Claudia Roden or Evelyn Rose and certainly nowhere in Delia or Nigella or the Larousse Gastronomique.
It isn’t anywhere. It isn’t even on the internet. And I will bet you anything (unless you are related to my late Grandma Isabel) that you have never even heard of it.

And yet it is a grand and historic dish of towering simplicity but huge, huge subtlety that really ought to have a wider audience.

It is called… Egg and Potato Pie. And it is made from boiled potatoes (sliced), boiled eggs (sliced), butter and salt and nothing else at all. Sure, if you google “egg and potato pie” you will get results.

But they are mostly variations of a dauphinoise (and there’s nothing less Jewish than a dauphin, a spoilt little princeling, pampered to death by his parents until he inherits everyth… oh, actually, scrap that) in which sliced raw potatoes are baked in cream or bouillon, or a classic tortilla in which the sliced boiled potatoes are fried very slowly in raw beaten egg (delicious but very different).

But a dish made by boiling both the eggs and potatoes and then layering them in a deep, buttered, ovenproof dish, potato first, then a layer of eggs, then generous salt and pepper, then a layer of potatoes, then another layer of eggs, generous salt and pepper, then a final layer of potatoes, lots more butter on the top, then into a hot oven for at least 45 minutes until the first layer of potatoes has fried golden in the butter that has run to the bottom and the top layer has crisped to a lovely brown, well, that doesn’t exist at all.

Except it does, because I made it for family supper this evening and you can see the photos.

I got the recipe from my mother in my student days (along with her beef stroganoff and stuffed pimentos), who got it from her mother (like the strog and the stuffed peppers), who brought it, in her head, from old Czechoslovakia, when she crossed occupied (well, partially occupied) Europe, alone, by train, to hook up with my grandfather— who had had to come here and get a job and a flat before he could “send for her” — seeing the swastikas going up in the town squares as she crossed Germany and at one point allowing a young Nazi officer to help her put her suitcase up into the luggage rack (“He voss such a polite young menn, and so hendsome — you vouldn’t believe zey could do such terrible sings”). Which makes it, as far as I am concerned, a Jewish recipe.

I did wonder briefly if it was just an old Hungarian dish.

Yes, she came from Czechoslovakia, but she was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, loved Franz Josef (“he voss so good to ze Jews”), spoke Hungarian as a first language just ahead of Slovak, German and English (“Ve spoke Hungarian at home,” she always said, “German at school and Slovak viz ze zervants”) and by the time she was 80, Czechoslovakia didn’t exist anymore. So I think, culturally, she considered herself Hungarian.

And indeed there does exist a Hungarian pie of eggs and potatoes. I just googled it. It’s called, rather deliciously, Rakott Krumpli, and it is made from boiled and sliced eggs and potatoes “brought together with smoked sausage and cream”.

So, you know. Not Jewish. Perhaps my lovely, clever old Grandma just took the sausage and the cream out (and the paprika and the onion) and koshered it herself. Or maybe her mother did it.

Or her mother before her, sliding back into the long history of cuddly Hungarian Jewish mums making food for their pretty much integrated children that looked like the stuff their friends were eating, but didn’t antagonise Leviticus.

A little subsequent research has revealed to me that a sausage-free version of Rokatt Krumpli, although still baked in cream with onion and paprika, was eaten by Hungarian Jews during the Nine Days — when of course one foregoes meat altogether — so that may be pertinent. Although my mum says Isabel never put cream in hers or called it Rakott Krumpli.

At any rate, it is the most delicious thing in the world. A dish that is much more than the sum of its parts. My mother used to cook it for us quite often, maybe monthly, and there is nothing like the smell of it wafting up through the house when you’re doing your homework.

I can smell it now (the one in the photos), bubbling downstairs while my wife lays the table and my own children finish their homework. It has a baked, earthy, golden smell that sends me back into my childhood and then further back into the old country that I’ve never even visited.

And there is nothing like the sight of it cooking, side on, in a Pyrex dish so that you can see the butter bubbling in the bottom and the alternate layers settling.

And then when it’s left to cool for five or ten minutes so that it sets, and you dig the serving spoon in, crack the golden top and ruffle the tectonic plates, scoop out crispy fried potatoes on the bottom, the steamed buttery potatoes in the middle and the roasted ones on top, the pristine egg slices, all lashed with rivers of hot, salty butter…

A mouthful offers one flavour and a million textures. My favourite thing as a child was the curls of egg white that had browned against the wall of the dish and almost blackened, which had an almost rubbery chew. And, oh, the ethereal blandness of it. The perfect plainness. The heart-breaking honesty.

Cooking it later, for friends, there were endless suggestions for additions. Onions and garlic mostly. But come on, everything tastes of onions and garlic, why not give them a break for once? This is the two great natural roundnesses — eggs and spuds — in perfect harmony. And a vector for butter, butter, butter.

Which reminds me, I should tell you how to make it. I mean, I have already. You could make it now. It is just the ingredients in its name, baked. But I’ll lay it out in some sort of order for form’s sake.

So. For four:

Eight eggs, small to medium. Never large. Give those poor chickens a break.
As many potatoes as you think your four can eat. I do it by imagining them as baked potatoes — two biggish ones each? Ultimately, you need enough for three layers of your chosen dish.

I like Cyprus potatoes because they are firm and nutty but not too waxy and, crucially, they tend to be long. So very quick to peel with a speed peeler and easy to slice into nice discs.

Select a dish. I used to love my mum’s Pyrex one because you could see the bottom layer deep frying in the butter, but I don’t own one sadly, so just use a big orange Le Creuset. Toss in a fat lump of butter and put it in the oven to melt at about 120C.

Peel and boil the spuds until they can be sliced but don’t fall apart. At the same time, boil the eggs (for about 12 minutes) then plunge into iced water to prevent them greying and make for easy, indeed satisfying, nay, positively sexual peeling (little known Marvin Gaye number, that one).

Slice the eggs with an egg slicer. If you haven’t got one, get one. You may have to nip back to the 1970s to find one, but it’s worth it. Nothing is more satisfying, nothing, than pulling the little metal harp down over an egg, nestling in the base, and watching it fall into a little white-and-yellow egg fan.

Slice the potatoes as finely as you can. Whip the dish full of melted butter out of the oven and turn it up to 200C. Spread a third of the potato slices across the base, cover with half the egg slices.

Salt and pepper generously. Layer another third of the potatoes on top. Add many knobs of butter. Then add the remaining slices of egg. Salt and pepper. Then add the final layer of potato slices as neatly as possible. You’re looking for a kind of pangolin effect.

Although do not add real pangolins. This would not be kosher.

More butter on top, scatter of salt, then into the now very hot oven for as long as you fancy. Forty minutes should get the bottom layer nicely crunchy (easy to monitor with a Pyrex of course) and allow the top to brown and the eggs and potatoes to bond properly.

Halfway through, I like to take it out, tip it to one corner and use a turkey basting pipette to suck out hot butter and squirt it over the top for added browning.

When it’s golden brown on top, take it out and leave to stand for ten minutes to consolidate and also not burn anyone’s mouth. Then spoon big portions onto warm plates, trying to maintain the integrity of the layers and keep the crispy layer on top.

Ketchup is not allowed with the first serving although anyone who finishes and wants seconds is allowed ketchup second time around. House rules. Leftovers are delicious cold next morning with mayonnaise.

If you’re some sort of health wuss, feel free to serve with a crisp green salad and a good home-made dressing, but nobody will touch it.

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