Hungarian Ham Casserole has that kind of association in our family. It usually appears after a holiday, when there might be an abundance of leftover ham. It’s a simple, layered casserole and a hearty winter dish – both tangy and savory – composed with potatoes, sliced cooked eggs, ham and sour cream. A casual mention brings a smile, and almost guarantees a craving.
My mom’s father emigrated from Hungary, so there were influences of Hungarian cuisine in the food we ate. The Hungarian Ham Casserole was something my mother remembers growing up. She explains:
“Aunt Rose (my Godmother) mad this casserole, and my Mother made it. I always loved it. Red or Yukon Gold potatoes work well – but any potato will do. If I don’t have bacon, I dot with butter – but the bacon adds flavor. I have always used no seasonings, but you might want to sprinkle some seasonings between layers. This is good for using leftover ham, but a cut up ham steak works, too.”
In recent years, my brother Jim made this recipe for a New Year’s Eve dinner, and we talked about our memories of the dish, but I never really knew what made it Hungarian beyond its inevitable journey through Ellis Island. The recent Christmas dinner left me with a plethora of ham, so I decide to make the dish and a little online culinary sleuthing adds some new elements to the story of this recipe. I find numerous references for a Hungarian recipe called Rakott Krumpli – a layered, meatless potato casserole. Wikibooks suggests the recipe could have originated from a traditional Jewish meal, eaten during the "nine days.” These are the first nine days of the month of Av, when orthodox Jews refrain from eating meat, in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple.
The reference notes that ham and sour cream would not have been eaten by Jews because the ingredients are not kosher. As with so many recipes, variations are inevitable over generations, and many of the versions – also called Rakott Krumpli – now found online do contain sour cream and ham. Most are almost identical to the recipe below which my mother transcribed for me, although some omit the ham for a final dish that is more like a gratin, add sautéed onion or use sausage in place of ham.
For me, the Hungarian Ham Casserole evokes rustic peasant cooking, as leftover ham, as well as potatoes, eggs and sour cream would have likely been prevalent ingredients in a European farmhouse.