Episode #3

Nóra

Stephanie Andrews

Writer

Júlia Róbert

Story Concsultant

Hajnalka Módis

Story & Concept

  40 minute read

Click here if you haven’t read the first episodes of this Budapest Series yet.

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“What color socks do you wear?”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s just a standard question.” Nóra had her pen at the ready, the tip already kissing the delicate pages of her notepad. The couple looked at each other, their hands intertwined. The woman stifled a laugh.

“Black, usually.” The woman’s voice rose at the end of her statement as if she were asking the question rather than answering it. They studied Nóra while she wrote. Silence.

She looked up at the young man. She couldn’t tell if it was his stark black hair or the line of questioning that made his skin look so pallid.

“And you?”

“Navy blue.” He lifted his black pant leg and looked down at his socks. “Oh. White, I guess.” He shrugged.

So not the stylish type, huh? Nóra scribbled in her notepad like a scientist in a lab, her poker face hidden behind a wild mane of auburn curls.

“Your favorite noun?” Everyone sat pondering. Forehead lines formed across the woman’s face.

“Home.” She broke the silence, shooting puppy-dog eyes to the man whose fingers were interlaced in hers. A slight flush formed on her cheeks.

“Audacity.” He sat up in his chair looking a bit redeemed from the last question.

Okay, so he’s clever. Clever is nice. I’d like to find someone one day who’s clever. More scribbling.

“Dogs or cats?”

“Dogs!” They said in unison. They both looked at each other and laughed.

I have to agree with them.

“What is your favorite season?” The couple shifted in their chairs, more at ease now. This was an easy question.

“Fall. I love the changing leaves. Oh, Gellért Hill is always so beautiful this time of year.” She proclaimed, her one hand still nestled within his but her other clutching her heart.

“I like the spring. It reminds me that the warm weather is coming.” Not exactly a budding romantic. But underneath it he seems thoughtful and kind. Oh, but those clunky white socks. The socks have to go.

When Nóra finished jotting down the last of her notes she looked at the couple, both of them looking like they had undergone some sort of covert interrogation.

Cakematching was what some of the young couples had nicknamed it. In the beginning, this line of questioning was just a fun way for Nóra to get to know each couple that walked through her doors. Once she was allowed into the little eccentricities that made them tick only then, as if by some delicious sorcery, she was able to conjure up the perfect concoction of flavors and sweetness. Rumors started going around the city that the couples that equally loved their cakes were destined for one another. If a couple didn’t like the cake…well, you get the gist.

Of course, Nóra didn’t believe there was any truth to it, but if an incompatibility when it came to sweets meant an incompatibility with other things then perhaps it was good to discover the differences up front. A person’s hatred for ginger could later lead to hatred for dogs or living in the city or any of the other things that the other half might love.

She put down her paper and pen. “Okay, so I know this was a bit of an unorthodox approach to wedding cakes but I like to get to really know the couples that I work with. Then everything else seems to fall into place. I’ll have a trial cake for you to try in about three days. We can schedule a time for you to come back in and do a tasting. If you’re satisfied then we’ll deal with the payment and then settle on the day…. Oh, when is the wedding?”

“September 1st.” She said as she squeezed his hand. “It’s a Saturday.” They both smiled.

“Perfect. So, what time works best for your tasting on Thursday?”

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She turned out the lights in the café and locked the door behind her. Summertime meant that she could still enjoy a little sunlight before the day was cloaked in darkness. It was also her habit to walk home each evening, soaking up the last bit of the beautiful weather. Soon they would be wearing coats and drinking mulled wine, the saccharine smell of chimney cakes wafting from the street corners.

It didn’t matter what time of day Nóra ventured out into her neighborhood, she always felt content exactly where she was, walking along the peaceful streets of Újlipótváros never too far from the ever-flowing Danube. All around her the city whispered secrets of its past.

At first glimpse the 13th district looked like any tree-lined neighborhood bespeckled with parks, cafés and antique shops, but it held so many memories. What looked like normal Bauhaus apartment buildings – home to families, couples and working professionals – were once designated yellow-star houses; the Star of David plastered onto each building. Jews were forced to evacuate their homes and move into these nearly 2,000 buildings scattered throughout thirteen districts of the city.

It’s true that Nóra had no desire to move from her cozy neighborhood that offered the perfect blend of city excitement with the tranquility and comfort of a family-friendly neighborhood. She loved to hear the lively discussions brewing from outdoor cafés, and to window shop and daydream outside the used bookstores and lavish antique shops. She recognized most of the faces that she passed. She had watched many of these people go from singles to couples to families over the years, the sound of flirtatious giggles reserved only for those in the beginnings of a budding romance replaced with giggles of young children pedaling Flintstone-like on mini Radio Flyers as their parents traipsed along not far behind. She watched people’s lives blossom and grow here, and she had no desire to ever leave.

She opened the door to her flat, the only sound was an oscillating fan purring from her bedroom. She hung her keys on the hook, dropped her purse on the floor and kicked off her shoes. The sun was setting and the room offered up a warm crimson glow. She could hear the beginning rumbles of protest from her deprived stomach.

Once dinner had been prepared and the dishes had been washed, thoughts that she could always suppress throughout the day crept up on her at night. I wish I had someone to share my days with. It was a simple thought with heavy connotations.

She looked out her window, where, through the trees, she could see a couple making dinner in the flat across the alley. He was bouncing an infant in his arms as the young woman stirred a simmering pot, turning around briefly to playfully tug the baby’s socked feet. It playfully tugged at her heart. Maybe one day someone will be looking in on my happy family watching us in the kitchen. After all, she did know some pretty amazing recipes and kids seemed to like desserts as far as she could tell.

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The fork sliced into the piece of cake with little resistance as the first bites were taken. Nóra sat back and waited. Tick, tick, tick.

“Oh my god. This is it! This is the cake.” She said between bites, nudging her fiancé. He remained silent but kept on eating. “This is amazing. Truly incredible.” She kept praising the cake between dainty forkfuls, chattering away, out of nervousness or excitement Nóra couldn’t quite tell. “I’ve never had anything like it.”

“I have.” He said. He looked up and Nóra could see that his eyes were filled with tears.

“You’ve had something like this before, my love?” He put his fork down. “My mother. She always smelled like rosewater. It reminds me of her. She would even bake with it sometimes. I haven’t had rosewater since…” He picked up his fork and continued eating. She placed a hand on his shoulder, her ring catching the light.

“His mother passed away two years ago. Cancer. “ She said to Nóra. “We were hoping she would be around to see our wedding day.”

“In a way she is still here.” He pointed at the cake then looked at Nóra. “This is more than just a cake. This is a memory. This is a piece of my life.” The woman kissed her fiancé’s cheek, running her fingers through his hair.

“I’m so glad that you like it, and thank you for entrusting me with your special day.” Nóra stood up and smoothed the wrinkles in her apron. “Now, I’ll give you two a moment to yourselves. When you want to discuss logistics just let me know, I’ll be in the back. Please, relax and enjoy.”

It was hard for Nóra not to tear up as she headed to the kitchen. When the couple had first appeared in her café, the girl was a quick read – friendly, outgoing and head-over-heels in love; however, you had to peel away the layers to figure out what was at his core. Apparently it was rosewater.

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Nóra was sculpting the last marzipan rose when the bell of the door chimed and the café’s silence was replaced with the methodic tapping of boots against linoleum. A cloud of flour burst in the air as she wiped her hands on her apron and tidied her unruly curls on top of her head.  She wiped the small smudge of flour from her freckled nose. The last rose would just have to wait.

A young woman peeked her head out from behind the counter eyeing the rows of pastries. Maybe it was the hand-tailored cut of her coat, the sound of high-quality heels as they glided across the floor, or the way she had slicked her hair back with nary a stray hair that told Nóra that this woman was a person of authority, perhaps a lawyer or high-powered executive; however, the woman’s eyes were a touch bloodshot and puffy. She might have assumed it was another night burning the midnight oil but something behind her eyes said that she might also have been crying. Suddenly hints of hazelnut and cocoa popped into her mind.

“Hello. How are you?” The woman didn’t respond, staring at the cakes unblinking.

“It seems like you could use a little sugar to brighten the day.” At that the woman smiled, the tension in her shoulders fell.

“Yes, is it obvious?” The woman snickered, her bloodshot eyes meeting Nóra’s.

“Maybe just a bit. We could all use a little sugar-induced happiness every once in a while.”

“Oh, I could most certainly use kilos of happiness right now.” Yes, most definitely hazelnut, she thought.

“Well, I recommend the hazelnut torte. It’s lightly dusted with dark cocoa powder and it has a thin graham cracker crust.”

“That sounds amazing. Also an espresso.” She stopped herself. “Wait, make that a decaf.”

“Coming right up.” The woman took a seat and immediately pulled out a stack of papers so high that it took everything for Nóra not to giggle at the absurdity. The young woman rubbed her weary eyes in protest and began tackling the mound.

Nóra handled the cake like a piece of fine jewelry, making sure not to smudge or defame it. The woman barely looked up from her work, muttering a thank you to the air as the plate was placed on the table. The café was now back to a hushed whisper, the feeling of tension in the air only broken by the rustling of papers like the rapid fluttering of bird’s wings. She went back into the kitchen to finish sculpting the rose.

“I can’t believe it!” The woman shouted loud enough to startle Nóra, denting one of the rose petals she had just finished shaping. Nóra wandered out of the kitchen to find the woman sitting back in her chair just staring at the pile of papers strewn about the table. The cake was completely demolished but the espresso sat untouched.

“Is everything okay?” Nóra said with hesitation. Nóra’s voice brought the woman out of her trance.

“Oh. Yes. It’s more than okay.” At the sight of Nóra—a deer in headlights—she softened. “Yes, everything is quite alright. I’m sorry. I have a case that I’ve been trying for months now. I’ve pored over all these papers time and time again to find the one thing I need to win this case. I was starting to think it didn’t exist. But just now I found it.” She looked up at Nóra. “I think I’m still in shock.” She laughed.

“That’s wonderful news!” Nóra clapped her hands together.

“It’s the cake.”

“What?”

“It’s the cake! It must be magic.” They stood in silence for a few moments, the ticking clock over the counter keeping a steady beat. The woman broke the silence. “I’m joking.” She rubbed her tired eyes. “It’s just that I swear I’ve been reading and rereading these documents so much my eyes could bleed. I just happened to drop a piece of the cake on one of the papers, exactly on the information I had been looking for, for months. I just can’t believe it.”

Nóra smiled at her. “Well, I don’t know any problems in the world that a little chocolate or even hazelnut, for that matter, can’t fix.”

The woman got up from her chair, strategizing how to place her papers back in her bag the same way they came out. “It’s quite extraordinary…this cake. I’ve never tasted anything so decadent but still so light. It instantly reminded me of being at home with family around the holidays. I don’t know why. Either way it distracted me into making a mess of my papers and finding exactly what was under my nose the whole time.” The woman threw her coat around her, her pristine hair now just a little disheveled. She did nothing to fix it, just waltzed the empty plate and untouched espresso over to Nóra.

“I guess I really didn’t need that espresso after all.” She looked outside. The sun was radiating through the café, and in the distance robins were flirting with each other. “Perhaps I’ll treat myself to a little walk through the park. It’s a beautiful day.”

“That sounds lovely.”

“But I might just need to take another piece of cake with me. Just in case things get rough again.” She winked at Nóra. “Thanks for the magical cake…”

“Nóra.” A slight blush danced across her freckles.

“Nóra. It’s very nice to meet you. I’m Barbara.”

“Well, come back anytime, Barbara. Just don’t expect my cakes to solve all of your cases.” Barbara smiled behind her as the door chimed her exit.

She watched as the renewed woman greeted the day like a man just released from prison. The café was quiet once more, the typical mid-morning lull. It was time to get back to that cake.

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“What would you rather deal with: wet socks or a dry mouth?” it was always the first question that caught the couples off guard and it never ceased to give Nóra some morbid pleasure.

“Umm…” they both looked at each other as if to say, Is there really a proper answer? “Neither sounds good.” A nervous laugh escaped the young man as he shook his blonde hair from his eyes. Nóra felt the ground shake around her and she soon discovered that the source of the tremors: from the boy’s restless legs. His amber eyes darted from Nóra to the table and back to the young woman sitting next to him. This line of questioning didn’t faze her one bit. After all, it wasn’t her first time coming to Nóra’s shop for a customized couples cake. Unfortunately her last “cakematch” had been a flop but she didn’t let it unravel her. She exuded all of the confidence of a panther hunting its prey – her raven hair glistening in the sun’s rays – every move of hers instinctual.

But behind her eyes Nóra could see that there was a longing. She’s hoping this is the one. In this moment Nóra felt a bit like a fortune teller or tarot reader. She wanted to tell them not to bank on this or read too much into it, to follow their hearts instead; after all, this was only in good fun. All’s fair in love and cakematching, I guess, Nóra said to herself.

“Dry mouth. No doubt.” She said, not batting an eye. The blonde boy looked up at Nóra with furrowed brows and she wondered if he was hoping she would give him the “answer”. There’s no cheating in my café. That’s not how we do it. He looked at the ground.

“I guess…wet socks?”

“Really?” The girl looked at him wide-eyed. “That sounds terrible to walk around with wet socks all the time.”

“She didn’t say we had to walk around like that all the time,” he countered, his knee still jiggling. “Plus, you can remove socks.” The girl sat there for a moment. The jiggling sped up. Then she giggled and grabbed his arm. “Oh, you’re so clever.” She snuggled next to his shoulder and the floor around them stopped shaking.

“Rain or snow?” Nóra asked.

“Snow!” They blurted out in unison. The girl smiled and grabbed his arm even tighter. He straightened.

“Would you rather be too cold or too hot?”

“Too hot,” she said.

“Too cold.” Her eyes searched his and then Nóra’s. They are both hoping I’ll give something away. I don’t think they realize I invented this game. I give nothing away.

“Would you rather be a clown or a lion tamer?”

“Clown.” the blonde boy said.

“Lion tamer.” She squeezed his hand. He smiled at her and it was something in his gaze that proved that she was already a tamer of sorts.

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Perhaps it was the look in the girl’s eyes as she said lion tamer that sparked in Nóra the desire to mix cayenne pepper and peanut butter. The young woman added the spice but he added the substance. It sounded crazy but just crazy enough to work.

She started on the cake as soon as the couple left, stopping to help customers as they came in. Soon the café was a deluge of chatter from families and couples enjoying an afternoon treat.

She had just served up cakematch cakes to a young couple that had come in for a consultation a week prior. During the consultation it was the young woman who had been the nervous one while he exuded all the confidence in the world. Now it seemed that they were both a bit sheepish as they cut into their individual cakes like they were defusing a bomb. They watched one another as they lifted the first morsel to their lips. Nóra didn’t know why but her heart was racing. There’s no truth to this, Nóra. Give it a rest. And yet part of her had hoped that something as simple as a cake could bring two people together.

“Ohh!” The young woman clapped her hands together. “This cake is amazing. I adore lavender and honey.”

“Oh yes,” he said with a mouthful. “….me too.” He avoided her glance, chewing the same mouthful of cake as she attacked hers, leaving a mess of icing in her wake. She looked up at him. He was still chewing. He looked at her and stopped.

“You don’t like it.”  She said, sitting back in her chair. She folded her arms. His shoulders tensed.

“Oh no…it’s great. Lavender. YUM.” Her doe eyes turn to suspicious slits.

“You don’t like our cake.”

“That’s not true. I do. See.” He dug his fork into the cake and shoved a generous helping into his mouth. Unfortunately, at that moment, he flinched.

“See. You hate it. You hate our cake. I knew it.” She threw down her napkin.

“Look. Let’s not make a big deal about this. It’s just a cake.” He said pleading with her while desperately trying to chew the hunk of cake he had shoveled into his mouth. It was clear he was regretting the decision.

“Just a cake? It’s more than a cake and you know it! I can’t believe this. Doesn’t anyone in this world love lavender and honey?” She shouted it throughout the café. People were staring now but no one dare raise a hand in agreement. It was rare for things to escalate but every once in a while there was a café drama. Some patrons enjoyed it a little too much, often clapping at the end as if it were a performance. Nóra felt badly for the young man as he continued to eat a cake that was clearly not meant for him.

“I do like it!”

“No you don’t. You hate the cake. Just say it. You hate our cake.”

“Fine. I don’t like lavender. I feel like I’m eating flowers. Okay, are you happy now?”

“Happy? Am I happy?!” Oh no. Nóra put her head in her hands. “My boyfriend thinks my cake tastes like flowers and I’m supposed to be happy?” Everyone was watching them now like they were a live soap opera. Then the unexpected happened. She grabbed his cake and began eating it. “It just so happens I love flowers.” She said as she scarfed down his slice. If his jaw could have hit the floor it would have. With icing still on her lips she stormed off. “I can’t believe I introduced you to my dog.” She said before bolting out the door, a flash of her red dress darted by the café. A hushed lull fell over the room.

The young man didn’t look up. He sipped the rest of his cappuccino slowly trying to plan his next move. Just then a strawberry-blonde girl in a polka dot dress came over to him.

“I’m sorry that happened to you.” She said to him. He stole a quick glance at her. “Don’t feel badly. I think lavender tastes like flowers too.” She chuckled. She was holding a slice of cake in her hands. “So it seems that my guy didn’t like my cake either but the argument wasn’t as public as yours. It’s a raspberry caramel crunch cake.” He looked up at her.

“I love caramel.” He replied. She smiled at him and her nose crinkled up. She saddled up next to him and handed him her fork. With the first bite he didn’t have to wince or hide his displeasure. In fact, if he were a cartoon character, Nóra was pretty sure that little red hearts would have shot out of his eyes.

“This is the best cake I’ve ever had.”

She blushed as if he were complimenting her and not the cake. “I think so too.”

“Maybe you’d like to meet my dog sometime. He loves people.” He laughed.

“I’d like that a lot, actually.” He stole another large chunk of cake, smiling at her through peanut butter-covered teeth. A happy ending after all. And with that Nóra went back into the kitchen to finish her cake.

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Well the “clown” and the “lion tamer” couple that Nóra had conducted the cake consultation with a few days prior fell in love not just with each other but with their cakes as well, much to Nóra’s excitement. The young man didn’t jiggle his knees in nervousness this time and the raven-haired girl seemed gentler and less intense as they giggled over bites of their cake. Despite having their own individual cakes, they spoon-fed one another anyway.

“Would you like to meet my parents for dinner this weekend?” He asked. Her eyes grew wide.

“I’d love to.” She grabbed his hand and nestled her head into the crook of his neck. Nóra pondered what it must feel like for the couple: the excitement of a new relationship, the pounding chest, that flutter in your stomach. It was almost as delicious as the lemon pistachio cake they were devouring.

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Nóra closed up shop. Indian summer was coming to an end and people were relishing every last moment of the sun and evening warmth before the autumn days gave way to cooler night and the smell of crackling firewood. The sound of chatter rose as she drifted through the street-lined cafés on her way home. Families and couples sat deep in the throes of conversation. Espressos and desserts decorated the tables. The air was rich with the energetic squeals of children playing tag nearby. She loved the innocence and sweetness of her neighborhood.

A silent apartment welcomed her, a soft glow radiating from the apartment across the alley. The couple was cooking dinner again, the baby resting on his mother’s hip as she stirred food simmering on the stovetop. She watched as the man placed a tender kiss on both her and the baby’s foreheads. She thought her heart skipped a beat. Someday I’ll have that. The thought made her smile. She stood in the middle of the room in her empty, pitch-black apartment watching the happy couple and picturing what a similar future might look like for her.

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She recognized the raven-haired girl the moment she waltzed through the doors of the café; however, her beau was not with her.

“Hello, Klaudia! Back so soon?” Nóra patted her floured hands on her apron.

“Oh yes, I can’t seem to remember what my life was like before this café.” She laughed, her brown eyes twinkling as she looked at the desserts.

“Can I get you something?”

“Actually. I would like to schedule a cake consultation.”

“Oh?” Nóra raised an eyebrow.

“No it’s not what you think.” A flash of light obscured Nóra’s view. She could recognize that vibrant twinkle anywhere. It was the sparkle of a ring. “I guess I should say, a wedding cake consultation.” Nóra cupped her hands over her mouth.

“Oh that’s amazing. I’m so happy for you.”

“Thank you! We couldn’t be happier.” The raven-haired girl looked down at her ring hypnotized by how it caught the light.

“Okay, so let’s get you on the books.” Nóra flipped through her calendar. “Will this Saturday at noon work for you?”

“That’s perfect. I will be wedding dress shopping in the morning. Bálint can meet me here for the consultation.”

“I’m so happy for you two.”

“Thank you. I have to admit that there is something so magical about this café. It brings people together in some way that I know sounds silly.”

“It doesn’t sound silly at all. What can I say, I’m a hopeless romantic at heart.”

“Your husband must be very lucky.”

“Oh.” Nóra looked down at her hand. There was no twinkle, just a fine layer of flour.

“Actually. I’m not married.” She tugged at her ring finger.

“Oh I’m sorry; I just figured that you were because of all the matchmaking you seem to do through your cakes. People think you’re some sort of baking sorceress or love doctor.” She laughed.

“It’s nothing to be sorry about. I just haven’t found the right person yet, but hopefully someday.”

“You should make yourself a cake!” She exclaimed, clapping her hands together in excitement.

“What?”

“That’s it! You should make a cake. Just like you do for the couples. Play your own game and then find someone who loves your cake as much as you do.” Nóra almost burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all but then something clicked. She’s right. Why have I never played my own game?

“You know, I can’t believe I’m going to say this but I have never even entertained the idea of playing my own game. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me.” The idea sounded ridiculous but maybe ridiculous enough to work. She pictured the cake she would make but no flavors sprung to mind. She would play her own game and see just how good of a matchmaker she actually was. She also hoped that she wouldn’t curse her own game; after all, her luck in the love department had never been very good. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had even been on a date.

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It was the sun peeping through the curtains and not her alarm that woke Nóra. On her day off she always revelled in her one chance to sleep in. She could feel the refreshing coolness from the sheets as she stretched herself awake and stared out at the city, which was already drenched in sunlight. The warm rays bounced off the windows and rooftops of the neighboring buildings and she exhaled as she made her first ambling steps toward the kitchen. After brewing some coffee it was back to bed where she could wake up slowly and allow the caffeine to do as it intended.

Lounging in bed with coffee was her day-off routine, a relaxing habit that she had been doing since her college years. Sometimes she would just sit and ponder her plans for the day while in bed, slowly sipping away. Other times she would grab a book from the nightstand and devour its contents, emerging from the imaginary world hours later with a generous caffeine buzz. But today her head wasn’t focused on the errands she would run or the book she would read. Her mind was entirely focused on the cake.

She replayed the conversation she had with Klaudia and she started thinking about the flavors she would incorporate into her cake. No, that’s not how I do it, she scolded herself, I get to know the couple first and then I make the cake. I have to put myself through the same line of questioning that I do the poor unsuspecting couples. Unfortunately, despite the coffee, her mind was a blank. I won’t find inspiration in the places I see everyday. I need a fresh perspective. She bounced out of bed and emerged from her closet ten minutes later ready to tackle the day.

The world was wide awake as she left her building, the sounds of dogs barking, birds chirping and the distant honking of car horns were the city’s symphony. Finches making figure eights in the air guided her to Szent István Park where she found couples pushing strollers and students lounging in the grass. Mondays were the perfect time to close-up shop. She delighted in the solitude of her neighborhood when the rest of the world was at work.

She looked up at the elegant flats that surrounded the park and she wondered about the lives of those who lived there. What did they do? Were they happy? She knew nothing about them except that she was pretty sure none of them were baking a cake at that moment in hopes of finding their true love. The idea was preposterous even to her. Then, as if from some mysterious force, the questions came flowing out of her as she wandered through the park.

“Do you want an apartment or a house?” She asked herself as she watched a young couple fight with a stroller trying to get it up the stairs of their apartment complex.

“House.” The answered surprised her. She had always pictured herself living in an apartment right in the city center. She had never pictured a world in which she no longer lived in her current place. In fact, she had never imagined what life might have looked like in a cozy little home maybe a bit outside the hustle and bustle of the city where you didn’t have to fight to get a stroller up the stairs.

“Rain or snow?”

“Snow. Rain is a little too dreary for me, but snow…there’s something magical about the snow.”

“Too hot or too cold?”

“Too cold. I can always put on more clothes.” Suddenly the smell of strawberries and lemons tickled her senses. The cake flavors were already beginning to take shape.

“Would you rather time travel or read people’s minds?” This stumped her. In a way she felt she could already read minds. She was able to figure out exactly what cakes fit what personalities and she didn’t think she needed to go any further into the recesses of people’s minds. She was content in knowing only what people wanted her to know. “Time travel it is then.”

“Daytime or night?” “Daytime.” She took a moment to scan the park. Delicate, colorful flowers surrounded the park’s fountain as it spit streams of water that arced across the sky like a dolphin jumping out of the water. The manicured grass looked like an emerald satin blanket unfurled and smoothed. Because she did not have a blanket with her she found herself doing something a bit unorthodox—she took off her shoes, walked across the park’s lawn and lay down. The grass surrendered to her, enveloping and supporting her as if she were weightless. She looked up at the sky and watched as the clouds transformed into faces, animals and ships as they floated in and out of view.

“Trains or planes?” She pictured the last time she had been on a plane, the hassle of packing, the long security lines and the unpleasant temperaments of strangers and she immediately felt the pangs of anxiety.

“Trains. Without a doubt, trains.” Chocolate. NO! White chocolate.

“Would you rather visit an art gallery or go to a carnival?” This question caught her slightly off guard. What an interesting question, she thought as if she had no control over the questions she was answering. And, in a way, she really didn’t have much control. They came to her much like her recipes did, manifesting out of thin air and without much prompt. It’s a gift, her mother used to say.

“I think an art gallery. While both would be fun I think I prefer the quiet to the crowds.” At that moment, despite being surrounded by the smell of freshly mowed grass, all she could smell was the aromatic freshness of basil. As she lay perfectly still in the grass watching the clouds roll by she realized that she had done it. She had finally come up with her perfect cake.

∗       ∗       ∗       ∗

After some time, she finally peeled herself off the park’s lawn and found herself strolling by one of the cafés that she always saw on her way to work but never visited. Today she would play the part of the patron. She went in and ordered a macchiato and a slice of cake and then sat outside and watched her sweet neighborhood pass her by as she enjoyed the fruits of someone else’s labor. Somehow she felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders and everything seemed brighter. She let the icing from the cake melt in her mouth, savoring every sugary morsel, and yet the only flavors she could seem to taste were those from her own imaginary cake. It had captured all of her senses. She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there grinning to herself. She looked around to see if anyone was staring at her but everyone was too enraptured in his or her own conversations to notice her. She then realized that she was surrounded by couples. Maybe soon she would be sitting at this café deeply entrenched in a conversation with someone she loved. She tried to picture him, and while she could imagine what he would be like he didn’t yet have a face; however, she knew he was gorgeous. She giggled out loud at the thought but still no one noticed.

∗       ∗       ∗       ∗

Tuesday morning Nóra awoke with an excitement that made her feel like a kid on Christmas day. She had trouble falling asleep, but despite tossing and turning she dreamt of the man without a face walking into her café and immediately falling in love with the cake and her (perhaps not in that order). It would finally be her happily ever after. But when she awoke she was still cozy within the confines of her bed and not swept off her feet by this mystery man. She turned over and looked at her clock. It was almost time for her to get up anyway. She poured herself a cup of coffee and got ready while the moonlight still illuminated the early morning sky. The rest of the neighborhood was still fast asleep, the slumbering silence interrupted only by the occasional hum of a passing car.

She cinched her ochre coat around her as the first wave of cool morning air chilled her, stealing her breath. The autumn mornings were getting colder, but that didn’t bother her much. After all, she spent most days sufficiently warmed by industrial-sized ovens and their wafting smells of rising breads and cakes. She turned onto Pozsonyi Street and walked past the closed-up shops, the streets hushed and dark. She entered through the back door of the café and immediately turned the espresso machine on; it perked and sputtered to life. This machine was her best friend in the morning. Soon the espresso was warming her veins and shaking the haze of sleep from her brain. She pulled out the cake orders. Today would be a fairly simple day, which would give her ample opportunity to make her own cake. Her heart fluttered at the thought.

Despite the bustle of people coming in and out of the café Nóra had just enough time to make her cake and finish two other cakematching orders. But she felt as if the other cakes paled in comparison. It was simply beautiful. Perhaps it was the way the strawberry mousse icing glistened an eye-catching crimson under the lights of the café that made it look more like a work of art than a dessert. The pièce de résistance was the white chocolate that she had carefully crafted into delicate roses. She placed four tiny roses on top of each little oval cake. Hidden under the gooey layer of strawberry icing was a soft white cake layered with lemon mousse and a basil strawberry puree. It reminded her of springtime at Lake Balaton with her family. She hoped that whomever she ended up with loved visiting Balaton as much as she did. Oh, of course he will.

Giddy with excitement she placed her signature cake with the rest of the desserts and couldn’t wait to see people’s reactions. Soon enough patrons oohed and aahed over the little pastry, its brilliant color a siren call to sugar lovers; however, much to Nóra’s dismay, the majority of people who ordered the cake were women. Perhaps it was the reddish-pink hue that screamed feminine, but even the men brave enough to inquire about the cake cringed the moment the words basil or white chocolate escaped her lips. Not really a very good start. Of course, all the women who tried it raved about it. “It’s just so light and refreshing!” they chimed in unison. She closed up shop that evening more than a little disheartened. Not one man dared to brave the strawberry dessert and somehow she couldn’t help but to take it personally.

She sat in the glow of her apartment and tried to come up with a new line of questioning. Maybe I screwed up the cake. But deep down she knew she hadn’t. That was her cake. No, that cake is perfection. I’m not changing a thing. Not even the color. The man who likes the cake the way it is will like me the way I am. The whole thing was just so ridiculous but even she had to admit that there was some unexplainable magic about the way her cakes brought people together. There was no denying it—the proof was in the cakes.

∗       ∗       ∗       ∗

It was the typical rush hour at the café and Nóra found herself spinning and twirling like a ballerina to take orders and bring patrons their desserts. I really should consider hiring someone, she pondered as she did another little dance behind the counter to dish out cakes to a young couple that were too busy making eyes at each other to even notice the cakes materializing under their noses. There her cake sat, bright and shiny, just mocking her. The front door chimed and one of her regulars came in: a young girl of about six and her father. She skipped in humming a tune; her ashen blonde curls bouncing along with her. She pressed her face up against the fogging glass and stared wide-eyed at the desserts. The father-daughter duo always ordered the exact same cake every time but it never stopped the little girl from ogling the other options. Her father placed his briefcase at one of the tables and removed his coat to reveal a beautifully tailored blue suit. It matched his eyes. He certainly knows how to dress.

“Hi Nóra!”

“Hi Áron. Hi Zsófi. As always, it’s lovely to see you two. Dobos torta, I presume?” They smiled at each other.

“Oh, you know us so well! Thank you, Nóra.” His attention drifted to his daughter who was still glued to the glass counter. “What are you looking at so intently, my dear?”

“This cake!” She tapped the glass. “It’s so pretty.” Her eyes grew wide. She was looking at Nóra’s cake.

“Oh. Well, that is a lovely cake. What kind of cake is this?”

“It’s one of my own unique recipes. It is a white cake with strawberry ganache, lemon cream and basil-strawberry puree.” He got rather quiet.

“That sounds very…interesting.”

“Can we try it, daddy?”

“You don’t want your regular dobos?”

“Can’t we have both?” He sighed and threw up his hands. “Okay, I guess we are going to have both.” She almost couldn’t hear anything over the beating of her own heart. She carefully pulled out the two cakes and brought them over to the table where the little girl finally peeled herself from the counter and plopped down next to her father. She practically grabbed the fork out of Nóra’s hand as she sunk it deep into the crimson cake, the glossy icing surrendering to reveal the white cake and delicate buttercream.

“MMMMM! Yum.” She shouted above the gentle roar of chitchat. Nóra couldn’t help but steal sidelong glances in their direction.

“Okay, let me try this. It’s quite bright isn’t it?” He put the first forkful to his lips. “It certainly smells good.” He took a bite.

“What do you think?” The little girl lightly tugged at his arm as he chewed. Yea, what do you think?

“Hmm…well, it’s certainly interesting, now isn’t it?” He laughed. As he continued chewing he slide the plate closer to his daughter. “I think you might be enjoying more sweets today than you bargained for.”

“You don’t like it?”

“It’s just not really for me. I think I’m just a simple chocolate and caramel guy. But it is quite beautiful.”

“More for me then!” Zsófi harpooned the cake with her fork. To Nóra, it felt like a harpoon straight to the heart.

∗       ∗       ∗       ∗

“Maybe change the color to something…less bright?” “It’s quite pink.” “Don’t you think basil is an odd choice?” She had heard it all by the afternoon and it took everything in her not to just remove the cake from the public eye where it would no longer be a source of ridicule. Now she knew how chefs felt when a critic bashed their restaurants. It wasn’t that the cake was hated, much to the contrary; women raved about it. It was the men that were less than thrilled and—much to Nóra’s behest—felt the need to vocalize it. She was beginning to think that conducting her own cakematching had been a huge mistake.

She decided she needed to distract herself so she went through the orders for the next day but something didn’t match up. Something was missing. Oh no. Where is the order for Klaudia’s cake? The raven-haired girl and her fiancé would be coming in tomorrow to sample the cake and she had nothing to show. I must have forgotten to write the ticket when she started talking to me about my own cakematching. Fortunately, she already knew what kind of cake she was going to make for them, so the process could be completed in no time. The café was now at a lull, so she could be alone to whisk and whip and try to forget about her sad cake sitting dejected under the warm lights of the café.

With a sprinkling of crushed up dark chocolate in the cake batter and a mixing of crushed cherries into the buttercream icing she had put her own cake far from her mind. The batter was simple but absolute perfection. You could tell everything about a cake by the batter alone and she knew she had a winner before even sliding it into the oven. As the cake bubbled and rose in the oven, she dipped a finger into the icing. Something’s wrong. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but there was something missing, something key. Why am I off my game suddenly? She wondered if she had somehow angered the cake gods meddling in her own cakematching. She sampled the icing again and then pictured the couple together—the way Klaudia threw her head back, her black hair glistening, every time he made her laugh. The way his nose crinkled when she said something complimentary about him. Then it hit her. Hazelnut. It was the missing ingredient. She rummaged through the café for hazelnut but came up empty handed. She looked at the clock. It was already 2:00pm. There were only a few patrons and they had already been tended to. She could be back with the almonds before anyone even noticed. The oven timer went off. Perfect timing. She grabbed the piping-hot cake and turned off the oven.

She grabbed her coat, cinching it snug around her. “I’ll be right back everyone. I just need to run a quick errand.” No one seemed to mind her departure and she recognized most of their faces so she didn’t fear leaving her café in their hands for a few minutes. Out into the sunlight she went like a Caped Crusader on a mission for love and cake. She made it to the spice shop and doled out a generous portion of hazelnuts into a plastic bag. The transaction was quick. She was a regular patron and the woman was accustomed to Nóra’s frenzies at this point. She stuffed the bag of hazelnuts into her coat pocket and made a mad dash back to the café.

Tired and now almost out of breath she realized that she had had quite enough of the day and she longed to be in the quiet recesses of her apartment under the warm glow of the chandelier drowning her woes in a book and a warm cup of tea. Just finish the cake and then you can go home. Let’s just hope the couple likes their cake more than people liked yours. Was she starting to lose her edge?

She could feel the crisp wind whipping around her as she rushed back to the café, her coat flapping behind her so furiously she thought she might take to the sky. BAM! She slammed right into what she could only assume was a wall but was shocked to see it blinking at her in bewilderment.

“Bocsánat! Bocsánat!” She grabbed his arm making sure that his shock was coming more from just being plowed over rather than an injury. He blinked a few more times but never took his eyes off her. He seemed so calm.

“It’s okay. I’m fine.” American.

“Oh! Okay. Okay good. I’m very sorry.” She felt the hazelnuts shift in her pocket. She released his arm and continued on her mission back to the café. She never turned back but assumed he was fine.

Sweaty and a bit out of breath Nóra arrived back at the café where patrons were still very much relaxed and enjoying their desserts and coffees. If they hadn’t recognized her immediately they might have been startled by the woman with the wild mane of windblown curls who was panting loudly as she bolted through the front door. Most of them were used to her oddities. She slowed her breathing as she grabbed the hazelnuts from the pocket and hung up her coat.

She didn’t realize how much crushing and pulverizing the hazelnuts would be therapeutic, helping her release all the tensions of the day. She looked at her cake, how it glistened under the lights just mocking her. Fine! She stopped what she was doing and grabbed a piece of her cake. If no one else is going to enjoy it I might as well. She grabbed a fork and took delicate bites between violent sessions of massacring hazelnuts. What’s wrong with people? This cake is perfection. Sure, basil might be a bit unorthodox but it’s not obscene. People wouldn’t think twice about placing a sprig of thyme or basil into a cocktail, so why not a dessert?

She pictured a warm spring day at the Balaton and longed for those days again. This time not even the chime of the café’s door broke her daydream. Another bite of strawberry icing and she was feeling the cool refreshing waters of the lake lick at her sun-kissed skin.

“Hello?” Someone was pulling her from the cool waters and back onto dry land. She furled her eyebrows in protest as the lake disappeared out of view and she noticed a man standing on the other side of her counter. She rushed out to greet him, forgetting that she was still thoroughly enjoying a slice of cake. She licked the evidence from her lips but some still remained. She recognized his kind face. Then something clicked.

“Oh! I know you.” The American.

“Yes, I was the man you almost knocked over on the street.”

“I’m so sorry about that. I am so clumsy. My name is Nóra, by the way.”

“Hi Nóra. I’m Daniel.” He pulled out an old metal tin from his knapsack and shared with her its contents and a recipe; a family recipe that he had been seeking to try in Budapest, but without much luck. He had crossed the ocean just for the recipe and she realized that she was the one person who could offer him what he was looking for. There was something warm in his eyes that both distracted and delighted her. She didn’t know why but she felt a sudden urge to share her day with him, to tell him all about the trials and tribulations of her cake, the forgotten hazelnuts, her own disastrous cakematching. Somehow she knew he would understand.

Before she even had time to think about it she was already agreeing to make the Krémes for him. He’s come all this way; it’s the least I could do. She reasoned with herself, pushing aside the fact that there might be something more to it than just the selfless desire to help a stranger.

He couldn’t have been happier. He tried to find the right words to thank her but he seemed flustered by the gesture. She looked at the diminishing cake orders and the cooling cake that just needed a slathering of hazelnut cherry icing. Her desire to help him outweighed everything else and suddenly she was no longer thinking about her apartment and that cup of tea.

“It looks like all my orders can wait until tomorrow. I can get to work on it immediately, though it will take a while. ”

“Oh, I know it’s a long process. I wouldn’t want to bother the master at work.”

“How about you come here tomorrow morning? Say around noon?”

“It’s a date!” He turned to leave but paused.

“I know I just said I wouldn’t bother the master at work, but I have to ask. What kind of cake are you eating?”

“Oh! It’s nothing really. A weird experiment that I think went awry. Just ignore that. Consider it the Frankenstein of cakes.” She dismissed the cake with a wave of her hand.

“Well, Frankenstein wasn’t bad he was just misunderstood. If you don’t mind I think I’d like to try a piece.”

“Okay.” She felt more than a little apprehensive. What if he hates it? Then he won’t want me to make the Krémes recipe. He won’t trust me with his grandmother’s recipe. “Just consider yourself warned.”

“I’ll eat it at my own risk. Don’t worry.” She slid the cake across the counter to him.

“How much?”

“Nothing. It’s on the house. Trust me; you’ll want it that way.” She mocked, hoping it would cover up the utter disdain she was beginning to have for the little cake. He laughed.

“Okay, if you insist. This is more than generous. Thank you, Nóra.”

“Why don’t you thank me after you eat it.” He sat down at a nearby table. Her heart started pounding; she couldn’t watch. She scrambled for the kitchen and busied herself with smoothing the icing onto the cake. The smell of crushed hazelnuts and fresh cherries were intoxicating.

“Excuse me. Nóra?” Daniel’s voice startled her. She was almost too nervous to turn around. I can’t just ignore him. She exhaled, turned around and prepared to meet her fate. At that moment he smiled at her and she noticed that the cake was gone. An empty plate with a few small crumbs stood between them.

“This cake…” He pointed at the empty plate. “I think you got it all wrong.” She looked at the ground. She could feel her cheeks turn the same shade as the strawberry icing.

“I know. I’m still trying to figure it out.” He looked at her quizzically.

“No. No, that’s not what I meant. I just meant…this isn’t a Frankenstein at all; on the contrary. This is a masterpiece. I have to admit; it was almost too pretty to eat. This is art.”  She took a deep breath and tried to absorb what he was saying to her but she could almost hear nothing over her heart echoing like a drum in her ears. He likes it. He likes the cake.

“You really think so?” His eyes seemed to sparkle in agreement.

“Absolutely. I know art when I see it.” He smiled at her. “I’m an artist.”

“How lovely! Then I have to take your word for it.” She laughed. She felt her heart’s rapid beat surrender and suddenly the world around her seemed clearer. “And the flavors? They were okay?”

“Okay? They were more than okay. Honestly, my only regret is that I can’t get this delicious cake in Chicago. It would be perfectly refreshing during the summertime.

“I couldn’t agree more. I felt the same way.”

“Actually, my family has a summer lake house in Michigan. We usually start going there in the spring when it’s a bit warmer. This cake somehow reminded me of memories I had there. For a second it almost felt like I was there.”

“Yes, dessert has a way of doing that.” She pictured her memories at the Balaton and wondered just how similar they were to Daniel’s days on Lake Michigan.

“If this is what you can do with dessert I believe my grandmother’s Krémes is in very good hands. Now, I have a hot date with Margaret Island. I’m trying to piece together more mysterious parts of my grandmother’s life. Thank you again for such a beautiful dessert. I think you’d have to be nuts not to like it. See you tomorrow, Nóra.” He winked at her and she thought her heart might melt.

All too clearly, the shapes and contours of her once shadowy dream man came into view. He had hazel eyes, a strong pointed nose and sable side-swept hair that fell into his eyes. He was an artist. He lived in Chicago. His grandmother was from Hungary. He summered in Lake Michigan and she in Balaton. What else did they have in common?

She was suddenly transported to the lake. The smell of fresh strawberries and basil overcame her senses as if she were standing in the middle of an overflowing garden. She could hear the water lapping at the shore, the sound of a man’s laughter and the sweetness of white chocolate cream dissolving on her tongue.

∗       ∗       ∗      The End      ∗       ∗       ∗

Featured Cake: FEB7

The featured cake in this story is called FEB7, another specialty of Auguszt Cukrászda with white chocolate, lemon, strawberry mousse filled with basil and strawberry puree. Established in 1870, Auguszt is the oldest family-owned pâtisseries in Budapest with three shops in the city, two in Buda and one in Pest.

ADDRESS    14–16 Kossuth Lajos Street, 1053 Budapest    SHOW ON MAP
OPENING HOURS    9am–7pm Mon–Fri, 11am–7pm Sat, closed on Sunday

feb7

Explore Nóra’s Neighborhood

Duration: 2 hours
 Difficulty: Easy city walk
 Neighborhoods: 13th district in Pest

Újlipótváros, where this episode takes place, is mainly a residential neighborhood on the Pest side of Budapest with some excellent cafés and coffeehouses, small shops, a beautiful park by the Danube and some of the finest examples of Bauhaus architecture in the city. You’ll also find many former so-called “yellow-star” houses in Újlipótváros, which were designated buildings, where Jewish families were forced to live during WWII.


Hajnalka Módis
Founder of Budapest Local

 

I hope you enjoyed this episode of our Budapest Series. Make sure you take a walk in Újlipótváros and explore Nóra’s neighborhood . Or sign up for a custom tour to discover the city with a local guide.

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