‘Baking is in Your Blood’

Guided by the women who came before her, Susan Carter devoted herself to her Hungarian heritage, launched her own business and deepened it with a pilgrimage.

Susan Carter displays one of her namesake honeycakes, a honey-and-spice cookie. This one, a Russian pryaniki, takes the shape of a samovar.
Susan Carter displays one of her namesake honeycakes, a honey-and-spice cookie. This one, a Russian pryaniki, takes the shape of a samovar.
Photo by Frank Veronsky

To master Hungarian baking, Susan Carter listened to those who grew up with it. Chief among them was her mother, Nancy Herczku-Carter, who handed down the recipes of her own Hungarian mother and grandmothers and told her daughter, “Don’t worry. With hard work, it will all work out.”

Then there were the elderly ladies of the Magyar Reformed Church in New Brunswick. “Listening to their stories of coming to America was amazing,” says Carter, 30. “They’re very proud of their tradition and more than willing to teach it to a younger generation to keep it going. If I made a mistake, they’d say, ‘It’s okay. You’re Hungarian. It’s in your blood.’”

After more than a decade of practice and development, during which she held various retail jobs and worked in bakeries, Carter launched her business, Honeycakes European Sweets and Treats, in 2017 with her mother’s encouragement. Through at least mid-December, she’ll be selling her handmade kifli, pogacsa and other traditional pastries every Friday at the Rutgers Gardens farmers’ market in New Brunswick. Her goods are also available through her website, honeycakes.net.

Carter’s namesake honeycakes (mezeskalacs) are thin, elaborately decorated honey-and-spice cookies. Her kifli, rolled up pastries filled with chopped walnuts or raspberry, apricot or prune jam, “always sell out,” she says.

Pastry is a painstaking art. Pogacsa (po-gotcha)—savory Hungarian biscuits—are small enough to gobble in two bites, but if you did, you’d miss their flaky, feathery richness. This comes from patiently rolling the buttery, farmer-cheese-enriched dough into a broad square, brushing it with egg yolk, folding it in half, rerolling, rebrushing, refolding. Repeat several times. Then score the surface, cut small circles with a biscuit cutter and bake, topping each biscuit with sharp cheddar for the last few minutes.

“In Hungary,” Carter says, “there’s a tradition of people taking pogacsa when they go on a long journey.”
Carter herself made a long journey last spring—her first to Hungary and neighboring lands. “I tried the authentic pastries,” she says, “and they are the same” as what she grew up eating and now makes at Honeycakes.

The main difference was seeing people having a pastry and coffee everywhere—on the street, from vendors, in little cafés and on up to the Great Market Hall in Budapest. “It was really cool to see,” she says.
About three years ago, Carter took a part-time job at M&M Bake Shop, an Italian bakery in East Brunswick. Its owner, Linda Del Ponte, lets Carter do her Honeycakes baking there before or after hours.
“Her love for the craft is evident,” says Del Ponte. “She works really hard. I try to teach her the industrial, commercial side of things. I always tell her, ‘Start small.’”

That Carter started Honeycakes at all is due to one person. “My mother gave me the courage to start this business,” Carter attests. “She inspired me; she was my biggest cheerleader. I would bake all the time and she would say, ‘You should make a business out of it.’”

It was, therefore, a terrible blow when Carter’s mom died in July from heart disease. She was just 61. Carter fondly remembers childhood visits to her mother’s parents’ house in Edison, where she’d eat from the plum, apricot and cherry trees in the backyard. Reflecting on her heritage and her future, she says, “It’s a good way to stay connected to where you’re from, eating what your family ate.”

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