Layers of paprika-packed flavor are baked under a creamy topping in this rich celebration of spicy sausage, smoked pork, and tangy sauerkraut. Cayenne peppers add a little fiery spark to our rakott káposzta, a Hungarian peasant bake. And toasted caraway seeds give plenty of bold, eastern European savor.
Pork and cabbage, what a marriage! That may be screamingly corny, but it is deliciously true. Especially when the pork is smoked, spiced, and paired with the king of cabbage creations, sauerkraut.
Our rakott káposzta, ‘layered cabbage’ in Hungarian, is stacked with coarsely ground, paprika-seasoned smoked pork knuckle and plenty of oniony sauerkraut that’s laced with fairly fiery chorizo sausage, garlic and caraway seeds.
Those layers are then topped with a mix of soured cream, beaten egg, and thick yogurt, and the whole lot gets baked for an hour in a moderate oven.
This is hearty, homely food that’s out of the same stable as national treasures like Italian lasagne and Greek moussaka. And just like those much-loved classics, this one has the same sort of happy, special-occasion appeal, and is likely to create a similarly cheerful buzz when you set it on the table.
Rakott káposzta might not be as internationally famous as Hungary’s national dish, goulash, but it’s also centered around the dried and ground red peppers that lie at the heart of the country’s cooking, paprika.
Paprika – the pepper-spice with hidden depths
For many years, I knew no better and thought paprika came either ‘plain’ or smoked. I also had a sort of permanent mental note to always have some of the plain variety in the cupboard.
That’s because I liked its aroma and its deep, smoky hint of very mild heat, but mostly I liked its blazing crimson. I’d add it to a curry for instant, hot color, or dust some gorgeously over a bubbling mac n’ cheese.
I now know that Hungarians have a very different attitude to paprika. Far from simply being an attractive little powdered pinch of vibrant red that you might sprinkle over, say, some scrambled eggs or a bowl of hummus, paprika is a cornerstone of Hungarian cuisine. It’s an ingredient.
–> Read More: What Is Paprika? The Story Behind The Spice
That means it’s used as something far more significant than a garnishing condiment or pretty colorant. Paprika gets elevated to its status of an ingredient partly because it’s used in such generous quantities – in lavishly heaped tablespoons rather than sparse little teaspoons.
So, in our rakott káposzta, there’s a full ounce of ground paprika, that’s two high-heaped tablespoons, plus half-a-dozen whole, dried paprika peppers to season the pork knuckle’s cooking water.
But quantity is only one side of the coin. The other is quality. The type of the paprika you choose matters as much as the quantity you use.
The fact that Hungarian paprika comes in eight varieties with distinctly different flavors and levels of heat certainly surprised me. Cayenne-level heat in paprika? Yep, there’s a variety called Eros, meaning strong in Hungarian, that hits that sort of very evident heat.
If you can find some real Hungarian paprika, that’s just dandy. If not, look for the un-smoked, deep red sort that gets described as ‘pungent, sweet, and spicy’.
Edesnemes is the most often exported type of Hungarian paprika. It's bright red, sweet, and carries a very mild heat. It's an excellent choice for this recipe.
And here’s something else I’ve learnt about paprika: its flavors really flow when softly fried along with onions and garlic in rendered pork fat. Yep, pork fat. Sometimes tagged as lard, this very pale, clarified fat gives paprika a boost that emphasizes the complexity of its very distinctive taste.
The pork and the sausage
In search of big flavors for our rakott káposzta, I settled for using a whole, smoked pork knuckle and an entire chorizo sausage.
Sometimes tagged as ‘eisbein’ or ham hock, mine was the sort that’s been given a light salt-curing then smoked. This preparation gives it a definite, bacon-like savor that’s very similar to a good, baked gammon. And that glorious flavor shines through here once the knuckle has been simmered for a couple of hours with onion and paprika peppers, and then had its wonderfully fatted meat coarsely ground.
For the sausage, I chose one with a very definite hit of chili – peri-peri to be precise – alongside the essential seasoning of paprika that’s a hallmark of chorizo. Cut into roughish quarter-inch dice, the sausage gets lightly fried with onion, garlic, and caraway seeds, and the whole lot is mixed with the sauerkraut to create the cabbage layers in your rakott káposzta.
And then there’s the rice that goes with the pork
This is a delightful surprise that’s cooked and added to the coarsely ground smoked pork. Along with those heaped tablespoons of paprika, the pork layer also features a couple of thinly sliced fresh, red cayenne peppers, diced onion, and finely chopped garlic.
Once this mix has been cooked, it’s good enough to eat on its own. I thoroughly enjoyed taste-testing it (several times) before layering it between the sauerkraut in a deepish baking dish in readiness for the dairy topping.
Last but not least – the creamily rich dairy-and-egg topping
As a wonderfully delicate contrast to the immense flavors stacked beneath it, the topping of yoghurt and soured cream – the full-flavored, full-fat sort – is given something of a baked-custard finish by the beaten egg that’s whipped into the double dairy mix.
The topping might only be about a third of an inch thick when your rakott káposzta comes out of the oven, but that’s ample to provide a beautiful balance of mildly sour richness that works superbly well with the very different flavors of the pork and its perfect partner, sauerkraut.
- 1 baking dish about 12 inches long, 9 inches wide, and about 3 inches deep
- 1 large pot I used a cast iron one that holds 5 quarts / 5 liters when it’s about 80% full.
For the smoked pork knuckle, a.k.a. ham hock and eisbein
- 6 whole dried red paprika peppers
- 2 ½ pounds lightly salt-cured and smoked pork knuckle bone-in and skin-on is the way they come. Thoroughly washed in a bowl of cold water. (Note: Once the rind / skin was stripped off my slowly simmered knuckle, that 2 ½ pound pork knuckle gave me 1 1/3 pounds (one-and-a-third pounds) – ready to be coarsely ground.
- 1 large yellow onion peeled, halved and cut into ½ inch slices
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground black pepper
- 8 cups water
The mix for the smoked pork layers
- 2 fresh red cayenne peppers thinly sliced, seeds and all
- 2 heaped tablespoons ground paprika
- 1 1/3 pounds coarsely ground nicely fatted pork, stripped from the slowly simmered smoked pork knuckle
- 1 large yellow onion peeled and cut into ¼-inch dice
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely chopped
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon clarified pork fat a.k.a. lard
- ½ cup long grain white rice I used basmati. Cooked according to the pack’s instructions.
- All the onion and paprika peppers that cooked with the pork knuckle
- 1 cup of the pork knuckle’s cooking liquid
The mix for the sauerkraut layers
- 1 ½ pounds plain sauerkraut I used a well-known German brand that comes either in a plastic vacuum pack or a jar.
- 8 ounces hot chorizo sausage sliced into ¼ inch discs, then cut into quarters
- 1 large onion peeled, halved, and cut into ¼ inch slices
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons caraway seeds toasted in a hot skillet first
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons clarified pork fat a.k.a. lard
- 4 tablespoons of the pork knuckle’s cooking liquid
For the topping
- 9 ounces full fat triple thick yogurt
- 9 ounces full fat sour cream
- 1 large free-range egg beaten
Cooking the smoked pork knuckle, and creating some stock for your rakott kaposzta
- Fill your large pot with 8 cups water, and add the washed pork knuckle, dried paprika peppers, onion, and black pepper.
- Set the pot on a high heat and bring it to the boil. As soon as that happens, drop the heat to low and cover the pot. Now let it just barely simmer on that low heat for 2 ½ hours. The knuckle will then be cooked, and you’ll also have the basis for making a little stock to add to the pork layer in your rakott kaposzta.
- Remove the pork knuckle and set it aside to cool. Use a slotted spoon to remove the paprika peppers and onion. Pop the peppers and onion into a bowl along with 1 cup of the knuckle’s cooking liquid – a little later that’s all going to join the rest of the ingredients for your pork layer. You’ll also need to reserve 4 tablespoons of the cooking liquid for adding to the sauerkraut mix. (The rest of the cooking liquid can be discarded.)
- While the pork knuckle is cooling, you can cook the rice (according to the pack’s instructions) and set about making the sauerkraut layer.
Cooking the mix for the sauerkraut layers
- I used a heavy, deep-side skillet, 12-inch skillet for this, but a similarly broad saucepan will be just fine.
- First up is toasting the caraway seeds to pull out their flavor and aroma. So, set the pan on a medium-high heat and let it heat for a minute. Now add the caraway seeds and let them toast on that medium-high heat for 3 minutes. You’re aiming to toast them with a few regular stirs until they start to darken slightly. As soon as that happens, add the lard and stir the pan until the lard melts.
- Drop the heat to medium and stir in the onions. Let them fry with a few stirs for 3 minutes until they start to soften.
- Add the chorizo, garlic, and black pepper, and drop the heat to low-medium. Continue frying for another 3 minutes. Give the pan a few stirs as the mix fries so that the pieces of chorizo just begin to pick up a little color as some of their fat melts into the mix.
- Keep the heat on low-medium and stir in the sauerkraut. You want the sauerkraut to be thoroughly mixed with everything else, so stir well as you fry the lot for another 2 minutes.
- Now add 4 tablespoons of the pork knuckle’s cooking liquid. Stir well, drop the heat to low and let everything cook on an occasionally stirred simmer for 5 minutes. That’s it. Turn off the heat and let the pan sit while you cook the mix for the pork layers.
- But just before you do that, check the sauerkraut mix for saltiness. Sauerkraut is pretty salty to begin with so you may well find it’s added enough of its own salt to the mix – if not, adjust to your taste.
Cooking the mix for the pork layer
- Once the pork knuckle has cooled enough, peel away the skin / rind from the fat layer beneath it. Take a little care here to keep as much fat as you can.
- Use your fingers to pull all the meat and fat from the bones and discard any sinew bits along with the skin / rind.
- Now tip the meat and fat into your food processor along with the onion and paprika peppers that cooked with the pork knuckle, and a cup of the pork knuckle’s cooking liquid.
- Blitz the lot to a coarse texture. Take care here not to blitz it too finely. You want to keep some obvious structure in the pork, rather than turning it all into a smooth paste. Time now for a little frying of the other ingredients for the pork layers.
- For this, you’ll need a large saucepan that’s big enough to hold everything that goes into the mix for the pork layer. Set the pan on a medium-high heat and add two level tablespoons lard. Once it’s melted, stir in the diced onion, salt, and ground paprika.
- You want to stir-fry this mix on that medium-high heat for about 3 minutes so that the onion softens and just begins to take on a little hint of golden color. Good. Now add the cayenne peppers, garlic, and black pepper, and continue stir frying for another two minutes.
- Drop the heat to low and stir in the coarsely ground smoked pork mix. Give it a good stirring so that everything gets well mixed together and continue gently stir-frying the whole lot for another 3 minutes. Almost done.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the cooked rice. You’re now ready to start assembling the layers of your rakott kaposzta.
Assembling the rakott kaposzta
- Set your oven to 350 F / 180C.
- As it’s heating, you can make the dairy topping.
- To do that, simply mix together the beaten egg, yoghurt and soured cream. I used a stout whisk for this, making sure it all got thoroughly combined.
- Start assembling the layers by spreading half the sauerkraut mix over the bottom of your baking dish.
- Now add all the smoked pork mix in an even, single layer over the top of the sauerkraut.
- Add the remaining half of the sauerkraut mix in an evenly spread layer on top of the pork mix.
- Use your hands to press gently down on the surface to get a flat, upper layer of sauerkraut – ready for the dairy topping.
- Finish by evenly spreading all the dairy mix over the top of the sauerkraut. That’s it – ready for baking.
Baking your rakott kaposzta
- Set the layered and topped baking dish onto a middle shelf in your 350 F / 180C. Let the rakott kaposzta bake for 60 minutes – until the dairy topping takes on a good golden color around its edges and a paler gold across its middle. Done.
- Remove the dish from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes or so. You’ll find it much easier to cut nicely layered portions out of the dish once the rakott kaposta has been allowed to cool for those 10 minutes.
- I served mine with a generous amount of soured cream alongside for folks to add to their liking. And, of course, a little bowl of ground paprika was on hand for that crowning dash of sprinkling.