Hungarian Chimney Cake
There are certain foods you have to try in any country you visit. The challenge today is to find the good one amongst all the crappy ones that are sold just for the purpose of earning money and not to represent the food itself. Kürtőskalács is one of these foods – one you have to try and one that can be good or bad.
Today Kürtőskalács is found on every corner in Hungary; actually it is a Hungarian specialty from Transylvania (Szeklers) that was made on special occasions such as weddings, baptisms, and birthdays. Kürtőskalács is not rocket science but more like a simple yeast cake made from flour, sugar, yeast, and butter and topped with a thin layer of butter and sugar before baking and sprinkled with caster sugar after. Sugar on sugar is always better than none, one could say.
Translated from Hungarian, Kürtőskalács means chimney cake and it borrows its name from the wooden cylinder it is baked in that looks like a flue. Back in the early days, it was a smart and ergonomic way to use coals from heating the house by bringing them to the front of the oven to bake Kürtőskalács that needs some, but not too much heat.
Many dates are mentioned for the invention of this “cake” going all the way back to 400 BC with the Greeks and something very close to an actual chimney cake in Medieval times in Heidelberg in the 15th century. But all those cakes were close to a Kürtőskalács until the first actual written evidence in a 1784 cookbook by Maria Mikes in which she writes about dough wrapped around a spit. Just simple dough, no sugar no butter. That is first mentioned in 1795 by Kristof Simai (northern Hungarian), still far from today’s but a step closer. Around 1868-1876 the Kürtőskalács recipe was written in a book like today: … with egg and sprinkled with sugar before baking to make it crispier (Maillard reaction) on the outside and moist inside.
Back in the 19th century, everything was easy – you could choose to have to have Kürtőskalács with sugar or not. That's it. Today it is a bit more complicated, as one of the hardest decisions to make while standing in line for your Kürtőskalács is deciding which (from too many) toppings to choose. If 19th century did well enough just with sugar, the 20th century started with chopped or candied walnuts; later Chimney Cake was sprinkled with just about everything that can be sprinkled – cacao, cinnamon, coconut, and many more options.
Today’s Kürtőskalács is still different from the one baked before the 20th century when the dough was round and uneven: more like baking a bun. Our modern version is considered to be the most elaborate and most delicate of them all. Coming from Szeklerland, the dough on the spit is rolled to flatten it out, pressing the strips together and only then brushed with egg, sprinkled with sugar, and baked on coals for the most authentic flavor (avoid the ones baked in the oven since that is not the same).
Finding the best stand that bakes them is a challenge unless you know where. I walked, checking every stand there was: one where they are already baked and waiting for you, one where they are baked much smaller and in an electric oven (we don't want that for authentic flavor), one where you don’ t see how they are made, and then one who showa every step of the process. I have no idea if mine was the most authentic, but it surely was fantastic and without any leftovers whatsoever.
Traveling to Hungary in cooperation with Embassy of Hungary to Latvia
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s