2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

A Wild Pastry Born of Smoke and Char

A Wild Pastry Born of Smoke and Char

Kürtőskalács in Budapest

I had known of the Kürtőskalács, the Hungarian spit cake, prior to visiting Budapest. Traditionally grilled to perfection over cinders until a crisp and smoky caramel shell envelops the sweet, yeast-dough pastry, I knew getting my hands on one during my short stay would be a priority.

It is the middle of summer and in downtown Budapest the aroma of sewage seems to rise up from the sun-cooked asphalt. The air is still, hot, and dry. Across the city, restaurant menus offer dead-of-winter dishes alongside seasonal specialties despite the ridiculous heat wave. So what if the tarmac is melting? It is always a good time to enjoy a heart-warming bowl of goulash, chicken paprikash or Pörkölt stew.

But the Kürtőskalács is nowhere to be found.

It turns out the elusive cake is traditionally made during the winter time or in fairs and festive markets. Thus, the best chance of stumbling upon the hollow cake is tracking down one of the bakeries scattered throughout the city specializing in the domesticated version. The hollow logs, uniform is size and shape, coated in various toppings, wrapped in cellophane and tied in a pretty ribbon, are a far cry from the untamed version of the pastry I am after; a product of char and smoke baked out in the wild, anywhere, anytime. Resigned to defeat, I walk out of the bakery empty handed, letting go of any further thoughts of cake.

The sun was already brutally hot by the time we got off at the last stop of the cogwheel train line. It was our last day in Budapest and we were somewhere in suburbia, the city no longer visible beyond the tree-covered hills. There, by the side of a road leading to nowhere, a woman and her elderly mother set up shop and erected a portable grill.

The coals were still working to a gray ash when I placed the order for a spit cake. The nomadic baker pulled out a ribbon of dough from a plastic box and spun it around a skewered wooden log. She covered it in sugar, placed it over the hot coals and tended to it, using one hand to turn the skewer and the other to hold a flat fan with which she skillfully controlled the temperature and smoke levels. Each cake is made to order and with us being the only customers on a lazy Sunday morning, an awkward silence built during the long minutes of anticipation as we all watched the sugar crystals slowly build up to their melting point. When the cake was ready, it was freed from the log with one swift gesture, compressed into shape, placed in a plastic bag, and handed over to me, still steaming. Willing to wait no more, I tore off a piece from the blistering hot dough and took a bite.

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