Feature: Kurtoskalacs, the chimney sweet of Europe
Kurtoskalacs is no longer prepared regularly in homes across Europe. It has become a touristy treat now.
Is it doughy cotton candy? Is it a slimmer version of cinnamon bread? Is it heaven in a few bites?
Well yes, it is the last, and it`s called kürtőskalács. I saw it all over Budapest but ironically enough, ate it only on my last day there. One bite, and I was eating enough of this chimney sweet to make up for lost time!
And then I got more than my fill of it in Prague. In the Czech Republic, it is called Trdelnik. `Our traditional chimney cake,` a local manning a deli, proudly told me and I refrained from exclaiming, `Oh, but isn’t this the kurtoskalacs?`
Far be it for me to precipitate an international incident. And coming from India, where Bengal and Odisha have been fighting over the origins of the divine rasgolla, till the decision came in the latter`s favour recently, I know just how agitated people can get over claims to delicious sweets of antiquity.
This chimney- shaped cake is made from a yeasty sweet dough. A flat ribbon of this dough is dusted with granulated sugar, wrapped around a cone-shaped wooden spit and baked in a special electric oven.
Back in the day, apparently it was slowly cooked over coal cinders; not any longer, though. It is liberally lubricated with melted butter as it is slowly turned by hand on a wooden cylinder above an open fire. The sugar gets caramelised on the surface of the sweet, making for a crunchy exterior and a soft interior. Soon enough, it turns golden brown and then, it`s good to go…straight into your mouth. You just tear strips from it and eat, and you are in culinary heaven.
Kurtokalacs is Hungary’s oldest pastry and sold just about everywhere in that country. This actually translates to that particularly heavenly fragrance wafting across streets, from delis, from patisseries, from bistros, and of course luring people far and wide to it.
`Kurto` is chimney/stovepipe in Hungarian and `kalacs` is cake. Apparently, Count Vlad a.k.a. Dracula isn’t the only famous Transylvanian. In Transylvania, which was once part of Hungary, as far back as in 1723, Transylvanians were talking about the `kurtosh kalach,` and so presumably, eating it too.
But yes, it is the national sweet of Hungary. The International Kürtőskalács Trade Corporation (which really is a thing!) has taken measures to have kürtőskalács registered as a Hungarian product by the EU.
But back to that sweet divide. Tipped off well enough now about the taste of the chimney sweet, I sought found and devoured Trdelnikc all over Prague, recalling the Bard`s wise words about names not mattering if the rose smelled as sweet, or in this case, if the chimney cake tasted just as wonderful as it did across the border in Budapest.
A little background reading led me to the amusing if perfectly understandable ploy by local vendors, who blithely call it the national sweet of the Czech Republic so that the tourist feels they are biting into a piece of history. Then again, it does date back to ancient times, to the times when there were no ovens, however rustic, and the only way to bake dough was to twist it onto a stick and roast it over an open fire.
Apparently this was done across Europe from Greece to Sweden. Virtually everyone was eating the same thing, only every country had a different name for it. Hence, kurto in Hungary became sekacz in Poland, baumkuchen in Germany, prugelkrapfen or prugertorte in Austria, skalicky trdelnic in neighbouring Slovakia, gateau a la broch in France, and spettekaka, all the way up north in Sweden. Fun fact: there is even a Kurtos Academy in Slavonia devoted to the making of this treat.
Sweet on a spindle
However, before you dismiss the Czech Republic`s claim to ownership, do keep in mind that the word `trdelnik` is an ancient Czech word signifying a wooden stick or spindle. In its earliest avatar, it was made with almonds and crushed walnuts, and wasn’t very sweet; the sugar was a later (and very welcome) addition.
The kurtoskalacs is no longer prepared regularly in homes across Europe, it has become a touristy treat now. Just like pretzels and doughnuts, the kurtoskalacs too, comes in different flavours like cinnamon, cocoa, walnuts, even coconut.
There are gluten-free and vegan varieties on offer, and a wide range of flavours like chocolate, pistachios, jam, caramel, as also toppings of ice cream, whipped cream, strawberries and cream, cut fruits.
This story has the happiest ending ever. This tubular treat is now available at two outlets in Bangalore: the Budapest Bake Inn in Indiranagar and Kurtoskalacs in Koramangala. Three cheers for that!
All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.
This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 11 Dec 2019.