The Eastern European region of Transylvania is perhaps not known for its contributions to the pastry world — indeed, many associate the Romanian region more with the Bram Stoker's fictional landscape than with baked goods of any variety. But setting hazy visions of creatures of the night aside, the area's most fantastical export might be kurtőskalacs, Hungarian for chimney cakes: hollow, helix-shaped pastries, made from a simple yeast dough that's wrapped around a wooden cylinder, dusted with sugar, then baked on a rotating spit above an open flame.
Carefully edged off its wooden mold after baking, each chimney cake is a whimsical-looking, soft bread with an addictively crunchy caramelized sugar crust and an airy open center. They're rumored to be Hungary's oldest pastry, and are typically made for special occasions like weddings and christenings. A traditional chimney cake baking operation is an all-day family affair, with dozens of hands pitching in to roll the dough around yard-long spits and rotate them constantly for hours in backyard brick ovens. When finished, the beautifully burnished breads are cut into manageable six-inch pieces for presentation, sometimes with a bottle of brandy housed inside.
These days, chimney cakes are still made by hand for special occasions, but they're also available in bakeries and in restaurants, and have become a popular street food in other Eastern European countries. Many bakers now use smaller wooden spindles, similar to rolling pins, that fit into specially-fitted electric ovens to produce miniature cakes that are served in one piece.
Anna Kozma is one of the new breeds of chimney cake bakers. She grew up in Harghita County, a predominantly Hungarian town in eastern Transylvania, baking chimney cakes with her grandmother. She immigrated to New York in 2002, and nine years later opened the city's first-ever bakery dedicated to kurtőskalacs, calling it, appropriately, Chimney Cake NYC Bakery. In her modest Long Island City storefront, Kozma makes everything by hand, in an open kitchen in plain view, introducing a whole new population to the pleasures of these tubular treats. She makes an old-fashioned sugar-dusted version, of course, but her menu also includes variations from cinnamon to crushed walnuts to chocolate shavings, and even cakes with savory fillings like ham and cheese.
"It takes time to learn how to make them properly," explains Kozma while she deftly winds a thin strip of dough in a perfect spiral around an oiled wooden pin. "The first time I tried to do this, I cried. Back home, my grandmother did this part. It was just my job to help turn the spit." In a matter of seconds, Kozma rolls the dough flat, swipes the pin through a pan of sugar, and slides the whole thing into her oven, a Hungarian import that automatically rotates the cakes and cooks them through in less than five minutes. So far, she says, most of her customers have never seen anything like it.
"When I talk to my family back home, they do think it's a little strange that I make this special occasion food every day," laughs Kozma. "I can get a little tired of eating it here—that's never happened before."
Chimney Cake NYC Bakery
10-50 Jackson Ave.
Long Island City, NY 11101