BUDAPEST — At one time, a typical afternoon in this city might require an hour spent at a cukraszda (cafe) sipping coffee over decadent, mile-high cakes or sticky, sweet strudel. While pastry consumption has become less of a ritual, the dozens of cukraszdas that line Budapest streets have not disappeared, and neither has the carefully crafted artistry of Hungarian pastries. The clientele has shifted from the masses to older women keeping this sweet tradition going and tourists in search of local flavor.
The Danube River divides Budapest into Buda and Pest, both sprinkled with famous pastry shops dating to the early 19th century. Buda is the older side, with views of the Danube from a picturesque hill; Pest is modern, hip, and cosmopolitan. A plethora of cukraszdas on both sides showcase extravagant and very traditional cakes in glass cases. You want to look at the entire case before you decide.
The first stop on our self-guided pastry tour of Pest is Molnar’s Kurtoskalacs Bakery. Kurtoskalacs — also called chimney cake for its long, hollow, cylindrical shape — are actually from Transylvania, from a time when Romania included a large Hungarian population. The confection is available at street carts around the city, but Hungarians consider Molnar’s the best. Through the window, passersby can peer at a young baker rolling out dough for kurtoskalac, which is somewhat reminiscent of a less sweet doughnut with a crispy shell and a soft, doughy center. The baker slices the rolled dough into strips and wraps them around a wooden dowel to bake for a few minutes. Once they emerge, she rolls the pastries in toppings such as chopped walnuts, coconut, or the most popular, cinnamon-sugar. The strips pull apart, making it easy to share.
The seventh district, also called Erzsebetvaros, houses the famous Dohany Street Synagogue and the old Jewish quarter. A sign in the synagogue courtyard directs visitors to Noe Cukraszda for Rachel’s Flodni, a layered, semisweet Hungarian cake popular on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Cafe Noe is a pint-size space with four tiny tables pushed up against the display case. Everything about the flodni fruit fillings with cinnamon and clove tastes like fall. The soft top crust is the texture of a Fig Newton, and divides each layer of plum jam, a paste-like walnut mixture, slivered apples, and poppy seeds. It comes on a delicate, little white plate adorned with blue flowers as if served at Grandma’s house. Flodni encompasses a savory quality that lends itself to the main course, rather than dessert.
An eight-minute walk in Erzsebetvaros will lead to Frohlich Cukraszda, which is hard to miss, with its three large red signs outside. Inside, picnic benches on a wall sit against glass-topped coffee tables with lace tablecloths underneath. Behind the counter, a large Jewish star covers the wall. A young, no-nonsense Hungarian woman briskly sets down our order. One plate holds kreme, a thick square of yellow custard and snow white whipped cream sandwiched between two flaky crusts, topped with a sugary icing. Traditional kreme is cooked cream or milk, egg, and vanilla, blended with egg whites, resulting in a pudding block that wobbles when the plate is moved. On another plate is turos taska, which looks like a tiny wrapped present of pastry enveloping a sweet cottage cheese filling. The third is the most ornamental: eszterhazy szelet or “nut cream,” alternating layers of cream and walnut sponge cake with a delicate piece of white chocolate over the top, marbled with chocolate and dotted with a walnut.
At Auguszt Cukraszda, the eszterhazy szelet’s filling seems like a thick buttercream icing with a golden color, indicating a personal touch on this classic at each cukraszda. “Pastry in Budapest is a status symbol,” Viktoria Sutus, a server at Auguszt Cukraszda, tells us. “It represents the good life and eating it makes people feel very elegant.” Coincidentally, Auguszt is the most opulent of the pastry shops, with a grand chandelier and murals stretching two stories to a balcony overlooking the main room.
Across the Danube in Buda, travel up Castle Hill to Ruszwurm Cukraszda, which serves quintessential old-fashioned Hungarian pastry. Castle Hill is home to the Var, Budapest’s famous palace, a stretch of mansions, and Ruszwurm since 1827. The cafe still has its original cherry wood counter. Just outside the olive green building, tourists, exhausted from hiking up the hill, sit at tables under white umbrellas delighting over dobos torte, containing an endless overlap of chocolate mousse and yellow sponge cake eaten with miniature forks. Jozsef Dobos was a Hungarian pastry chef often compared to the French chef Auguste Escoffier. Tiroli meggyes retes (sour cherry strudel) is another specialty with a glistening glaze on a flaky crust enveloping a sticky sweet filling of soft sour cherries that burst in your mouth.
Traditional Hungarian pastries differ from shop to shop. All, however, pay homage to the Hungarian tradition of eating sweets brought over by the Austrians. The art of cakes reached its height when Hungary was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since then, Hungarians have continued to celebrate their cakes and strudel (even if less frequently). The cukraszdas in both Buda and Pest are thriving.
AUGUSZT CUKRASZDA Kossuth Lajos Utca 14-16, Budapest
FROHLICH CUKRASZDA Dob
Utca 22, Budapest
MOLNAR’S KURTOSKALACS BAKERY Vaci Utca 31, Budapest
NOE CUKRASZDA Wesselényi
Utca 13, Budapest
RUSZWURM CUKRASZDA Szentharomsag Utca 7, Budapest