A popular dessert bread all over the world, the kürtős kalács, known as chimney cake or funnel cake, is being sold all over the world. New vendors are popping up every day, people enjoy them everywhere, but few know that the roasted thin bread originates in a small Szekler-Hungarian village in Transylvania.
Growing up in Transylvania, kürtős kalács was one of my favorite treats. But few even knew of its existence outside the Szekler-Hungarian areas of Transylvania. If you said the pastry’s name even fifteen years ago, you would’ve seen only blank stares.
Yet, the first known recipe dates back to Countess Maria Mikes in 1784. And, according to legend, kürtős kalács origins date back much farther than that, to the 13th century. According to legend, this tasty treat owes its existence to the ingenuity of the Szekler women, who first baked it to save their village under siege.
The Origins of the Kürtős Kalács
Scholar and writer Balázs Orbán recorded the story in 1868, in his monumental work, “Description of Szeklerland (A Székelyföld leírása)”. According to the stories I read in his book, Székler women from Máréfalva invented the kürtős kalács during the Mongol invasion of Transylvania in 1241.
As the story goes, when the Mongols invaded the countryside of Transylvania, the people of Máréfalva retreated in the hills above the village. They planned to live there, in the caves they knew well, until the enemy left.
However, the Mongols followed them there. Though they couldn’t enter the protected area, they decided to surround the villagers, hoping to starve them out. As the siege dragged on, the villagers started to run out of food. They knew the enemy had to be in the same boat, they should be running out of food, too.
So, the ingenuous Szekler women came up with a plan to fool the invaders. They took every ounce of flour they still had, mixed it with water and ash to make more of it. To make it look even larger, they rolled it on a long pole and baked it. The resulting bread might have been hollow, but it was long. From the right angle, it seemed huge.
The Szeklers held the bread for the enemy to see. They made sure they held it for the enemy to see an enormous piece of bread, but not the hollow middle. Essentially, they were saying, “Look, we still have plenty of bread to live here for months, while you are probably starving.” The Mongols didn’t catch on, and believed the villagers had enough food to stay in the caves indefinitely. After a short debate, they decided to leave before they ran out of all their food. As the Mongols left, the villagers returned to their homes.
Kürtős Kalács in Modern Years
Whether the legend is true or not, the fact remains that kürtős kalács has always been a popular treat in the Szekler-Hungarian regions of Transylvania, while practically unknown anywhere else.
At some point, in the 18th century, the Hungarian nobility made it popular in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for this popularity only lasted for a short time. During the communist years of the Eastern-block countries, kürtős kalács remained isolated in pockets of Hungarian-speaking regions of Transylvania.
After the communist regime, when Transylvania (which has been part of Romania since WWII), opened up for tourism, visitors from Hungary noticed kürtős kalács in the Hungarian-speaking areas. So, by the mid-1990s, the sweet, crispy chimney-shaped bread became popular in their country as the image of Hungarian-speaking Transylvania. From there, its popularity grew as Budapest became a well-known and sought-after destination for travelers from all over the world.
Its popularity also grew when Hungarians in other regions of Europe, including the Checz Republic, started selling it. When we visited Prague in the late 1990s, we were surprised to see kürtős kalács vendors all over the city center.
Kürtős kalács in Phoenix: AZ Chimney Cakes
Now, you can find kürtős kalács everywhere, even in Phoenix. And most of the time, it isn’t even Hungarians who sell it.
The owner of AZ Chimney Cakes in Phoenix, Zaaron Williams, first tasted kürtős kalács in Prague. Similar to the time we went, he noticed this unique desert on every corner of the Old Town Prague and all the tourist spots. But unlike us, who already knew what kürtős kalács was, and as my kids’ favorite dessert, we had to buy it for them from every vendor, it was Williams’ first taste of it. And the crispy-on-the-outside, but soft on the inside, hollow bread became his favorite dessert.
As he tells the story, after returning home to Phoenix, he could not get it out of his head, and started searching for a place that sells it close to home. When he didn’t find any in all of Arizona, Zaaron and his mother decided to make it themselves and sell it. So, after lots of research, trials and errors, his family started selling it out of a food truck in 2017. However, the traditional cylinder shape kürtős kalács didn’t sell well in Phoenix, so they came up with a few alternatives. This is what Zaaron says about the process:
“When we first learned this art we only made traditional cylinder kürtős kalács. But Americans didn’t seem interested in the cake alone, so we researched trying not to give up on a dream of treating Arizonians to the best treat ever. We found many Europeans now make the cone shape and fill them with ice cream or nutella, so we ordered the cone shaped spits and created our Bavarian & Oreo Creams to put inside. Now we offer many varieties from Gelato – fruit and cheesecake etc inside. People love it!”
Starting this business in the US was not an easy process, since you can’t find any of this equipment to make it in the country. I brought a spit from Transylvania, so I can make it for my kids on my backyard barbecue. It works to make one or two chimney cakes, but to make enough to sell, you need the full equipment, only available in Europe. Zaaron gets it shipped from Hungary or Bulgaria.
Though his store hit a bit of a rough time when COVID-19 started, they have been around for long enough that they have a good following and since Arizonians can’t find kürtős kalács anywhere else, they drive many miles to enjoy this special treat.
You Can Try Kürtős Kalács at our Hungarian Festival
Kürtős kalács really is a special treat, with or without new innovations, although its versatility is what makes it ultimately so popular all over the world. Personally, I still prefer the original, simple, hollow cylinder with sugar glaze I grew up with, but the hollowed bread offers so many opportunitlies for filings and other innovations, anyone and everyone can find a version they like.
And if you join us at the Hungarian Festival on March 5th, you can taste it yourself. Look for AZ Chimney Cakes among the food vendors.