Hungarian pastries today reflect many influences: Italian bakers and candy producers worked in Hungary's royal court in medieval times; Turkish desserts became popular when the Ottomans ruled the country; French cake-making techniques seeped in through neighboring Austria. But starting in the mid-19th century, Hungary's pastry industry came into its own, unleashing many tasty and inventive creations.
The year 1884 was especially memorable: Two bakers, Emil Gerbeaud and Vilmos Ruszwurm, each took over a pastry shop that went on to transform Budapest's confectionery (they still exist today: Café Gerbeaud and Ruszwurm). This was also when the József C. Dobos invented the Dobos torte, which later became Hungary's most popular cake.
In Hungary, you'll have to visit a dedicated pastry shop — cukrászda in Hungarian — because restaurants don't serve cakes (these are my favorites). Here, there's still a thriving pastry shop culture you're unlikely to experience elsewhere: cukrászdas are peppered across the city, with each neighborhood boasting at least a couple. Some people visit them to socialize — there's also coffee, tea, and savory biscuits — others just pop in to pick up cakes for the Sunday family meal.
The Top 18
#1 - Strudel (rétes): Strudels evolved from the baklava, which Hungarians adopted when Ottoman Turkey ruled the country in the 16-17th centuries. Later, strudels spread across the whole Austro Hungarian Empire. What makes them unique in Hungary is the sheer variety of fillings, both sweet and savory. Have you had more than enough apple strudels in Vienna? No problem, try one with cottage cheese (túró), cabbage, or poppy seeds in Budapest.
#2 - Bejgli: During Christmas, no Hungarian dining table is complete without these sweet rolls filled with finely ground poppy seeds and walnuts. People usually place them on a plate side by side because there's a folk belief that the poppy seeds bring prosperity and the walnuts keep trouble away. Bejgli has long been a staple across countries in Central Europe.
#3 - Pozsonyi kifli: This is a variation of the bejgli, above. During the Austro Hungarian Empire, bakers in Bratislava (Pozsony) were so skilled at making of these filled breads that people from as far as Budapest would order deliveries. To be able to distinguish between the two, the ones with poppy seeds come in a crescent shape, whereas those with a walnut filling resemble a letter C. Unlike the bejgli, the pozsonyi kifli is available throughout the year.
#4 - Chimney cake (kürtőskalács): Feel free to just tear into this aromatic Transylvanian chimney cake flaunting a caramelized crust and a chewy, soft interior. Traditionally, as seen above, kürtőskalács is made by wrapping the dough around a baking spit and cooked over charcoal. Pastry shops don't sell them, but plenty of kürtőskalács vendors exist in Budapest's downtown.
#5 - Doughnut (fánk): You might know it as krapfen, Berliner, bombolone, sufganiyah, or jelly doughnut — fánk is the Hungarian version of this centuries-old deep-fried pastry traditionally eaten in the days of Carnival. Besides jam, fánks can also come with a chocolate or a vanilla custard filling and a sprinkle of powdered sugar atop. Most bakeries and grocery stores in Hungary serve them year-round.
#6 - Pogácsa: These soft and savory snacks, which are also popular across the Balkans and Turkey, fall somewhere between a scone and a biscuit. They come in different sizes and varieties: In Budapest, you’ll see many of them topped with melted cheese and filled with pork cracklings (töpörtyűs) or cottage cheese (túrós). Both bakeries and pastry shops sell pogácsa, but those often can’t hold a candle to a fresh homemade version.
#7 - Dobos torte: Created by local confectioner József C. Dobos in 1884, this popular Hungarian sponge cake sports layers of chocolate butter cream. After pathetic attempts by competitors to replicate his concoction, Dobos decided to make the recipe public and, still today, you'll find Dobos torte in most Budapest pastry shops. The cake's signature feature is the shiny, brittle caramel topping.
#8 - Esterházy torte: Named after a Hungarian royal family, the Esterházy torte is one of the most well-known in and outside the country. It comprises alternating layers of ground walnuts (or almonds) and rum-inflected buttercream with a white fondant coating. Interestingly, it contains no flour. At its best, the Esterházy torte is rich, but not cloying.
#9 - Krémes: Similar to a Napolean pastry, krémes is a cherished custard slice across Central Europe with each country flaunting a slightly different version. In Hungary, apart from regular krémes — vanilla custard enclosed by puff pastry — there's also "francia krémes," which comes with an extra layer of whipped cream and a caramel glaze on top.
#10 - Minyon: Local confectioner Henrik Kugler introduced in Hungary the petit fours — those dainty, bite-sized, delicate French cakes — in the 19th century. Here, they grew in size, and one of its kind, what was to be known as the minyon, became especially popular. The color of the icing indicates the flavor of the buttercream filling: brown for coffee, dark for chocolate. But pink is most popular, sporting a rum-soaked sponge cake inside.
#11 - Flódni: This rich cake layered with plum jam, apple, ground walnuts, and ground poppy seeds originates from Hungary's Jewish community. Traditionally, people ate it for the Jewish holiday of Purim, but today flódni is a cherished treat and widely available across Budapest pastry shops.
#12 - Linzer & Isler cookies: Both of these fruit jam-filled cookies made their way to Hungary from Austria with some twists and turns along the way. Typically, people enjoy them with their afternoon tea. The main difference between the two is the chocolate glaze that blankets the isler.
#13 - Rigó Jancsi: This cube-shaped sponge cake is named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist whose story famously scandalized 19th century Europe: Rigó seduced Princess Chimay, an American-Belgian socialite, who ran away with him, leaving behind a husband and two children. Their romance didn't last very long, unlike the chocolate cream-filled cake Rigó inspired, which became a classic, though fewer and fewer Budapest pastry shops serve it these days.
#14 - Indiáner: These puffy black-and-white cakes were all the rage a hundred years ago in pastry shops across Budapest and Vienna. Blanketed in chocolate and split by a layer of whipped cream, Indiáners are delicious but a hassle to do. Auguszt pastry shop (the one in Fény utca) is among the few places in Budapest that still make them.
#15 - Somlói galuska: Despite being a relatively recent invention, dating back to the 1950s, the somlói galuska is a beloved dessert dish across Hungary. It consists of a rum-infused sponge cake soaked in vanilla custard, chocolate cream, and whipped cream, with a sprinkling of walnuts and raisins. Apart from pastry shops, restaurants also serve it.
#16 - Gerbeaud slice: This bite-sized cake, created by the historic Café Gerbeaud, is a staple of all pastry shops in Hungary. Under a chocolate glaze lie layers of a sweet dough alternating with a filling made from ground walnuts and apricot jam.
#17 - Rákóczi túrós: Even most Hungarians mistakenly believe that this meringue and apricot jam-topped cake is named after the country's famous prince and revolutionary leader, Ferenc II Rákóczi, but the truth is more banal: the moniker is a hat-tip to baker János Rákóczi, who invented the cake in the 1930s.
#18 - Marzipan: As Italy, Germany, and Spain, Hungary also enjoys a thriving marzipan culture with Budapest pastry shops serving colorful figures of all shapes and sizes year-round (marzipan is made from a mixture of almond paste and sugar). There's even a dedicated Marzipan Museum in the town of Szentendre.