Hungarian pastries today reflect many influences: Italian bakers and candy producers worked in Hungary's royal court in medieval times; Turkish desserts became popular during the country's century-and-a-half Ottoman occupation; Western European cake-making techniques and ingredients seeped into the country through neighboring Austria. But it was during the Austro Hungarian Empire, in the second half of the 19th century, when Hungary's pastry shops came into their own, inventing a wide range of cakes, pastries, and marzipan figurines that are still popular today.
The year 1884 marked three milestones. Two bakers, Emil Gerbeaud and Vilmos Ruszwurm, each began their wildly successful patronage of a pastry shop that later transformed Budapest's confectionery and still bear their names today (Café Gerbeaud and Ruszwurm). This was also when the József C. Dobos invented the Dobos torte, Hungary's most famous cake.
In Hungary, you'll have to visit a dedicated pastry shop—cukrászda in Hungarian—to try the local cakes because restaurants don't serve them (these are my favorites). There's still a pastry shop culture in Budapest that you're unlikely to experience in most places—cukrászdas are peppered across the city, with each neighborhood boasting at least a couple. Apart from a range of cakes, they also serve coffee, tea, and savory biscuits.
The Top 12
#1 - Dobos torte: Created by local confectioner József C. Dobos in 1884, this is the quintessential Hungarian sponge cake sporting 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.
#2 - Esterházy torte: Named after a prominent 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. At its best, the Esterházy torte is rich, but not cloying.
#3 - Somlói galuska: Despite being a relatively recent invention, dating back to the 1950s, the somlói galuska is a deeply beloved dessert across Hungary. It consists of a rum-soaked sponge cake packing vanilla custard, chocolate cream, and whipped cream, and a sprinkling of walnuts and raisins. Apart from pastry shops, many restaurants also serve it.
#4 - Gerbeaud slice: This bite-sized cake, which was created by the iconic Café Gerbeaud, is a staple of all Hungarian pastry shops. Under a chocolate glaze lie layers of a sweet filling made from ground walnuts and apricot jam.
#5 - Strudel (rétes): Strudels evolved from the phyllo pastries Hungarians adopted from the Ottoman Turks that ruled the country in the 16-17th centuries. Later, strudels spread across the whole Austro Hungarian Empire. The sheer variety of fillings, both sweet and savory, makes strudels in Hungary unique. You've had enough apple strudels in Vienna? No problem, try one with cottage cheese, poppy seeds, or cabbage in Budapest.
#6 - 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.
#7 - Rákóczi túrós: Even most Hungarians think 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.
#8 - Flódni: This rich cake packing plum jam, walnuts, apple, and poppy seeds in-between layers of matzo originate from Hungary's Jewish population and has rightfully seeped into the mainstream. Both pastry shops and Jewish-style restaurants serve it.
#9 - Linzer & Isler cookies: Both of these fruit jam-studded cookies made their way to Hungary from Austria with some twists and turns along the way. Historically, linzer and isler have been the stereotypical sweets served during an afternoon tea. The main difference between the two is the chocolate glaze that blankets the isler.
#10 - Bejgli: During Christmas, no Hungarian dining table is complete without these sweet rolls filled with 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 traces its origin to Silesia, in today's Poland.
#11 - Rigó Jancsi: This cube-shaped sponge cake is named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist whose story famously scandalized Europe in the late 19th century: 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 not all pastry shops serve it these days.
#12 - Indiáner: Most people my age (including myself until recently) have no idea what these puffy black-and-white cakes are even though a hundred years ago they were all the rage in pastry shops across Budapest and Vienna. Blanketed in chocolate and split by a layer of whipped cream, Indiáners are wonderfully delicious but a hassle to do. Auguszt pastry shop in Fény Street is one of the few places in Budapest that still makes them.