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 Ottoman Turkey occupied the country; French cake-making techniques seeped in through neighboring Austria. But starting in the middle of the 19th century, Hungary's pastry industry came into its own.
The year 1884 was especially memorable: Two bakers, Emil Gerbeaud and Vilmos Ruszwurm, each launched a pastry shop that went on to transform Budapest's confectionery and still exists 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 17
#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 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 ground poppy seeds and ground 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 is 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 good at making of these filled breads that people even from 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 then 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 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 or 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 - 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.
#11 - 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 eat linzer and isler with an afternoon tea or coffee. The main difference between the two is the chocolate glaze that blankets the isler.
#12 - Rigó Jancsi: This cube-shaped sponge cake is named after the Hungarian gypsy violinist whose story famously scandalized Europe in the 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 fewer and fewer Budapest pastry shops serve it these days.
#13 - 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 delicious but a hassle to do. Auguszt pastry shop in Fény Street is one of the few places in Budapest that still makes them.
#14 - 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-inflected 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.
#15 - Gerbeaud slice: This bite-sized cake, created by the legendary 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.
#16 - 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.
#17 - 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.