Hungarian pastries today reflect many influences: some hark back to medieval Hungary, others have Ottoman Turkish origins, still others show French cake-making techniques that seeped in through neighboring Austria. But starting in the mid-19th century, Hungary's pastry industry came into its own, unleashing a range of 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. The establishments still exist today: Café Gerbeaud and Ruszwurm. This was also when József C. Dobos invented the Dobos torte, which later became Hungary's most popular cake.
In Hungary, there's still a thriving pastry culture you're unlikely to experience elsewhere: pastry shops (cukrászda) 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. Here you can find my favorite cukrászdas in Budapest.
#1 - Pogácsa: These soft snacks are among the most traditional — dating back to medieval Hungary — and widespread across the country. They come in different sizes and varieties: you'll find pogácsa topped with melted cheese, dotted with pork cracklings (töpörtyűs), and filled with cottage cheese (túrós). Both bakeries and pastry shops sell pogácsa, but those often can’t hold a candle to a fresh homemade version.
#2 - Strudel (rétes): Strudels evolved from the baklava, which Hungarians took from Ottoman Turkey when it 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.
#3 - 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 is a staple across countries in Central Europe.
#4 - 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.
#5 - Chimney cake (kürtőskalács): Feel free to just tear into this aromatic Transylvanian chimney cake flaunting a caramelized crust and a chewy, soft interior. Kürtőskalács is prepared by wrapping the dough around a baking spit and then cooking it over charcoal (as seen above). Traditionally, people made it for family celebrations. Pastry shops don't sell them, but plenty of kürtőskalács vendors exist in Budapest's downtown.
#6 - 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 fruit jam, fánks also come with a chocolate or a vanilla custard filling. Most bakeries and grocery stores in Hungary serve them year-round.
#7 - Dobos torte: It was confectioner József C. Dobos who created in 1884 this famous sponge cake layered with chocolate butter cream. The Dobos torte's signature feature is the shiny, brittle caramel topping. After pathetic attempts by competitors to replicate his concoction, Dobos made the recipe public and, still today, you'll find Dobos torte in most Budapest pastry shops.