Trdelník is a type of spit cake, which is prepared with dough that is wrapped around a stick, before being baked on an open fire. The chimney cake is topped with a mixture of sugar and walnut, or cinnamon sugar.
Although trdelník can be found in several Central European countries, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, it has become very popular in the Czech Republic, and more precisely in Prague, in recent years, where modern versions with ice cream or Nutella are often offered by street vendors.
Prague is actually where I discovered trdelnik during our visit of the Czech capital with the family in 2016. I could not get enough of this deliciously crispy and fun cake!
What is the origin of trdelník?
Although trdelnik is believed to have originated in the Hungarian-speaking part of Transylvania, in Romania, the town of Skalica in Slovakia (near the Czech border) has a long tradition of making those spit cakes. Indeed, Transylvanian cook József Gvadányi, a retired Hungarian general, brought the recipe to the Slovak city toward the end of the 18th century, where it is now known as skalický trdelník.
The name trdelník comes from the word trdlo. A trdlo is a wooden tool used to pound materials in a stoupa (hollowed-out log). The characteristic of trdelnik is that it is wrapped around a stick before it is grilled or baked.
Throughout Central Europe, this trdelník cake is known under different names. In Hungary (and Hungarian-speaking regions of Romania), it is called kürtőskalács or cozonac secuiesc. Austrians call it Prügelkrapfen. In Germany, it is known as Baumstriezel. In Luxembourg, where it has become a national dish, people call it baamkuch, In Poland, a similar cake is called sękacz. In Romania, it is colac secuiesc.
Beyond Central Europe, other versions of this cake are popular. For example, in Sweden, it is known as spettekaka. In Lithuania, it is raguolis or šakotis. In Israel, you will find kyortush. In Turkey, makara tatlısı. And in South Africa, it will be stokbrood. A version called trayne roste with dates, figs and raisins, was also popular in England in the Middle Ages.
Out of all these versions of the same cake, the Hungarian version, as mentioned above, seems to be the original version. Indeed, kürtőskalács has been known for centuries under different names like dorongfánk (spit-donut), botratekercs (stick roll-up) or botfánk (stick-donut). The current name only appeared for the first time in 1926, in a cookbook published by the book department of Brassói Lapok (Transylvanian gazette).
Spit cakes throughout history
The method of baking cakes on logs over an open fire was known in Ancient Greece, around 400 BC, when similar cakes were prepared on spits for Dionysiac feasts. The Obelias Bread, as it was called, was about 6 feet long and was carried by two men on their shoulder.
The first known written record that makes reference to such spit cakes dates back to the fifteenth century (circa 1450). It can be found in a manuscript from Heidelberg. It is defined as a strip of dough that has is wrapped around a baking spit, and brushed with egg yolk before it is baked.
Around the 16th century, these cakes evolved in three different branches:
– The kürtőskalács, as well as we know now as the trdelnik.
– Pastries made from batter, including raguolis and šakotis (“branch tree”, in Lithuania), sękacz (Poland), gateau à la broche (Pyrénées, France), Baumkuchen (“tree cake”, in Germany), Prügertorte and Prügelkrapfen (Austria), and spettekaka (Sweden). The Swedish version is however slightly different as it is prepared with potato starch instead of flour.
– The Transylvanian-Saxon Baumstriezel, where a continuous dough strip is placed on a spit.
The first known record of a recipe for kürtőskalács (ancestor of trdelnik) was found in the 1784 cookbook of Countess Mária Mikes of Zabola. In a cookbook written by Kristóf Simai in 1795 in Upper Hungary (now Slovakia), the cake is topped with chopped nuts before baking, and covered with sugar after baking.
But we have to wait until 1876, before the first mention of a sugar glaze in Aunt Rézi’s Cookbook written by Terézia Dolecskó, published in Szeged, Hungary.
Additional toppings such as ground, chopped or candied walnuts, cocoa, cinnamon or coconut only became popular toward the end of the 20th century.
To this day, kürtőskalács has remained a symbol of cultural identity in the eastern part of the Hungarian-speaking regions (Romania), in the Szeklerland.
The original and traditional version of kürtőskalács only includes sugar, wheat flour, butter, milk, eggs, yeast and salt.
Trdelnik is very similar to kürtőskalács, the main difference being that trdelnik doesn’t have a caramel sugar glaze. The first written record of trdelnik from Szakolca dates back to 1911. It was made by Gyula Juhász, Hungarian poet, and professor in the local high school at the time.
In the streets of Prague, trdelnik has become a sensation over the past couple decades. Trdelník is now offered with various toppings, and often with Nutella. Making trdelnik at home is possible, even if you do not have an open fire or a rotating system.
I was going to purchase a metal rod at a hardware store to replicate a similar system on my BBQ. But I found a few online recipes that mentioned making a stick with magazines! Yes, I was skeptical at first, as I thought that the paper would catch fire. However, it turns out that if you wrap those magazines carefully with tin foil, they will be perfectly safe as you bake them in the oven.
The result: maybe not exactly the same as the delicious trdelnik offered by street vendors, but actually not very far. Trdelnik is usually made as a long cylinder. To ease the sliding of the cylinders from the makeshift magazine and tinfoil stick, I decided to make them smaller.
I also used cinnamon sugar for my trdelník, but feel free to use chopped walnuts instead. We devoured them with Nutella, after a potluck dinner with family and friends.
This recipe is validated by our culinary expert in Czech cuisine, Kristyna Koutna. You can find Kristyna on her food blog CzechCookbook.com.
- 4 cups all-purpose flour , sifted
- ¾ cup milk , warm
- 5 tablespoons butter , melted
- 2 eggs , lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Oil (for greasing trdlo sticks)
- In a bowl, combine 2 tablespoons sugar, the milk and the yeast. Set aside for 10 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together 2 egg yolks and butter.
- Add the flour, then the yeast mixture and the salt.
- Combine and mix well. The dough will be quite dense.
- Form the dough into a ball, place it in the bowl, cover and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until it almost doubles in volume.
- Meanwhile, roll magazines into a stick and secure them with cooking twine or scotch tape. Tightly cover each stick with aluminum foil and tuck the edges on each side of the magazine.
Preheat the oven to 380F/190C (ideally convection mode).
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to approximately ⅛ inch (3mm) thickness. Using a small knife, cut ½ inch (1cm) thick strips (at least 8 inches/20cm long).
- Grease each trdlo stick by spraying oil on them. Tightly wrap each strip of dough around the sticks making sure each strip slightly overlaps each other. Each stick should fit about 3 trdelnik pastries, leaving about 1 inch between them.
- Combine cinnamon and sugar (to taste) in a large baking sheet.
- Brush each trdelnik with egg white and generously coat with the cinnamon sugar.
- Place the trdlo sticks on a baking dish making sure the pastry doesn’t touch the bottom or the sides of the dish.
- Bake the trdelnik for 20 minutes until they are golden all around.
- Carefully slide off the trdelnik from the sticks.