If you visited Budapest or Prague, you might have seen pastries baked on spits in the streets, tempting with irresistible smell of melted sugar and cinnamon. The tradition of baking on logs on open fire dates back as far as Dionysiac feasts in ancient Greece. These days spit cakes are made in many countries across Europe and vary in appearance, texture and taste.
The closest resemblance to spit cakes can be traced back to 400 B.C. Ancient Greeks used to make bread by winding dough on a spit and baking it over an open fire. The bread called Obeliai (derived from “obeloi” – a spit) was about 2 meters long and men in the processions carried the spit on their shoulders to the sanctuary of Dionysus. Romans adopted spit baking and with the expansion of Roman empire the tradition spread in Europe.
The first known record about spit cakes is 15th century Heidelberg manuscript. The description mentions a strip of raised dough that has to be wound in spiral around a baking spit, and brushed with egg before baking. That type of cakes were baked by Szekler-Hungarians as well as Czech-Moravians.
In the 16th century some other variations of spit cakes emerged. Saxons from Transylvania, who immigrated to Germany, started making Baumstriezel by placing a sheet of stretched dough on the surface of the spit and tying it together with a string.
German bakers also introduced the liquid batter, that was poured onto a rotating spit. The recipe with slight variations of batter was widely adopted and now is used in Austria, Poland, Lithuania, France, Sweden and some other countries in Europe.
Kürtőskalács is said to be Hungary’s oldest pastry. The etymology of the name refers to vent or chimney of stove and is commonly called as “chimney cake” by English speakers. The dough is made of flour, yeast, sugar, salt, eggs, butter and milk. Strips of it are wrapped around the cylinder shaped spit, patted down smooth, brushed with egg wash, dipped in sugar and baked above charcoal cinders. When taken off from the spit, 25-30cm (10-12 inches) long cake reminiscent of a tube. Served coated in cinnamon, crushed nuts, coconut or sprinkles it is the best when eaten still warm. The texture and flavour reminded me of buns – crunchy from outside and soft in the inside.
You can see those pastries baked in the window of Molnár’s Kürtőskalács Bakery in Budapest or in some outdoor markets in Hungary.
Slovakia and Czech Republic: Trdelník or Trdlo
The name Trdelník comes from “trdlo”, the wooden stake the cake is wrapped around for cooking which gives it its traditional hollow shape. It is very similar to Hungarian Kürtőskalács and Hungarians, Slovaks and Czechs argue about the origin of this pastry made of risen yeast dough. The difference is that Trdelník is not flattened down before baking and coated with crushed walnuts, almonds or apricot kernels. When baked, the surface is sprinkled with icing sugar.
You can buy spit cake in the main square in Prague. Or if you are up for more authentic experience travel to Skalica town in Záhorie region in Slovakia. It is known for Skalický Trdelník, that has a protection of geographical indication registered by the European Commission. In the historical complex of Franciscan monastery you can visit the Black kitchen and see how traditional Trdelnik is made.
Baumkuchen is considered to be king of cakes in Germany. The name literally means “tree cake”. When cut across you can see rings resembling growth rings of a tree trunk. Ingredients are typically butter, eggs, sugar, salt, flour, corn starch and almond paste. The batter is baked in layers on a spinning spool. When one layer gets brownish, another one is poured over the top until the layers add up to 20-25. Usually Baumkuchen has ringed ridges, that are achieved by making cuts into the fresh layers of batter using a special comb towards the end of baking.
Baumkuchen can be plain or covered in sugar icing or chocolate glaze. It can also contain a layer of marmalade mixed with orange liqueur or rum under the chocolate coating. It is sold as the whole cake, cut in round disks or in small chocolate glazed triangle pieces – Baumkuchenspitzen.
Salzwedel town in the Saxon Anhalt region have proclaimed itself as “town of Baumkuchen”. You can visit more than 150 year old Baumkuchen factory there, watch the baking process and try some freshly baked cake.
Austrian Prügeltorte or Prügelkrapfen meaning “roasted cake” is mostly common in Tyrolese villages along the River Brandenberg. In terms of ingredients and baking technique it is a close relative of Baumkuchen, but the surface is not that smooth, with little bulges or even spikes formed from dripping dough during the process of baking. It has a conical rather than cylindrical shape.
You can combine one of the most beautiful Austrian landscapes – Kaiserklamm Gorge tour with the tasting of Brandenberg Prügeltorte.
France: Gâteau à la Broche
French Gâteau à la Broche is usually made in Hautes Pyrénées and Aveyron and is a symbol of weddings or other family celebrations.
The cake is made of flour, eggs, butter, sugar, salt, rum and vanilla, but orange flower water and nuts can also be added to the batter.
You can find Gâteau à la Broche in traditional boulangeries in Aveyron or in Hautes Pyrénées, where demonstrations of making it are held every Tuesday at Argelès Gazost market.
Šakotis means “branched” in Lithuanian. The spit is spun much faster than making German Baumkuchen and the dripping batter forms the spikes making it look like a Christmas tree. In the Middle ages when the recipe was brought from Germany, it was made only in monasteries and called by a similar name Bankuchenas, which is still used in certain parts of Lithuania even these days.
The batter of Šakotis is made rich with eggs. Unlike in the recipes of other countries cream or sour cream is used for the richer consistency of the pastry. The best tree cakes come from small countryside bakeries that use free range eggs and can be bought in markets in different sizes as well as cut in chunks.
Festive versions of Šakotis can be drizzled with melted chocolate or decorated with colourful sugar flowers.
You can get these cakes in most of the supermarkets in Lithuania and souvenir-sized ones in the airport shops. They can come packaged in cardboard boxes with a handle to carry and is a popular treat to take abroad.
In Poland spit cake Sękacz is made in eastern region, mainly Podlasie. The most famous variation comes from the town of Sejny.
Firm and chewy in texture Sękacz can be either with spikes or have smooth surface like Baumkuchen. You can buy the cake in bakeries or in supermarkets cut up and packaged in pieces. For those who are serious about the whole baking experience, workshops can be organised upon request.
The word Spettekaka translated from Swedish means “spit cake”. It is a traditional dessert of a Southern part of Sweden, mostly of Scania region and is an important part of culinary heritage.
The cake is made out of eggs, potato starch and sugar. The batter is poured into a piping bag and slowly squeezed onto a rotating cone shaped spit. Baking one cake can take up to several hours as each layer of batter has to be completely dry before applying a new one. The final layer of pink or white icing can be applied at the end of baking.
The cake is very dry and porous and reminds of a merengue. Cutting it with a regular knife is nearly impossible due to crumbling, therefore a special saw-like knife is used.
During celebrations there is a tradition to cut out small rectangle windows from the sides of the cake, keeping the whole shape intact as long as possible. Spettekaka is served accompanied with vanilla ice cream and port and eaten with coffee.
If you are in Malmö, visit Johanna Jeppssons Spettekaka bakery where you can buy this freshly made Scanian specialty.