“An American guy gave me the idea,” Prague-native Anna Novak told me ‒ and the new food craze that is sweeping Eastern Europe was born.
The simple, traditional Czech treat known as the trdlo (aka chimney cake) today is being stuffed with everything from brownies to bacon and eggs. And locals and tourists alike can’t get enough of it.
We went to Prague on a Bohemian quest: my wife in search of the delicious, sweet kolache her Czech grandmother used to make, and I in search of the beer cellar, the pivnice, where, before the Berlin Wall came down, the Czechoslovakian state police ejected me for talking politics with locals.
Within a few days, however, our quest had imploded. Kolaches ‒ simple pastries loaded with poppy seeds, prunes and other fillings ‒ we discovered are a fading memory now rarely found in the country, not even in big bakeries in Prague. The sweet memory turned bitter for my wife. Meanwhile, after a long search, we found my former pivnice is today just a touristy, greasy-spoon café with abominable ratings on Trip Advisor. The mystery and secret-police intrigue of decades ago collapsed like a fallen soufflé.
We did discover the new food rage of the Czech Republic – and, indeed, Eastern Europe-the trdlo, or Chimney Cake. This traditional Bohemian dessert today is nothing like what grandma used to make.
I asked many local residents in Prague if they enjoyed the trdlo growing up, and everyone they said their grandmothers made them ‒ but not a one said mom did. Apparently, like the kolache, chimney cakes were also a slowly fading tradition. They were found mostly at street stands, especially as part of the Christmas markets that filled the squares.
“They were especially popular at Christmas time at the special markets, enjoyed with mulled, hot red wine,” Isabella told me, a hotel receptionist and Prague native. She explained that back then they were simple cakes savored hot off the fire in winter, sometimes slathered with a little jam or honey. They were a basic, down-to-earth treat, so much so that “trdlo” became a commonly used slang pejorative for someone who did something dumb. “As kids, we would call someone a trdlo ‒ a dummy – if he said or did something stupid. But it was a friendly joke, not a mean one,” explained Isabella.
Traditionally, trdlos were simply pastry dough wrapped on a conical skewer, rolled in sugar, butter and cinnamon, and baked over burning embers. Today, they are an innovative food fad launched in 2015 in Prague.
Good Food Coffee & Bakery is where the trdlo revolution began. Everything changed when Anna, Good Food’s owner, who grew up in Prague eating her grandma’s Chimney Cakes, had an impromptu conversation with an unidentified traveler from the United States. A lightbulb went off in her head when he suggested, “Fill the Chimney Cakes with ice cream and top them with syrup. Make them fun to eat.”
In the city of favorite son Franz Kafka, the metamorphosis happened virtually overnight. At Good Food Coffee & Bakery, Anna catapulted her menu to revolutionary status by filling her trdlos with ice cream, whipped cream, apples and berries, and topping them with various syrups, brownies and candies, and loading others with vegetables and even bacon and eggs. The race to innovate was on. At existing trdlo shops and the many new ones that soon opened, vendors starting offering trdlos filled with rich, homemade Czech ice creams, and vanilla, chocolate and caramel sauces, fruits and more.
Today, trdlo shops with long lines are everywhere in Prague. Architecturally magnificent Prague, a forgotten backwater during the Soviet communist days, has become one of Europe’s most popular destinations. The city’s huge crowds are an ideal market for the Chimney Cake vendors.
Trdlos have also made their introduction Poland’s Krakow, another architectural masterpiece of the region. Two chimney cake outlets have opened there recently, and there are reports of others opening in Poland.
The trdlos craze is going international too. Anna has two daughters and one is running the family trdlo shop in Dubai, while the other is operating their new outlet in China. Anna also told me trdlo shops have opened in Hungary and Slovakia, and, during our conversations she hinted that maybe I’d want to work with her on launching an outlet in California!
Other trdlo shops mostly stick to tried-and-true sweet fillings and toppings. Not Good Food. Some of their offerings are a bit bizarre: The Chimney Devil is stuffed with activated charcoal and coconut and activated charcoal ice cream. Coal black in color, it was too earthy and minerally for me. The Chimney Almond combines the nuts with guacamole, arugula and radish; The Chimney Tiramisu features mascarpone cream; the Chimney Twister is stuffed with ham, cheese, tomato and arugula. And the Chimney Bacon & Eggs mixes poached egg, bacon and salad with Caesar dressing. For my pedestrian tastes, Anna’s The Chimney King was my favorite: incredibly rich, homemade vanilla cream ice cream topped with hazelnuts, chocolate brownies and salted caramel and chocolate sauces.
In Krakow, the Chimney Cake Bakery, a small kiosk on the edge of Krakow’s historic Old Town, has conjured up some innovative fillings such as Reese’s Peanut Butter, speculoos dough with biscuits and Nutella hazelnut butter with Oreos. Their ice cream was mouth-watering joy–extraordinarily rich, fresh and creamy, tasting like it was homemade that morning.
“It’s catching on in Poland,” claimed the young Pole managing the kiosk. “We have opened a second location in Krakow (which he claimed are the only ones in the city), while Chimney Cake shops have been opening in other Polish cities.”
However, Chimney Cake Bakery falls down in the basic trdlo pastry dough. Instead of fresh dough cooked over a wood fire as in Prague, they cut a big corner by using frozen dough cooked with a heating element. Consequently, the quality level falls a notch in Krakow.
The streets of central Prague, and particularly famously beautiful St. Charles Bridge, are choked with surging crowds of visitors. Almost every language can be heard there. And so many of those travelers are returning to their countries raving about chimney cake, a once humble Czech treat that has gone through a metamorphosis. Today, in all its new permutations and re-inventions, it’s the new sensation of the region—and soon the world. – Story and photos by Edward Placidi, RFT Contributor