Living in Europe has many perks, but the one that still makes living here seem like a dream, even after eight years, is the fact that other European destinations are so close that you can jump right over for any old reason… like, let’s say, to try out some pastry.
There are many great pastry destinations in Europe, and I live in one of them (Paris).
I was recently in Prague — which may be better known for its bridge, its clock and its beer — but it’s just as tasty a destination for pastry lovers.
While this may be surprising to some, more used to hearing of pastry tales from Vienna and Budapest, it is for good reason.
The former Austro-Hungarian Empire was home to many modern Central European countries, including Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and the recipes for these classic pastries were passed from family to family, town to town.
Prague’s pastries are far from unique, but as I discovered them, I noticed not only the ways in which they are linked to those of neighboring countries but also the characteristics that make them stand out.
Trdelnik is one of the most common pastries to find on Prague’s streets — in fact, three-dimensional invitations to try the rolled pastry hang from storefronts throughout the city, particularly in the tourist neighborhoods.
But while Prague is famous for its trdelnik, the pastry was originally known as kurtsoskalacs and hailed from Szekely Land, Transylvania — home of the Szekely Hungarians.
According to food historians, Count Josef Gvadanyi, a Hungarian general, settled in the town of Skalica, on what is now the border between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, in the 18th century, bringing with him a Transylvanian cook who had a tasty recipe for kurtsoskalacs in his repertoire.
While trdelnik is now available throughout the former Empire, from Austria to Hungary and everywhere in between, today it’s most famous in Slovakia and the Czech Republic — particularly so on the former, where Skalicky trdelnik became registered in December 2007 as a PGI within the EU.
I tried trdelnik at Krusta (Drazickeho Square 12) where they’re made outside as you watch.
You can snag a seat on the patio overlooking the Charles Bridge and watch as the woman making them goes through what has become, for her, an automatic series of motions: rolling out the dough, wrapping it around the stick, called a trdlo, sprinkling it with a sugar and spice mixture and setting it over the flames to cook.
When I finally dug in, I wasn’t too sure what to expect.
The dough itself isn’t actually all that sweet, but the outside has a really lovely, caramelized richness and aromas of burnt sugar.
Perfect with mulled wine.
Whether you’re visiting the city for your first time or hundredth, with friends or enjoying solo travel in Prague, don’t miss this tasty experience!
No, that isn’t a typo! Strudel may be famed in Vienna, but strudl is a traditional Czech dessert.
Of course, when you compare the names as well as the pastries themselves, it’s obvious that they both come from the same place — in fact, some food historians believe that the modern strudel and strudl were inspired by early versions of Turkish baklava.
Strudel-like pastries became popular in the 18th century; the first recipe hails from Vienna and dates to 1696.
While this early version was made with parsnips, modern versions are usually filled with apples and spices and can be found in Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia, Poland, Romania and Slovakia… and the Czech Republic, of course.
Traditional strudel pastry in the Viennese tradition is very elastic and worked until it’s paper thin before being wrapped in many layers around the filling.
The pastry of the Prague version that I tasted is slightly thicker than that of the Viennese pastry.
As Austrian wives were often judged by the thinness of the pastry, I think it’s safe to deduce that the Czech version is just slightly more rustic… but no less tasty.
The apple strudl at Krusta (Drazickeho Square 12) has several unique characteristics, at least as far as this strudel-taster is concerned.
Its filling is slightly pink from apple skins and stuffed with both apples and raisins. Dusted with a simple layer of powdered sugar as opposed to cream or ice cream, it’s not nearly as rich as other versions I’ve tried.
For someone who doesn’t like their desserts too sweet, this was definitely a winner.
3. Makový koláček
Makový koláček, also known simply as kolach, is a Czech pastry that has actually become extremely popular in some parts of the States.
The original kolach boasts a filling of some sort contained by a rim of brioche-like yeasted dough.
They were originally considered a wedding dessert, but in the States, they are more of a breakfast pastry akin to the Danish, seeing as they’re not overly sweet.
Kolach festivals exist throughout the regions of America that welcomed Czech immigrants, including Prague, Oklahoma, Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and several cities in the part of central Texas known as the Czech belt thanks 19th-century mass Czech immigration, including Caldwell, Crosby, and Hallettsville. Montgomery, Minnesota is said to be the Kolacky capital of the world, while Prague, Nebraska claims to be the home of the world’s largest.
Versions in the States have a certain American appeal to them, with flavors like strawberry-ricotta, cream cheese and even savory versions with sausage and beer.
Seeing kolache are so popular in the States, I was surprised to have such a hard time finding them in Prague. I finally tracked them down after five days of looking at Artisan Café & Bistrot (Vejvodova 1).
The dough was a pleasantly slightly sour yeast-based dough, and the filling was made of sweet poppy seed paste. An almond powder was sprinkled over the top.
This Prague pastry is diminutive in size, just the size of a cookie, but they’re the perfect pairing with tea or coffee.
Honey cakes are very popular in Prague, and there are two in particular that you should be sure to try during your stay.
The first is medovnik — a very complex answer to any American honey cake I’ve ever tried.
Honey cake been popular in some form or other in this part of the world since the Middle Ages — in Slovakian culture, honey has always been highly honored, and a barrel of it was even given as part of women’s dowries through the Middle Ages.
In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, medovnik is often not homemade but purchased and given as a gift.
Because of its unique preparation, it is a sweet that, like fruit cake, can sit out for months before being eaten.
I sampled this piece at Coffee Lovers (Kaprova 9), made according to a traditional Bohemian recipe.
It has a rather dry, almost savory crumb with very sweet, honey flavored icing between each layer.
The topping is a powdery crumb layer, basically what would happen if powdered sugar were made of honey. It has a very unique, pronounced flavor of honey but also a slight flavor of caramel.
This was my personal favorite of all of the pastries I tried in Prague.Strudl or Marlenka? In #Prague you can savor both! #europe #food Click To Tweet
Marlenka is another type of honey cake popular in Prague. The best way to recognized marlenka from medovnik in Prague bakery windows is to look at the shape — medovnik is baked in circles and served in wedges, while Marlenka is baked in rectangles and served in rectangular or square slices.
Marlenka is technically a brand-name cake, which was invented in Prague in 1704 by Armenian Georgius Deodatus Damascenus.
He founded the first coffee lounge in the city and repurposed a traditional Armenian family recipe of honey layer cake, naming it after his wife and daughter:
It soon became a local tradition.
Medovnik, meanwhile, is really a word for any honey cake, though it’s usually used for the cake described above in number four; the word medovnik, then, could technically be used to refer to an off-brand Marlenka, which is what you’ll find more often than not in bakeries and pastry shops.
All this to say, it’s not surprising I had such a hard time tracking down this particular Prague treat!
I actually finally got my piece at a Tesco supermarket, but it was from the bakery case, and it was an exceptional piece of cake.
As opposed to medovnik, marlenka had a cakier base, kind of like a birthday cake, but far more moist and full of the flavors of honey.
It was filled and topped with thin layers of honey buttercream, over which more of that honey powder was sprinkled.
A much more cake-like cake than medovnik, and quite tasty too.
Any other Prague pastries you recommend? Please share in the comments below.
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