When Christmas market stalls fill Prague's Old Town Square, revelers line up for the doughy treat.
David Novotny, 31, nodded vigorously in response to a question about its roots: "Yes! It's Czech! It is coming from medieval times!" he said as he watched over the baking pastries, each one carefully wrapped around a long wooden pole and browning over an open fire.
Others selling the mysterious cake at the market agreed, with some even claiming that it can't be found outside the Czech Republic. In Prague the cakes are also known as “trdlo,” after the wooden or metal pole they're cooked on.
But the Czechs might have a fight to claim ownership of the pastry from their former countrymen the Slovaks.
In 2004, Slovakia set up an association dedicated to preserving the traditional method of cooking the cake on a “trdlo,” or wooden stake, over an open fire. And a town called Skalica has the official rights to the pastry, after Slovakia applied to the European Union for it to be the country's first protected food, according to Slovakia.travel. It is registered under the name “skalicky trdelnik,” after the town that honed its production.
Skalica’s website tells the story of a retired Hungarian general — who was also a poet and philosopher — who employed a cook from Transylvania. The cook brought with him a traditional recipe for the cake, and then improved upon it, at the end of the 18th century. The website also gives the cake a third name — "trdlovanie."
So is the cake of Transylvanian origin? Hungary’s "kurtoskalac," or "chimney cake," is almost identical to the trdelink, and is celebrated as the country's oldest pastry.
Either way, a Facebook group dedicated to the pastry has nearly 5,000 fans. And regardless of who owns the rights to the pastry, it is seriously popular in Prague, and seriously delicious.
In Czech Republic the dough is rolled in cinnamon, sugar and chopped almonds before being cooked. Slovaks use walnuts. In both Czech Republic and Hungary it is served as a tube, about five inches long, which you unwind to eat. The Slovak version is also circular, but served as thick slices.
Novotny said that on a normal weekday the stand he works at sells between 3,000 and 4,000 crowns ($158 to $211) worth of mulled wine and trdelink. On weekends that figure is about 25,000 crowns ($1,322), he said. Each pastry costs 50 crowns ($2.65). A cup of the spicy, mulled wine costs 45 crowns.
Vaclav Roudnicky, 29, who also sells trdelink at a stand in Old Town Square, said it was the most popular treat during the holidays, but that tourists eat it during the rest of the year as well.
The cake recently made waves in the University of Bloggers program: Chelsea Tajc, a student at Northern Arizona University, kept the lead during the blogging contest with her attempts to cook dishes from different countries several times a week, including trdelink.
She didn’t have a “trdlo” to wrap the dough around and attempted to just coil it with her hands.
“The first attempt came out like a very dense bagel or doughnut,” she said.
Tajc did not win first place in the contest — which she does not attribute to the trdelink — but did win a free computer. Since then she has made the dough again, this time wrapping it around an aluminum foil-covered rolling pin, and had more success.
One Czech, at least, doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. Jan Smith, who grew up in Prague, watched his sister eyeing trdelink at Old Town Square last week.
“It’s cool,” he said. “It’s a cake. You buy it because you’re here.”