Those who grew up carefully unraveling their cinnamon rolls to eat them in long strips will be smitten by Chicago’s first bakery and coffeehouse dedicated to the Hungarian-Romanian treat kürtös kalács, or “chimney cakes.” A strip of pastry dough is wrapped around a wooden spindle and brushed with oil and sugar, then baked; while the sugar is still molten, the spindle is rolled through toppings such as crushed walnuts, coconut, or—this being America—chocolate and candy sprinkles.
Owners Mara Jozefi and Alex Pescaru emigrated from Romania about five years ago. She worked as a babysitter and he drove a cab (he still does) while they saved money to open a business. In the meantime, they saw what had been a specialty limited to ethnically Hungarian parts of Romania become a nationwide craze back home, sold from carts in every city—”like Dunkin’ Donuts,” Pescaru says.
In Chicago, though, the only place you ever saw them was at church festivals. The couple named their shop Chimney Cake Island because it’s such an isolated outpost in the midwest for their homeland’s treat. Traditionally the cakes are roasted over charcoal, but Jozefi and Pescaru imported an electric rotisserie oven from Romania designed especially for chimney cakes. It’s a charmingly low-tech affair—they adjust the temperature by propping the doors open—embossed like a carnival ride with the name Sweet Dream.
In Romania the choice of flavors is limited, but Jozefi and Pescaru have the entrepreneurial bug (“I’m a little bit creative and he is more mathematical,” she explains) and are busy thinking up alternate ways to embellish their distinctive cylindrical treat. Soon they’ll offer savory chimneys filled with meat and cheese, and Jozefi is working on party trays with the chimneys cut into smaller doughnutlike rings. Halloween should also offer opportunities—that ethnically Hungarian part of Romania where both Jozefi and the chimney cake come from is, after all, Transylvania. —Michael Gebert