I’m afraid I’ve eaten a chimney cake.
Actually, I ate two. One’s enough for any man, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I had in my mouth. The woman who could explain what I was eating, Kathy Williams, wasn’t in when I stopped by AZ Chimney Cakes — the only purveyor of chimney cakes in all of Arizona — the other day.
Williams phoned me that night to talk about the dessert items that had by then left me bloated and groaning. It turns out that a chimney cake, traditionally called Kürtöskalács, is the official dessert of Hungary. This crunchy cylinder is, at least in its Americanized version, filled with various things. One I had was spread with what tasted like cookie batter; the other was filled with ice cream.
“That was the Lotus Biscoff,” said Williams, who opened her chimney cake café in late 2017 at the now-deceased Paradise Valley Mall. “When we were at PV Mall, we were starving to death. We would go out and stand in the mall and offer chimney cakes for free and no one would take one, because no one knew what they were. We sold a lot of coffee because we make excellent coffee, but Zaaron and I literally couldn’t give these things away.”
Zaaron is Williams’ son and business partner, and the inspiration for bringing Hungarian desserts to the Sonoran desert. “He was in Europe some years ago, and in Prague, he ate a chimney cake and came home and said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to try this thing.’ We googled it and they didn’t exist in Arizona.”
Williams hooked up with a local Hungarian who taught her how to make a proper chimney cake. “I’d tried to make them at home and that was a disaster,” Williams recalled. “I finally got the proper equipment and got the recipe right, and I was making them as a hobby. But whenever Zaaron would take chimney cakes to work, people would go crazy. ‘You should do this as a business!’”
Mother and son started out with a chimney cake food cart at local events, but the heat got to them.
“Chimney cakes bake at 800 degrees,” Williams explained. “That, combined with the heat of summer and selling out of a trailer with no air conditioning? Let’s say it wasn’t worth ruining our health for a couple hundred bucks.”
They moved their kiln-like ovens to the PV Mall location, eventually relocating to their current Mesa storefront on East Dobson Road. Customers are finding them, thanks to support from people like food writer Diana Brandt, who blogs under the name Arizona Foodie.
“We get calls for funnel cakes all week long,” Williams said, “because people know what a funnel cake is, but we’re not that. Those are fried, these are baked.”
Chimney cake batter is hand-rolled, then coated with sunflower oil, the only oil that can withstand such a hot oven. The roll is coated with granulated sugar that caramelizes while it bakes on a sort of a spit. The result is a tapered cone that’s soft and dense on the inside, crisp and sticky on the outside.
“The stickiness is so you can stick things to it,” Williams explained. “The traditional coating is cinnamon sugar, but we’ve tried to Americanize some of our cakes, so we do an Oreo Crunch, or we crush up Biscoff cookies or breakfast cereal or cake sprinkles and roll the cake in that. People aren’t apt to try something new, but once we get them in here and they eat one of these things, they’re hooked.”
I certainly was. That Lotus Biscoff was filled with soft-serve vanilla gelato in a cake coated with crunchy Biscoff cookie butter and topped with a traditional Biscoff cinnamon cookie. The cake itself was like a cinnamon roll, only chewier, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. The gelato was custardy and light.
People sometimes ask Williams if they can buy her gelato by the pint. “They put it on things or make a pie out of it,” she told me. “I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever.’ I came up with that recipe on my own. Do what you want with it.”
I also plowed my way through the glorious cinnamon-sugar-covered Prague, its interior coated with Nutella and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. I liked this one even more than the ice-cream-filled number, though I wasn’t sure I was eating either of them correctly.
“The traditional way is just to grab the top and pull it apart piece by piece, dip the pieces in the cookie butter, and keep going,” Williams said. She’s been known to offer plastic forks and knives to customers who want them.
“But in Europe, you’d never get away with that,” she confided. “You get messy eating chimney cakes, but oh well! It’s totally worth it.”
AZ Chimeny Cakes is located at 1055 N. Dobson Road, Suite 104, in Mesa.