Guest Post: The Secret of the Hungarian “Surprise” Cake

When Jayne from the lovely food blog Chocolate and Figs approached me about doing a guest post, I didn’t need much time to consider. Her blog is stunning, her recipes mouth-watering, and her photos simply sensational (seriously, go check it out right now!). Since I tend to lean towards the savory, a guest dessert post was an enticing option. And we have a lot in common: she spent a number of years living in Israel and is originally from Hungary. Having recently been to Budapest to reconnect with my own Hungarian roots, I was particularly thrilled when Jayne said she wanted to do a special dessert from there. And so, for so many reasons I am honored to have Jayne leading the way with my very first guest post! I learned a lot from reading her post on Rakott Palacsinta and I hope you enjoy as much as I did.

One of my favorite desserts growing up in Hungary was a layered cake of crepes, called “rakott palacsinta” (RAHckoat PAHlahcheentah). Classically, there are 16 layers of crepes with fillings of chocolate, walnut, and apricot jam (cottage cheese and poppy seeds are often used as well). Part of the pleasure came from the place I always ate it, the famed Gundel restaurant in Budapest, Hungary.

At Gundel, the crepes were paper-thin but stacked so high with their fillings that it looked just like a layered cake. Chocolate oozed from within the layers and, on the theory that there is never too much chocolate, chocolate sauce enveloped the cake.

The restaurant was founded in 1910 by Károly Gundel, a pioneering chef who was himself the son of a famous chef who had cooked for Emperor Franz Josef’s (Apostolic King of Hungary) coronation. The history of Hungary with Austria is a long story and this is not the place to elaborate on it. However, the pastries of Hungary are greatly influenced by Austrian techniques and there is a significant overlap between the countries with respect to what we call “The Viennese Dessert Buffet.” The Viennese dessert table used to be the highlight of events like weddings, celebrations of famous Hollywood stars, government and political dignitaries and more. I recall not missing any event that announced the presentation of these desserts; the only problem arose following the events, where I could not stop “tasting” everything, that I could not eat anything, or look at food, for the next two days.

Gundel became internationally famous representing Hungary at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. Whenever my father mischievously asked my sister and I if we wanted to go to Gundel, he would get a joyous yell in response. Our excitement came not only from the anticipated dessert delights, but the elegant high-end service that made us feel like we were princesses at a royal dinner. (*The same man who created the famed “I love New York” logo, shown left, designed the logo for Gundel.)

As this was the communist era in Hungary, Gundel was run by the State. By the early 50’s all businesses, including my father’s store, had been nationalized. But because Gundel remained a symbol of Hungarian cuisine and culture, and received dignitaries from around the world, the government was anxious to use it to create the appearance that life was great and even better than it had been before the war. So Gundel remained glorious, even as much around it decayed under communist misrule.

In 1992, the restaurant was reopened by two American businessmen, Ronald S Lauder (the son of Estee Lauder, the cosmetic industry Queen) and George Lang (the owner of a famous restaurant in Lincoln Center in New York City, named “Café Des Artistes”). Lang also wrote a very popular cookbook in 1984, named after his New York City restaurant (The Café des Artistes Cookbook). I guess I should stop here, before I am carried away with history. You came here to see “what’s cooking?” not “what’s booking?”

Gundel had invented its namesake, Gundel palacsinta, (crepes filled with walnuts and coated in chocolate sauce) and at the time claimed to have invented this stacked crepes cake, as well. That claim may be questionable, but that didn’t stop me or my family from loving their version.

For the version I present here, I decided to go with 23 layers and a chocolate ganache coating for a spectacular cake-like effect. But you can use however many layers and fillings you like. The crepes can be made up to 2-3 days ahead or frozen and the fillings too can be made ahead.  The cake is best eaten fresh out of the oven, but you can reheat it in a 275F oven for 15 minutes with excellent results.

If you feel like experimenting with this recipe and “showing off” to your family and friends, could you please leave a comment and share your experience with Katherine? We would very much like to know if you re-created the recipe, as is? Or prepared a variation of it? And how did you like the result? If by any chance you photographed your creation in order to place it in your cookbook memoir, and decided to send a copy to us, we would be eternally indebted to you.

23-Layer Crepe Cake (Rakott Palacsinta)
(Please note that measurements are given in European and American system, because in baking accurate measurement is critical)
For a smoother consistency and shinier appearance you may add butter to the ganache in a ratio of 2:1 chocolate to butter (e.g. for 8 ounces of chocolate add 4 ounces of butter)
Tip – if the temperature of the cream does not match the temperature of the chocolate, the resulting mix may separate or curdle. Do not panic. Just add a few drops of warm cream until the ganache appears to be smooth again.
Take the cake out of the refrigerator and decorate it; I used piped whipped cream and raspberries (see photo, above). How you decorate is up to you: let loose your inner child and use your imagination!
Yield: 1 cake
  • 1½ cups (12 oz, 350 mL) whole milk
  • 3 eggs
  • 1½ cups (7.5 oz, 200 g) all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons (15 g) granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons sweet butter, (2 oz, 60 g) melted
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons (10 mL) vanilla extract
  • Zest from 1 whole orange
Chocolate Ganache
  • 10 ounces (300 g) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped in even pieces (I used Valrhona Guanaja 70% chocolate)
  • 1 cup (8 oz, 250 mL) heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) light corn syrup
For the Crepes:
  1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor or a blender and process until thoroughly blended. If you don’t own either piece of equipment, you can use a whisk, or even a fork. Strain the batter.
  2. Transfer the strained batter into the refrigerator covered with a plastic wrap placed directly on the surface of the solution, and let it rest for 1 hour.
  3. Put a pinch of butter in an 8-inch skillet over medium heat and lightly brush it as melts. (I like the 8 inch size, but you can use either 10- or 7-inch.) After the pan is hot, take skillet off heat, pour ¼ cup (dry measure; 80g) of the batter into the skillet, and immediately start tilting and rotating it in order to coat the entire bottom. (If the batter sets before the entire skillet is coated, reduce the heat slightly for the next crêpe.)
  4. Return the skillet to the burner and cook the crêpe until just set, when little bubbles appear on the surface and it appears golden around the edges, about 20 seconds. Loosen the edge of crêpe with a heatproof spatula, and then flip the crêpe over carefully with your fingertips. Cook until the underside is set, about 25 seconds.
  5. Transfer the crêpe to a plate. Brush the skillet with more butter and make another crêpe in the same manner and continue until you finish the entire batter. Separate crepes with sheets of parchment, wax paper, or foil. (Crêpes can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator in a sealed container, separated by sheets of parchment, wax paper, or foil for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or at least 1 month in the freezer.)
Fillings (choose from 3 options)
  1. tablespoons cocoa powder (0.5 oz, 15 g) mixed with 4 tablespoons (2 oz, 60 g) baking/superfine sugar (it is a very fine sugar); if you cannot find baking sugar, place granulated sugar in the food processor and grind it for 10 minutes. You could also use granulated sugar if you don’t mind a somewhat grittier texture.
  2. tablespoons (60 g) finely ground almonds mixed with 4 tablespoons (60 g) baking sugar.
  3. Jam – your preference. I used apricot, because I find it to be a great match with the other ingredients and it is the classic choice.
Assemble the Crepe Cake:
  1. Preheat the oven to 325F (165 C). Prepare an ovenproof dish by brushing it with melted butter. (I used a 9 inch, round Pyrex dish that I use for pie baking.) Place the crepes one by one in the baking dish, alternating the fillings on top of each crepe. I place a dash of butter on those crepes that are topped with either the cocoa powder or the ground nuts (not on the one brushed with a jam) to assure that the cake will not be dry.
  2. Cover the crepe cake with aluminum foil and place it in oven. Bake for 30 minutes. While the crepe cake is baking prepare the chocolate ganache to be used as a glaze or frosting (recipe below).
  3. Put the chopped chocolate in a heat-proof bowl (not plastic). Bring the cream to a simmer with the corn syrup in a saucepan. Pour the cream over the evenly chopped chocolate and let it stand for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir the chocolate from the middle of the dish in circles that get larger and larger outward. Continue to stir until all the chocolate is blended into the cream.
To Assemble and Serve:
  1. Option 1: Pour warm ganache over the warm crepe cake and let it run on the sides of the cake until the entire cake is covered with the ganache. Place the crepe cake in the refrigerator for the glaze to settle.
  2. Option 2: Alternatively, you could cool the ganache prior to placing it on the crepe cake and use it as a frosting. If you want to create a thinner ganache, use 8 ounces of chocolate instead of 10.

For more amazing recipes and photos like this visit Chocolate and Figs!

27 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Secret of the Hungarian “Surprise” Cake

  1. Simcha

    I have never heard of this before or seen it. Thanks for sharing it. I am more of a savory person myself so I dont indulge or prepare elaborate deserts. This I could make an exception for as it looks fantastic, very different and looks easy to make. I will be making this.

    • Katherine

      I couldn’t agree more Simcha! I, too am more of a savory person but with all the layers of crepes this looks right up my alley. Do let me know if you make it and how it turns out!

    • Caroline

      Simcha, A bit late as I have only just come across this. My Hungarian mother often made a savoury version. When we had a piece of gammon at Christmas she would mince up the leftovers and put them in a savoury sauce (perhaps cheese I can’t entirely remember). The pancakes would be layered up with the sauce and then served, cut like a cake, with a mixed salad (every Hungarian meal has salad!). A more common sweet version that am aware of is to layer the pancakes with apple puree, cover it with meringue and bake until golden.

  2. Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table

    This looks mind-blowingly good! My college roommate was Hungarian and she never mentioned this. All the showed me how to do was mix red wine with coke and call it a cocktail. 😉

    I would love to make this to show off to my friends! I already know what I’d use as the filling…

    • Katherine

      Haha, that is very funny. Hungary has some incredible cakes, but I think this may be the greatest of them all. Can’t wait to hear how yours turns out – and what you’ll use as a filling!

      • sajtosbrokkoli

        Dear Laura, and Katherine! Im a hungarian houswife, but i never ever made it to my family. A typical hungarian family eat the the palacsinta filled with jam, or cacao, or quark, or cinemon. I ate rakott palacsinta only once in my life, and that wasn’t chocolate on the top. This is funny isn’t it? But this is really true ,the rakott palacsinta is a hungarian created dessert. I think todays this is made more at the rastaurants than the normal familly kitchen, maybe cause it more difficult then the normal filled palacsinta.The Rigojancsi, what you linked, is also hungarian, bit a normal houswife dont make it at home, this is a typical confectionery dessert, and it is one of the most popular cake, there is no confectionery without it. This is interesting. I think every country has their famous cakes, and dessertes, what you can find at restaurants,what families never eat at home, but also the secret recipes, what made only the family ovens, and never can find at the restaurants.

        off: i made your carrotrisotto! cant find words how delicious is. If you visiting Budapest one day, I like to invite you for a home made hungarian dessert to say thank you for this risotto recipe. 🙂

        On:I also show you 2 traditional dessert, what we make at home usually, but you cant find tham at restaurants.
        Sorry for my poor english

  3. Lisa~~

    In my previous comment on this post I stated that I *may* attempt to make this beautiful cake and I’m pleased to say that I DID!! It really was very easy to make and the results quite stunning. Here is the link to my variation of this cake 24-Layer Crepe Cake. Thanks for posting such a wonderful recipe.

    Cook Lisa Cook

  4. secret recipes

    Wow, fantastic weblog format! How lengthy have you been blogging for? you made running a blog glance easy. The overall look of your website is wonderful, let alone the content material!

  5. Julianna

    This was perfect!
    I’m going to link this post to my food blog. Please yell at me if that’s not okay!
    So freaking yummy and so well written!

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