Chimney Cake with Walnuts
A paper-thin crust of caramelized sugar covers a supple, chewy dough with a great balance of sweetness. There's nothing saccharine nor bland about them. You can eat them plain or with a variety of toppings. This one is coated in walnuts, and not only is it beautiful, but the actual eating process is enjoyable too. Because of the way the dough is spiraled on to a wooden dowel, chimney cakes are easily unwound and torn to be eaten in curly strips.
Chimney Cake Island's storefront in Edgewater near the intersection of Devon and Clark. The best thing about the store is the open kitchen. Come at the right time (first thing in the morning when they open at 10 a.m. or in the afternoon around 3 or 4 p.m.) and you'll be able to watch Mara baking and coating the cakes hot out of the oven. Of course, then you'll also get to eat a still-steaming cake, and it doesn't get any better than that.
Mara makes a beautiful dough (don't even try asking for the recipe though: not only did it take years to master, it's the crux of Chimney Cake Island's success). Flour, butter, yeast, and a little sugar get mixed up into a beautiful disk of dough that proofs for about a half hour. At this point, Mara turns the air conditioner off in the summer so the dough has a warm, friendly environment to rise.
Pressing the Dough
Like any true baker, Mara goes more by the feel of the dough than exact timing. She keeps a close eye on it so that it rises just enough before stretching and pressing it into a rough rectangle.
Rolling the Dough
Mara then rolls the dough out into a rectangle exactly the same size every time.
Cutting the Dough
Ruler-free, Mara knows from experience the exact dimensions to get a perfect 13 strips of dough out of every batch.
Strips of Dough
A perfect bakers dozen.
Next, wooden dowels are prepped with a light brushing of oil.
The dough is wrapped around a wooden dowel in the signature spiral.
More Dough Wrapping
It takes Mara under 10 seconds to wrap a strip of dough around a dowel. When I tried, it took approximately three times as long and looked approximately five times less aesthetically pleasing.
The end of the strip of dough gets tucked in. Then the top and bottom get trimmed so that the chimney cake will stand up after baking.
After another light brush of oil, the dough is rolled in granulated sugar, which will later become a beautiful caramelized and crispy crust.
The sugar-coated dough is left to proof for another half hour or so before baking.
This oven was imported from a manufacturer in Romania. Unfortunately because so few places sell chimney cake ovens, the bar is set pretty low quality-wise. This is actually a spare oven; the main oven recently broke.
The oven continuously spins the cakes while baking (except when it breaks and then the cakes burn on one side while remaining doughy on the other). They bake for only five minutes and then they're quickly pulled out and, if "topped," are immediately rolled in the topping.
Chimney cakes are traditionally eaten as-is out of the oven or coated in walnuts. I tried both, and both are a truly delicious way to appreciate the power of a little caramelized sugar. The taste of the cake is more than a little reminiscent of coffee cake, so coffee is a natural companion.
Mara suggests trying a simple iteration first, like the original, cinnamon, or walnut in order to taste the dough and then moving on to the bolder coatings like coconut, chocolate sprinkles, nutella, or peanut butter. This is a good suggestion because the dough is so well done, there is a complexity to the sweetness that would be a shame to cover up with nutella and peanut butter (right away at least).
The Slide Off
The chimney cake slides off with a few nudges to stand and cool before being served or getting wrapped in cellophane.
The Finished Product
This chimney cake was minutes-old, which is the best way to eat it (although I must say they warm up remarkably well in a toaster oven). Always try to call ahead to reserve a cake on the off-chance that some die-hard fans or Romanians itching for a fix drop by and clean out the store.
These chimney cakes are still warm, so the cellophane is left open at one end. If you walk into the store and see this, you're in for a fresh chimney cake. Mara also sells day-old chimney cakes for half price (which are a steal at only $2.50). They warm up well in the toaster oven and even regain some of their crispy thin sugar shell.