Serious Eats: Chicago
Behind the Sweets: Mara Jozefi Creates Transylvanian Pastries at Chimney Cake Island
The term "labor of love" doesn't quite capture the time and care Mara Jozefi has dedicated to making chimney cakes, a centuries-old pastry with roots in the Hungarian villages of Transylvania. Though they were traditionally made for special occasions like weddings and christenings, they have now become ubiquitous in the streets and fairs of Romanian cities, with vendors baking the cakes over a charcoal barbecue, or less frequently, in small shops. A Romanian herself, Mara grew up eating chimney cakes, but she didn't learn exactly how to make them until she had the desire to start a unique small food business and realized there was a perfectly cylindrical hole in the Chicago pastry scene.
But as is the case with any start-up, and especially with one that requires importing not only a recipe but also a special oven, the road to Chimney Cake Island was long and arduous. Recipe development alone took over two years, including a six-month period to procure the recipe from a Romanian baker. Unfortunately, the first time Mara made chimney cakes following the coveted recipe ended in disappointment. The dough's simple ingredients—yeast, butter, flour, a touch of sugar—were markedly different here in the U.S. than the same ingredients in Romania, and they combined to create a chimney cake far different than the kind she was used to. So after almost two more years of recipe tweaking, she finally felt ready to bring chimney cakes to the public. But of course another year passed between business licensing and an inspection (unlike most new small businesses, Chimney Cake Island passed its first inspection, a fact Mara attributes to the late-night studies of Alex Pescaru, her husband and business partner).
Several years after inspiration struck, in December of 2010, Mara and Alex opened Chimney Cake Island near the intersection of Devon and Clark in Edgewater. Even though they are outside of their first year, they are still dealing with typical start-up problems like one-star Yelp reviews after unexpectedly selling out of cakes, but luckily Mara is putting out a consistently delicious pastry. And when I say delicious, I mean can't-stop-eating-this-thing-while-I'm-driving-and-now-there-are-walnuts-all-over-my-car delicious. Click through the slideshow to learn more about it and stop in some day for a unique treat.