Visions of Trdelniks Dancing in My Head

December 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Christmas Market in Namesti Miru is my favorite part about going home at the end of a long day. It’s hard to resist being lured over from the metro by the smell of mulled wine wafting towards me as I walk to the tram. Christmas is my favorite time of year and I’m happy to see that I’m not alone in that sentiment in the Czech Republic, even surrounded by so many atheists.

The holiday has never been much about religion for me anyway; food is the most important aspect. And food is featured prominently in the traditional Christmas markets in Prague. The one thing I find the hardest to resist when my dinner is still a five to ten minute trip away is the trdelniks, the sweet and sometimes sticky pastry that is especially popular around this time of year.

Today, I’ve decided that my dinner can wait until I satisfy my sweet tooth. I turn away from the tram stop and walk towards the church, my eyes already alert for the small wooden poles covered in baking dough. They’re made with cinnamon, sugar, and walnuts: a combination made brilliant by its simplicity.

In poorly accented Czech, the word ‘trdelnik’ sounds like the English word for a high-necked shirt, and with its hollow shape, strangely resembles the garment of clothing. But the name actually comes from ‘trdlo,’ the Slovak word for the stake that the dough is wrapped around.

Sometimes when I make this detour, the trdelnik booth seems to have gone missing. Every once in a while, it’s two stalls or so down from where it was the last time. It becomes a game of ‘find the trdelnik,’ but it’s a game that, fortunately, doesn’t last long as I start to see people appearing with half-eaten dough covered in light brown cinnamon sugar.

This time, it’s on a corner booth just past the Christmas tree and the nativity scene, partially hidden by the small crowd that surrounds it and the line of people waiting their turn. I walk past the crowds standing by some tables, hordes of people sipping their svarak (hot wine) and chatting, Czech Christmas songs playing in the distance.

I get behind a man wearing a blue jacket. He orders in Czech, and then it’s my turn. “Jeden?” asks the dreadlocked girl wearing oven mitts as the girl next to her rolls out pieces dough. I nod to signify that yes, I just want one, and stick my fingers in my pockets to rummage for 40 Kc.

While waiting for the dough to brown over the heat, I watch the two girls roll more of it into thin ropes and wrap them around the poles and roll them on the metal counter over and over until the dough is at least three times its original length.

The heat distorts the air around the spinning poles where the trdelniks are baking. The two on the end are getting shiny and the air is starting to smell like burnt toast. When they’re finished and rolled in cinnamon, the spices override the burning and the faint smell of raw dough just beginning to brown.

I carefully hold it in both hands like a muff; it even keeps my fingers warm. The plan is to shield it from the wind as much as possible with my two napkins and make it back to my room so I can enjoy it in the warmth. The tram won’t be coming for another five minutes, so I decide to hike up the hill rather than stand in the cold with only my tasty treat as a distraction and temptation. I made it across the street but then—Oh, I got some cinnamon on my finger. I should probably lick that off. And that bit of sugar looks so lonely on the napkin. I should take care of that as well.

The first bite is always the best, so I’m trying very hard to force myself to wait so I can sit down somewhere comfortable and really enjoy it. But the dough near the top is slightly crooked—unacceptable! So I have to tear the small nub of pastry from the end and put it on my tongue. The sugar melts quickly with the cinnamon. The bit of dough rests comfortably between my teeth until I bite down harder, crushing the coated outside into a sweet and flaky powder. The piece is thin but the inside is noticeably squishy and gets stuck in my teeth as I continue to chew.

Two blocks later, I take a look at the napkin in my hand and am somehow surprised to see that the trdelnik is half gone, even though I had been ‘evening it out’ for the past few blocks. I realize that the inherent problem with ‘evening’ is that the dough has been wrapped in a spiral and it will naturally unwrap that way the easiest. And it will stay uneven until it’s completely gone.

For a moment, I considered slowing my pace so I could make some of it last for longer. Almost as quickly as the idea came into my head, I shot it down; the trdelnik was already getting cold and hard. I would rather have a warm and soft trdelnik outside in the cold than a cold and hard trdelnik inside a warm building.

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