“Well, I expected more. Frankly, it’s overhyped,” comes the grim testimonial of the malcontent Eastern European, no doubt a cheaper one would’ve impressed him more because “less good” means “more real” and “more real” is the only praiseworthy attribute by his ideology, because the linear correlation between price and value is a myth to him and he likes to believe that the heft of exceptions break the back of this boorish rule, maybe it’s bourgeois but so is having a book collection in which he’ll never make a dent, so is cooking for thirty at a meal for five when he knows they’ll only finish a third and leave the rest to be thrown away. I don’t know how many times more I can be surprised on my visits back to Budapest by the heartbreaking beauty of this ancient city and the bone-dry cynicism of the people it’s paired with. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – what’s lauded best, what’s served on a golden platter to tourists who smile and marvel at the glittering charm of our picturesque city really is the best or at least one of the best. It’s highlighted as most beautiful, most historic, most respected for a reason, and the appropriate price-tag is attached to the experience. When I’m home I’m partly on vacation and on vacation I am a tourist and as a tourist I enjoy enjoying enjoyable things and there’s nothing I find wrong with that…
But I digress from Cafe Gerbeaud. Let me start over and gather my thoughts.
Recently returned from a pig slaughter in the village of Mályinka (situated in the quiet Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County in northeastern Hungary) I found myself in pre-Christmas Budapest again, a city aglow with lights and good cheer. There’s mulled wine and sausages and stuffed cabbage on the street and visitors swing shopping bags as they pore through festive gingerbread figurines. Vörösmarty Square looks like a figment of someone’s dream. Old stone structures are lit to appear even more majestic against the starred sky and the sinister waves of the dark Danube. I had spent the past very real 24 hours watching steaming guts being scooped out of the cavities of three freshly halved pig carcasses and two elderly women scratching intestines clean in ice-cold water on an ice-cold patio. I had experienced a different type of beauty, one interwoven with precision, practice and persistence. It was out of my comfort zone, like most worthwhile experiences in life tend to be. And I had learned a lot. But once back in Budapest I craved for the far end of that spectrum and I sought out the polar extreme. I wanted hot chocolate with a dollop of cream and just a hint of cocoa powder sprinkled over the top. I wanted warmth and to bask in the glow of the cherubic smile of my blonde-headed angel of a niece. And I wanted a zserbó. In fact, I wanted the zserbó and I wanted it at Café Gerbeaud.
Café Gerbeaud is a place drenched in history, the do-no-wrong golden boy of Budapest’s coffee-pastry scene. Here’re some dates: 1858, 1870, 1882. And some people: Henrik Kugler, the third child of a confectionery dynasty, Emil Gerbeaud from Geneva and his 150 employees shipped in to study confectionary at the soon-to-be famous patisserie. There’s marble, wood and bronze, stucco created in the Rokoko style of Louis XIV of France, chandeliers inspired by Maria Theresa of Austria. A glittering bourgeois gem that survived two world wars and communism, Gerbeaud is recently renovated and hasn’t aged a day. Yet it’s old-school and dominated by monarchy era flare. The cafe was the birthplace of a heap of techniques and it’s counter boasts a wide array of signature offerings, the most famous of which is the Gerbeaud Slice. The name was Hungarianized to zserbó and quickly adopted by home cooks including my grandmother and mom, who have replaced butter with lard in the recipe (to make the biscuit flakier). Others have experimented with different types of chocolate topping.
Gerbeaud’s classic zserbó is a torte with alternating layers of butter-based yeast pastry, ground walnuts and apricot jam. The slice is topped with a smooth layer of chocolate ganache and a thin chocolate plaque sprayed with shimmering gold paint. The fork moves easily across the soft chocolate top, which melts easily just from the kinetic heat of that motion. As the first layer of cake crumbles under metal you hope to goodness that it won’t be dry and for a moment it seems like it will be. But then the moisture of the sticky jam lubricates the slice, easing the glide of the fork through the next few layers of the cake. The pastry is rich and flaky, with the natural flavors of the smoky walnut harmonizing beautifully with the toasted, nutty dough. Apricot adds a sensible fruity sweetness that does not overwhelm the thing but balances out the cocoa nicely. It’s served slightly cold and stiff, and is perfect with a mug of cappuccino, hot cocoa or a dainty glass of Tokay.
At Café Gerbeaud the zserbó is a perfect version of itself. The proportions are perfect; the baking point is perfect; the shape of each slice is consistent and perfect. Each bite is heaven, consciously constructed heaven and it’s dead-on beauty without imperfections. It has none of the burnt edges, the awkwardly slanted sides, the bumps in the chocolate from an uneven oven that characterizes the homemade Christmastime version of this pastry. And in this regard it has less “character.” But it makes up for that with more elegance and dignity. And it’s undeniably delicious.
There’s also a pretty gallant looking thing called a Baileys Cake with a jiggly belly of marzipan and Baileys flavored bavarois encased in milk chocolate and Baileys icing. Rounding it off is final pour of silky dark chocolate and coffee ganache. The nucleus of cocoa sponge cake stays moist inside the fluffy shell of Bavarian cream. My companion ordered it and pushed it over for me to try after just 2 or 3 bites. It’s rich, though too rich and overwhelmingly creamy. It’s too soft, too sweet, too luxurious in every way. If it were one fourth the size it would still be too much. To share it is doable but two can barely make a dent and it’s more of a conversation starter than a dessert realistically portioned.
We went about window-shopping on our way out and marveling at the cakes, the tartes and the tortes that line the shelves of the brightly lit case. Touched by gold leaf and brushed with cognac, these are sweets that guarantee excellence. Not every day but at least once per visit home, Café Gerbeaud never fails to be worth it.