Baumkuchen, the ‘King of Cakes’

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One of Germany’s most revered pastries is Baumkuchen, or tree cake.

It is type of layered cake made from butter, flour, sugar, eggs, and almonds, with some recipes calling for the addition of lemon, rum, or arak, the anise-flavored liquor. The way Baumkuchen batter is baked is crucial to its creation. Requiring a contraption that resembles a spit, the baking process works according to the same principles: a long metal trough holds the batter, which is brushed onto a tube that is then rotated in order to bake the batter evenly, before adding additional layers while a wooden comb adds indentations. This labor-intensive and repetitive dip-spin-comb-cook process can take hours, creating up to thirty layers in a five-foot (1.5 m) long tree trunk-like cake. When sliced horizontally, a piece of cake looks like a concentric circle, or tree ring. The finished cake is iced with either a thin sugar glaze or slathered in chocolate.

Baumkuchen’s origins are ancient. A similar cake was made in ancient Greece by turning dough on sticks over an open fire. The end result resembled a phallus, symbolizing fertility. The exact origins of modern-day Baumkuchen are disputed. One theory suggests that it began as a Hungarian wedding cake. Food writer Sylvia Henderson’s Gastronomica article points out that various East German towns claim it as their own while the food historian Nika Standen Hazelton believes it originated in Berlin. Originally a delicacy for the wealthy, Baumkuchen reached the German masses in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when sugar prices dropped. Today, it is a relatively scarce specialty, even in Germany, due to the skill and patience required to make it.

It remains, however, one of the most popular pastries in Japan (after being introduced to the country by the German confectioner Karl Wilhem Joseph Juchheim during WWI), often given as a gift to wedding guests, because of its ring shape.

japanischer Baumkuchen

Baumkuchen exists in similar variations and different names in Austria, Poland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, and Slovakia. Berlin’s Konditorei Buchwald, around since 1842, serves one of the city’s best Baumkuchen. For those unable to try the original version, there are adapted home recipes using a springform pan instead of a spit, with less of a ring effect.

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Text: Jasmina Knezovic
Images: moribaumhollhorstcafé-eber

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