As it gets closer to Christmas, hexagonal packages are popping up on supermarket shelves across Germany. The little window on one side of the packaging reveal a chocolate-glazed cylinder. It is one of Germany’s true Christmas staples with a century-old tradition. The little brown barrel is a delicate cake that goes by the name of Baumkuchen. Its name – literally “tree cake” – derives from the numerous thin layers of dough which remind of the annual rings of a tree.
The long tradition of Baumkuchen
It is not entirely clear when Baumkuchen was first invented but the tradition of baking dough on a long skewer has been around for many centuries. And while the oldest recipe for the Christmas cake dates back to 1450, a similar method of baking bread in medieval times suggests that Baumkuchen could be much older. Either way, the layered cake had already become a common wedding pastry in Nuremberg and Frankfurt in the 15th century. But the Baumkuchen that the Patricians loved back then and the one we know today has gone through quite a transition. From wrapping a firm dough around a roller and fixing it with ropes which produced the signature indentations to pouring liquid dough in several layers over the roller. A common icing of sugar and rose water was replaced by chocolate coating in the 18th century resulting in the Baumkuchen as we know it today.
Around the same time, production of the Christmas sweet moved from private homes to professional confectioners. Baumkuchen became the “king of cakes” and even represented the confectioner’s craft as a whole with its depiction on the official emblem. Following the tree cake’s triumphal procession, centers of the art of baking Baumkuchen established mainly in the east of Germany. Among those, the town of Salzwedel undoubtedly formed the capital. Thus, the most traditional form of the cake is known as Salzwedeler Baumkuchen which also enjoys preservation by the EU as a protected geographical indication.
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While Baumkuchen-like cakes exist in many countries across Europe, it has surprisingly become a staple in Japan as well. Once introduced by German confectioner Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim, it is now one of the most popular pastries altogether. Despite the rather high price, Baumkuchen is in high demand and therefore available in pretty much any Japanese supermarket.
How to make original Baumkuchen
Just like most other pastry, Baumkuchen comes in several variations. Nevertheless, the basic ingredients are always the same. The dough consists of a mix of flour, butter and eggs in a ratio of 1:1:2. Thus, it is crucial that there is at least twice the amount of eggs to each part of flour and butter in order to create the distinct consistency of real Baumkuchen. In addition, sugar, salt an vanilla form the essential condiments for its traditional flavor. Like with any kind of cake, there are many variations to this standard version. Here, common aromatic supplements are honey, rum, nuts, nougat or marzipan, among others.
For the production of original Baumkuchen, confectioners make use of a large rotating skewer. Traditionally, this so-called roller would lie horizontally over wood fire. Nowadays, specific baking machines replace the open fire. 10-20 thin layers are necessary to create a traditional Baumkuchen. The confectioners dip the skewer into the dough and then bake layer after layer, forming the typical rings of the “tree”. The use of a wooden comb creates a wavy contour which results in the pronounced, loop-like shapes along the entire length of the cake. After baking, the long spit can be removed leaving behind the plain, cylindric cake. For sale, the long cake is portioned into smaller pieces of one to five “loops” in height and then covered with coating chocolate. This kind of industrially-produced Baumkuchen can be found in all supermarkets in Germany during Christmas season.
Can you make Baumkuchen at home?
For making Baumkuchen at home, the traditional method on a skewer is highly impracticable. For that reason, turning it into a sheet cake will allow you to make the Christmas treat without the specific equipment at hand. It is the same method that finds use in the industrial production of so-called Baumkuchenspitzen. The trapeze-shaped, chocolate-covered pieces of Baumkuchen are first baked as a whole and then cut into bite-size wedges. For a detailed instruction, check out our delicious recipe below. We are sure you will love it – whether as a Christmas dessert or a sweet for any other occasion!
Brandenberger Prügeltorte from Austria
Kransekage from Denmark ans Norway
Spettekaka from Sweden
Kürtőskalács from Hungary
Trdelník from Slovakia
Šakotis from Lithuania
Sękacz from Poland
Gâteau à la broche from France
Obelisa from Greece
Agnethler from Rumania
Baumukūhen バウムクーヘン from Japan
Would you like to share your knowledge about any of these? Let us know!