Our family was absolutely exhausted when dinnertime rolled around tonight. It was the first meal of the day for us, as we all happened to be too busy to stop and cook. So we decided to go out for German food at the Schnitzel House in Fort Meyers Beach.
Coming from a family of Northern European immigrants myself, German food has always been something of a staple in our house.
My father would sit down and eat enormous bowls of sauerkraut growing up. I thought sauerkraut was disgusting until I was visiting the Netherlands (specifically, Maastricht) in college, which happened to be during the mad cow disease scare. Everything where I was staying was served in what Americans would call “family-style,” where dishes are delivered to the table collectively and everyone would help themselves to their desired portions. I was afraid to eat the meat, probably irrationally in retrospect, not understanding too much about what has happening there. I basically lived on vegetables during my stay and learned to love sauerkraut. (I also learned that I was definitely not cut out to be a vegetarian.)
Our daughter thinks this is the funniest story. She loves spiced cabbage – especially red cabbage – and will even guzzle down the juices in her bowl after she has eaten everything. (Incidentally, my father does that too, but she doesn’t know it.) My best advice to new parents is to not ever suggest to your child that they might not like how something tastes or that food from other cultures is somehow “weird” or “exotic.” We let our daughter be a completely blank slate, and she will try absolutely anything now and treats people from a wide variety of backgrounds with genuine respect.
Anyway, back to the German restaurant.
On their menu, they had a dessert that I had honestly never heard of and had to try: Baumkuchen.
I took German through graduate school. As I am not in a position to use it much, however, and I have forgotten a lot of it. (Seriously, I used to be able to read Nietzsche in German.) When I saw the word Baumkuchen, I was like “tree cake?” Am I translating that correctly? What is tree cake? Is my German really that bad now?
As it turns out, Baumkuchen is a type of “spit cake.” Not “spit” as in saliva, but as in a rotisserie:
A spit cake is a European cake made with layers of dough or batter deposited, one at a time, onto a tapered cylindrical rotating spit. The dough is baked by an open fire or a special oven, rotisserie-style. Generally, spit cakes are associated with celebrations such as weddings and Christmas. The spit can be dipped in a thin dough, or the dough can be poured or rolled on the spit. This cake group may have originated from Ancient Greek times, around 400 BC, when similar large cakes were prepared on spits for Dionysiac feasts.
The cooking process is similar for all the spit cakes: they all consist of a dough applied on a spit which is slowly rotated over an open fire or other heat source. One way of doing this is when the spit is dipped several times in a bowl with liquid dough or the thin dough is poured on spit. Depending on the dough’s consistency and the spit’s speed, it will form a layer on the spit, and when very runny, it will drop, thus producing small spikes, giving the cake a coral-like appearance. The resulting cake consists of many layers of cooked dough, and when cut is shown to consist of rings – hence another name, “tree cake”.
Alternatively, the dough is wrapped around the spit as spiral threads. In some varieties of the cake, while they maintain the shape of the spit cake, the rings are actually baked separately and attached to each other with icing. Some spit cakes have a smooth surface. Others, like spettekaka and šakotis, have an irregular shape.
Isn’t that fantastic?
Of course, you would have this sort of cake if it were a special occasion (like a wedding) because making them is a quite involved process. Or if you are eating at a restaurant that wants to offer guests something special. The “ring” motif in the cake also offers a nice symbolic connection to wedding rings.
Traditionally, Baumkuchen is made on a spit by brushing on even layers of batter and then rotating the spit around a heat source. Each layer is allowed to brown before a new layer of batter is poured. When the cake is removed and sliced, each layer is divided from the next by a golden line, resembling the growth rings on a crosscut tree. A typical Baumkuchen is made up of 15 to 20 layers of batter. However, the layering process for making Baumkuchen can continue until the cakes are quite large. Skilled pastry chefs have been known to create cakes with 25 layers and weighing over 100 pounds. When cooked on a spit, it is not uncommon for a finished Baumkuchen to be 3-4 feet tall.
I texted one of my good friends who loves baking right from the table because I was so excited. She had not heard of it either, but reminded me of the French dessert mille-feuilles (which translates to “a thousand layers”). While the two desserts look nothing alike, it is the same concept – that the ultimate richness is achieved with layer piled upon layer.
Thanks for reading all this. I had to share the discovery of this wonderful confection.