Thursday, November 12, 2015

RECIPE: My just-because cake

I would say that, by and large, cakes are meant for special occasions only. Chimney cakes are for very special occasions, and tree cakes are for very, very special occasions. There are exceptions, to be sure! But you can't really whip out a homemade baumkuchen and claim it was a just-because-i-felt-like-it cake.

Here is my go-to recipe for an unpretentious cake, welcome at any table for any reason. I bake this all the time, with all varieties of fruit, for all varieties of events. Certain aspects of the cake that give it an Old World feel—namely, the texture, the appearance, and the use of Lactobacillus cultures as a leavening agent. Yeah, when was the last time you saw that in a recipe from the last fifty years? I like to make up a story to go with the cake, like one where I found my great-grandmother's recipe cards in longhand Yiddish, and I was the only one in the family who cared enough to find what secrets they held, and I had to enlist the aid of the septuagenarian delicatessen proprietor down the street. In truth, it's just some mods from a 2002 recipe by BBC Good Food. I changed the leavening agent to yogurt because I'm a goofball.

Sam's any-fruit, any-occasion cake


  • 175 g almond meal
  • 175 g all-purpose flour
  • 175 g sugar
  • 175 g butter, softened (about 1.5 sticks)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 250 mL active culture yogurt (about 8 oz)
  • 400+ g fruit (your choice!)


  1. Preheat oven to 160 °C (355 °F).
  2. Mix the non-fruit ingredients well. If there are little chunks of butter, it's just fine. The batter should be thick and not pourable.
  3. Spoon half the batter into a well-greased 9 inch cake round or pie pan. Lay down a layer of fruit pieces, then spoon in the rest of the batter. Maybe put extra fruit on top, if you have it.
  4. Gorge on the raw batter because it's sooooo gooooood
  5. Bake for 45-50 minutes. The crust will probably turn golden brown by the 30-minute mark; at that point, cover it with foil so it doesn't char on top.
  6. Let cool completely. Serve with love!

Golly, this makes me want to bake another one already! I'm thinking I'll use kiwi fruit and strawberry yogurt.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

FINALLY, rotisserie cake!

I did it. I baked a cake on a rotisserie.

Let me cut right to the chase: why hadn't I done this yet? I don't have a very good reason. Many many years ago, I thought I'd have to mod a kitchen rotisserie to put out more heat, but Klaus Taesler showed me that wasn't the case. Since then, it's just been my hesitation and equivocation. It's hard to justify buying bulky kitchen appliances that rarely get used (what Alton Brown calls "unitaskers"). Then, not too long ago, I realized, if there's anyone who can justify buying a rotisserie for cake, it would be me!

A little time on Craigslist later, and I had a George Jr. rotisserie! This one's not the same as the Baby George rotisserie I obtained many years ago. This George Jr. is larger and gets hotter than the Baby George, both good things. Besides, Baby George is thousands of miles away in my parents' garage.

All told, the process wasn't as tough as I'd thought, and the result was great! I used the portions from retired engineer Wayne Schmidt's page. A bit embarrassing to publish a recipe in imperial units, but here we go:

INGREDIENTS (in chronological order)

  • 1.5 sticks (12 tbsp) butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 10 egg yolks
  • 1 shot brandy (I used apple brandy, Klaus Taesler uses cherry brandy)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 10 egg whites
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar


  1. In a large bowl, cream the butter and 3/4 cup sugar.
  2. With mixers on low, add egg yolks one or two at a time.
  3. Add brandy, vanilla, and salt.
  4. Sift in flour and cornstarch until uniform.
  5. Wash your mixing apparatus. We're gonna make a meringue, so we have to keep all the oils away.
  6. In a medium or large bowl, beat the egg whites with mixers on high. Beat until the whites have roughly doubled in size.
  7. Add the 1/4 cup sugar and continue to beat until you reach medium-to-stiff peaks.
  8. Fold the meringue into the other ingredients in 3 or 4 stages. Fold just until the mix is homogeneous.
  9. Wrap the baumtüber in foil. If desired, bind with butcher's twine as if it were a porchetta.
  10. Turn on the rotisserie and let the baumtüber come to temperature.

As you've probably gathered, I live-tweeted the whole process, which was fun. Each layer took 3-6 minutes, depending on how distracted I got. Some layers got browner, others did not. As a result, the layering is irregular and very subtle. No tree-rings.

But how did it taste? In a word: delightful. The texture of the layers stands out as the most noticeable feature in your mouth. The taste is pound-cakey but less sweet (again, perfect for pairing with coffee, tea, chocolate, jam, milk, &c., &c...). But it is quite dry! This is something I noticed in Klaus' counter-top-rotisserie cake as well. Cooking the layers at a lower temperature means they dry out more. I think the brandy also contributed to the dryness. Time to experiment and find out!

Finally, please enjoy a video of me pouring batter while listening to DJ Robert Drake on WXPN:

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The family tree

PREVIOUSLY, I talked about the rotisserie cake family. Today, it's all about the family tree!
I just posted my translation of a 1964 article (well, 75% of it). The author, Fritz Hahn, did copious research to track cakes on spits from ancient Greece to modern Europe, identifying five "generations":
  •  Generation I is the ancient Greek ὁβελίας, a very large bread baked for Dionysian celebrations some time before 600 B.C. When you want to bake a bread as large as possible, you can't use some dinky oven in a cramped kitchen. You've got to go big! Find a long tree trunk, wrap your bread dough around it, and make a huge fire. There's good evidence that the Bacchanal Romans continued this tradition for many centuries, spreading it to the north. After the collapse of the Roman empire, there are no more references to bread on a spit for nearly a millenium; it shows up in Daun, Germany, in 1466. Hahn suggests that this German bread is a direct descendant of the Roman bread, but I think it's pure coincidence. Convergent evolution, if you will.
  • In Generation II, the big German bread-on-a-spit gets shrunk and sweetened. Sugar was a rarity, so the yeast-dough cakes were seasoned with currants, honey, ginger, citrus peel, or other delights. The earliest attested recipe is from 1450. Modern helical chimney cakes (i.e. kürtőskalács and trdelník) are still considered Gen. II cakes in Hahn's taxonomy.
  • Generation III seems like a bit of a misstep. Previous versions were secured on the spit by winding a tight helix of dough. The Gen III cake is still yeast dough, but rolled out in a big rectangular sheet, then cinnamon-rolled onto the wooden form. To keep the cake on the roll, the chef has to bind it with string, or else it would get saggy and fall off. HOWEVER, the string also restricts how much the cake-roll expands wherever it is placed, which may have led to a pleasant smooth-ridged exterior like we see today.
  • Generation IV is the big shift from single-layer yeast-dough cakes to many-layer liquid-batter cakes! Hahn credits the new development to two things: the introduction of coffee (which fostered innovation wherever it went) and the 30 Years War (which occupied most of the employable men, and finally gave women access to the trade manuals and cookbooks that had long been men's secrets). The first two people to write Gen IV recipes were women! Susanna Harsdörffer, in 1582, and Maria Sophia Schellhammer, in 1692. Šakotis is a Gen IV cake. [EDIT: oops, in modern times it is usually made in the Gen V manner]
  • Generation V is what we know and love today. This version vastly improves texture by separating the eggs, beating the whites and folding them into the rest of the batter. This has the added benefit of making many thinner layers possible. Yes!
Another noteworthy point from the article: the name baumkuchen predates the Gen IV and V cakes (the only generations with the rings-of-a-tree feature). It must have been first named that because it was baked on a tree trunk.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Very First Tree Cake

I've got a new recipe for you! Well, an old recipe. An old, old, old recipe. This is from 1582, written by Susanna Harsdörfer of Nuremberg. Katherine Barich of the "Cooking Rumpolt" Yahoo! group did a word-for-word translation that I tried modernizing. She also has a great set of medieval-baumkuchen-related thoughts, a lot of which came in handy during my current studies of Fritz Hahn. Anyway, the recipe!

To bake a cake on a spit

Beat 14-16 eggs in a pot. Add 1 maß [about 1.5 L] of thick milk [i.e. cream]. Next, take a scoop of wheat flour and add some ginger. Take a knobbed spit, crush ginger on it, then dust evenly with flour. In the pot add crushed mace and (if you wish) salt, pepper, and more ginger. Make the batter as thick as for milk toast [e.g. gulden schnitten]. Take the spit and put it next to the fire. Leave it there for half an hour, to ensure it is hot enough. Smear it with lard once or twice, being careful not to let the spit cool. To dribble the batter on, turn the spit and, with an iron spoon, pour the batter liberally onto the spit. Turn continually for a while, until there is a bit of a crust, then pour more batter on. Move the spoon carefully back and forth so the cake remains cylindrical. When the pot is almost empty, pour a bit more batter on the prongs, then bake the cake for 2 more hours until it is roasted through. When it has almost finished, baste with butter so it will be soft and succulent. Sprinkle sugar on it and serve.
And there's lots more details on my website!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cake in Japan

The Wall Street Journal did a weird interactive thing last year, marking the centennial of the start of World War I by exploring its lasting effects. Most of the videos were serious and somber, but there were a few lighthearted puff pieces. One such piece: Cake in Japan. Enjoy!

NOTE: the dubbed voice does not pronounce "baumkuchen" correctly, don't believe the voice!

Friday, June 26, 2015

1581-82 was a boom year for cake publishing

I've been doing lots of historical spitcake reading, and one particular find has got me in a tizzy. There is a Yahoo! group, still active no less, transcribing and translating all sorts of old cookbooks for this digital age! The main focus of the group is Marx Rumpolt's Ein new Kochbuch from 1581, which Wikipedia calls "the first textbook for professional chefs in training." This book is too early in spitcake development, so it doesn't feature the phrase baumkuchen, but it does give a recipe for Spieß kuchen (spit cake) and recommends serving it to nobility as the third (final) course of the first meal of the day.

The group leader, Ranvaig, gives the following translation:

Take warm milk and beat eggs with it / mix a dough with fair white flour / take little beer yeast and butter to it / let it stand a while behind the oven / that it rises / make it again into a ball / and salt it a little / then roll it out cleanly / throw black raisins over it. Take a Walger (roller) / that is warm / and rubbed with butter / and lay it on the dough / wrap the dough over / and tie it together with a twine / so it does not fall off / lay to the fire and turn slowly / like this will it roast cleanly. And when it becomes brown then take a brush / and put it into hot butter / and coat the cake with it / like this it will be a beautiful brown. And when it is roasted / so take it off the roller spit / and put into both holes with a clean cloth / that the heat remains / let it remain like this / until it is cool so give cold on a table / so it becomes tender and good. And one calls it Spiesskuchen.

As you can see, it's a chimney cake, not a tree cake. Supposedly, the first real tree cake is mentioned only one year later, in Nuremberg, by Susanna Harsdörfer. But that recipe, like I mentioned in the last post, is hand-written and I'm still working out the translation. However, now that I've discovered this DELIGHTFUL Yahoo! group, I think it'll go a little easier!

Transliteration and translation by Sharon Palmer aka Ranvaig Weaver, © 2013.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The cake things I've been doing

I'm learning lots of cake history from Kurtos dot EU! I've been focusing my efforts for now on two old recipes. This one is from 1582 and supposedly describes the first layered spitcake (i.e., the first tree cake). A second one (whose transcription/translation I haven't put online yet) is from 1769, containing the first "modern" baumkuchen recipe. I'm not sure what "modern" means in that context, but that's the description used by Fritz Hahn. Fritz Hahn, by the way, was a baumkuchen historian who did a ton of very useful research in the 1960s and cited his sources very well. Me discovering him is the reason why I've suddenly switched to paleography and historical fact-finding.