It should come as no surprise that, in a culture increasingly defined by a rush toward immediacy, a dessert that requires hours of preparation and a laser-focused attention to detail is met with reverence in certain parts of the world. A nibble of baumkuchen, a traditional German cake that’s almost impossible to find in the United States, will turn you into a believer as well. The complex flavor of the baumkuchen quite literally asks you to stay put and truly relish the food. It may also make you pause to wonder about the origin of a dish that, it turns out, is as difficult to make as it is to find.
The name “baumkuchen” translates to “tree cake”: when sliced, the cylindrical cake actually resembles a tree trunk and its age rings. Its origins are a bit murky. Although today it’s a staple of weddings and Christmas celebrations in Germany, some believe it was originally Hungarian, and others trace it to ancient Greece. It has also found its way to Japan, where it’s become very popular.
No matter its birthplace, the labor-intensive cooking process begins with a batter usually made with flour, butter, and eggs—the ratio is typically 1:1:2—plus salt, sugar, and vanilla. Layer upon layer of batter gets brushed onto a rotating spit over a wood fire (home cooks have experimented with other heat sources). As each layer dries, a new one is added until there’s a total of 15 to 20 coats. The last step consists of a chocolate or sugar glaze; sometimes an additional coat of jam finds its way between the last bit of batter and the glaze. The finished cake is about three feet tall. A new baumkuchen oven can cost as much as $100,000.
“What you’re doing when you’re making baumkuchen is playing with heat quite a bit,” says Berlin-based food writer Luisa Weiss, author of Classic German Baking. (Weiss also blogs as The Wednesday Chef.) “As the layers go on, you really have to make sure that you’re not drying out the interior cake.”
Weiss emphasizes the difficulty in making the dessert at home, but she nonetheless presents a version of baumkuchen in her cookbook. This one involves about nine layers of batter prepared in a round springform pan and cooked under a broiler.
Weiss’ version of the dish—which takes her approximately 25 minutes to cook, plus the hours required to prepare the batter and properly layer it—is understandably starkly different from the one prepared by Paul Gauweiler at Cake Box Pastries, his bakery in Huntington Beach, California.
Gauweiler, now 83, hails from Hanover, Germany, and moved to the United States in 1965. Eight years later, he opened Cake Box and officially introduced baumkuchen to his new home. He makes it in an incredible antique oven, just one of three in the United States. He originally got a hold of the machine by connecting with folks in the culinary department at Orange Coast College in nearby Costa Mesa.
“They didn’t know what to do with it, and they called me and said, ‘Would you like a baumkuchen machine?’” the pastry guru reminisces in a video that chronicles his journey and his devotion to the delicacy. “I said yes, like a little kid getting a big Christmas present.” The traditional machine has an open flame and an electric motor, though it can also be turned by hand. Gauweiler’s full mix requires 90 eggs and yields about 22 layers—skinny up top and fatter toward the base of the cake.
Although Cake Box is one of the only bakeries in the United States that sells fresh baumkuchen (it’s also available at Sweet World Pastry and Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop in Chicago), Konditorei Buchwald, a pastry shop in Berlin, remains the reigning producer of the treat in the world, even shipping it worldwide to “homesick Berliners,” as Weiss puts it, and culinary aficionados of all types. The shop has been in operation for 160 years, one of the oldest confectioneries in Berlin and one of the most beloved by worldly foodies.
Boxed baumkuchen is also available in European supermarkets, but, says Weiss, “Hardly anybody buys the industrial version of baumkuchen.” After all, once you knew about the intricacies involved in its creation process, wouldn’t you want to indulge in a fresh take on the dessert? “It’s a real rarity, a delicacy,” says Weiss. “It’s incredibly delicious, a really nice thing to eat that people can only really buy in bakeries.”
That rarity only adds to the allure of the baumkuchen, a dish that harks back to a time when mass-production and desk eating weren’t part of our food consumption. Back then, going to a bakery and interacting with other humans were as intrinsic to the eating experience as the actual food was. It was never just about eating baumkuchen, it was also about going to the bakery to find one. And that is, perhaps, the additional power of the German dessert, a treat prepared following old-time techniques that bring us face-to-face with the things we lost along the way to the present.