In culinary lore, bee sting cake (known as bienenstich in its native German) was created by a group of bakers in the 15th century, who baked a celebratory honey cake after successfully defending their town from invaders by throwing beehives at them. That story must be apocryphal, though, because it sounds fishy. Beehives are very heavy, and it’d take at least two people to move one, much less fling one at an enemy. If you move a beehive, you’re going to get stung a million times while you do it. And how many invaders can one beehive feasibly take out? Let’s say there are 100 adversaries. You’re going to need at least 40 beehives to secure a perimeter ahead of the siege, and at least another 30 beehives for flinging, and that is a tremendous amount of honey for one medieval village to be sitting on. You don’t want all of that honey going to waste—it’d topple the economy, and leave the village bakers no honey to bake a celebration cake! This whole origin story stinks something rotten, which is why other, more sensible Germans believe that bee sting cake earned its name from a baker who made one and got stung by a bee that was attracted to the cake’s honey topping. It is a sensible backstory for a very sensible cake.
This stunning dessert is surprisingly simple to make (I’m serious!). The cake itself is not-really-sweet yeast dough that’s enriched with butter and eggs like brioche (or my signature cinnamon rolls). After proofing twice, it’s baked with a topping of almonds tossed in honey and butter, then split in two and filled with vanilla bean custard. It’s not the sort of flashy, decadent cake that most Americans associate with dessert, but it is the sort of minimalist sweetness we find acceptable for breakfast. Make this recipe today and eat it tomorrow morning.
Makes one 10-inch cake
For the cake:
- 1 cup milk
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 1/4 tsp. (one package) active dry or instant yeast
- 3 cups flour
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 8 Tbsp. (one stick) butter, cut into tiny pieces
For the topping:
- 8 Tbsp. (one stick) butter
- 1/2 cup honey
- 3 Tbsp. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 cup slivered almonds
For the custard filling:
- 2 tsp. powdered gelatin
- 1 1/2 Tbsp. cold water
- 9 egg yolks
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 cups milk
- 1 cup cream
- 4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter, cut into two pieces
- 1 1/2 Tbsp. vanilla bean paste
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix together the milk, brown sugar, and yeast. (If using active dry yeast, wait 10 minutes before proceeding.) Add the flour and mix until just combined, then add the eggs and yolks and turn the mixer to medium-high speed for 3 minutes, scraping the bowl down every so often to make sure nothing’s sticking.
Turn the mixer to medium and add one quarter of the cut-up butter. Let run for 2 minutes, then add another quarter of the butter and continue beating. Repeat this process twice more; when the dough forms a shiny ball around the dough hook and there is no longer any butter visible, the dough is ready.
Use a bowl scraper or silicone spatula to make sure there is no dough stuck to the sides of the bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and put into a cold oven with the light on. Let rise until it has doubled in size—about one hour.
Deflate the dough and punch it down into a nonstick (or well-greased) 10" springform pan. Press the dough to the edges, keeping the cake as level as possible, and prick it with a fork at two-inch intervals to help it rise evenly. Let the cake sit on the counter until it doubles in size—about 30 minutes.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Stir in the honey, sugar, and salt, then bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, allow to cool for about 5 minutes, then add one cup of the syrup mixture to a bowl and mix with the almonds. Cover the remaining syrup with plastic wrap and set aside to be used later.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use your hands to spread the almond topping all over the cake, being careful not to deflate it. Slide the cake into the center of the oven with a sheet tray set on the rack below it—the cake will rise over the top of the springform pan as it bakes, so a sheet pan will prevent any of the topping from falling onto the oven floor and smoking. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the center of the cake registers 190 degrees. Allow the cake to cool for 15 minutes, remove the springform exterior, then let the cake cool for another two hours.
In a small bowl, mix together the gelatin and water until you no longer see any dry powder, and set aside to soften. (If you need to add another drop or two of water, that’s fine.)
In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, brown sugar, cornstarch, and salt until completely smooth. Pour the milk and cream into a medium saucepan over high heat; when it comes to a simmer, pour it into the mixing bowl while whisking constantly, then pour everything back into the saucepan and move to the stove. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard begins to bubble, then reduce heat to medium and continue cooking for another minute. Pour the custard back into the bowl, add the gelatin, and whisk vigorously for one minute. Add all the butter and stir with the whisk continuously until it all melts, then add the vanilla bean paste. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard, then put into the refrigerator to cool down for 30 minutes.
Use a long serrated knife to cut the cake into two layers, leaving it on the springform pan bottom. Set the top aside. Warm the reserved honey butter and drizzle half of it over the bottom layer.
Cut a 36" long piece of parchment paper; fold it lengthwise into thirds. Wrap the parchment around the bottom of cake tightly, affix with tape, then slide the springform exterior back over the cake and lock it into place. Pour the chilled-but-not-yet-set custard over the bottom layer, then put a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the custard’s surface and refrigerate for at least two hours (or overnight). Brush the cut side of the top layer with the remaining honey butter, wrap in plastic wrap, and set aside.
Remove the cake from the springform pan; discard the plastic wrap and parchment collar. Unwrap the top layer, set it on the custard, and serve immediately.
To make serving the cake easier, take a tip from one of the all-time baking icons, Mr. Nick Malgieri: pre-cut the top layer into 8-12 wedges, then reassemble them on top of the cake. This way, when you slice through the cake at the table, you won’t put any pressure on the top layer and the custard won’t spill out the sides.