If you ever make it to the state of North-Rhine Westphalia in Germany, any one of the Heinemann Konditoreien (cake shops) is definitely worth a stop, if only (or rather especially) for some Mitbringsel (small presents you bring with you from a trip).
Although Heinemann has a good selection of cakes, chocolate truffles (with or without alcohol), and other sweets, it is the Champagne truffles and the Baumkuchen I would like to focus on here, since they are my personal all-time favourites.
Their Champagne truffles, created in 1968, are indeed filled with 4% champagne, and although not meant for children, my previously younger self was allowed one on special occasions. In other words, I grew up with and yet never tire of them. So that must be how I developed my affinity for champagne! Or perhaps that’s what I’d like to believe.. Champagne’s alcohol content aside, the fact that it’s there, in the chocolate ganache centre, gives the truffle an exquisite and unique flavour which you can only truly understand once you’ve tried it.
As for Baumkuchen, it’s a type of cake which started off as a type of bread in ancient Greece, but is now more widely spread than one might perhaps have thought, with each food culture and tradition having its own variation, and each establishment its own recipe and way of preparation. Baumkuchen, literally translated from German to English as tree cake, is called that way due to the rings that become visible once you cut the cake open, much like the rings you would see if you cut a tree trunk, allowing you to determine its age.
The dough, consisting of butter, eggs, sugar and flour (with some added spices or flavours such as cinnamon, nutmeg, rum, or marzipan varying according to recipe), is evenly brushed onto a spit in thin layers, each drying off and changing colour to a golden brown as the spit rotates in an open fire before the next layer is applied. Typically a Baumkuchen will consist of fifteen to twenty layers and due to a special technique will have a length-wise wave-like form so that the whole roughly one metre tall Baumkuchen can be cut into sellable sizes, anything between one and five rings.
While in Japan it is common for Baumkuchen to be naked, in Germany it will usually be covered by a dark or milk chocolate glaze, in some cases (as traditionally in Salzwedel) by a white glaze of sugar. And yes, the German Baumkuchen in Japan (バウムクーヘン) is a popular confection that was first introduced in Hiroshima at a German exhibition in 1919 by one Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim. Success was followed by the opening of a bakery in Yokohama, then continuation in Kobe, and finally a chain of bakeries under the Juchheim name after World War II. When I travelled to Japan I was indeed surprised to find it there in its culturally appropriated form. Having arrived almost a century before my trip, it had plenty of time to be refashioned and customized to Japanese taste and traditions, becoming a popular return wedding gift due to its distinctive ring shape.
Aside from having produced independent offspring in a land far away, Baumkuchen is also a cousin, a sister, surely a niece and perhaps an aunt to a large family of spit cakes in Europe. Thus there exist Prügelkrapfen in Austria, Spettekaka in Sweden, Kürtőskalács in Hungary, Gâteau à la broche in France, Sękacz in Poland, and many more. Throughout the next few years I hope to have tried at least some of them and will share my encounters as they happen. I hope that in my exploration of the varieties of spit cake to be found on the European continent, my fascination with cultural appropriation will be transferred to you. Celebrating difference as well as similarities seems to be the key to a healthy relationship not only with food but with many aspects of life.
Baumkuchen are a common occurrence in German cake shops and supermarkets during Christmas time, but at Heinemann their secret recipe concoctions will be available all year long and they are made without additives or preservatives. How to cut the cake once bought is ultimately left up to you, though the more traditional way of handling it is a horizontal rather than a vertical cut, much like you would chop a tree.
If you’re in the mood for more user-friendly bite-sized Baumkuchenecken or –spitzen (wedges or tips), Heinemann offers them too.
Baumkuchenecken are made either by cutting the spit cake into its individual rings, then cutting those into wedges and dipping them in chocolate, or by directly baking the dough in layers in a rectangular form, then cutting it into small rectangular pieces and dipping those in chocolate (which is also the way to do it at home).
Although Baumkuchen itself, due to the way it is baked, has an extended shelf life, the chocolate with which it is covered does not. And since confections at Heinemann are made fresh every day without any additives or preservatives, this translates to an imminently upcoming expiry date (give or take two – three weeks). But once you’re in possession of their little fresh chocolate devils it becomes very hard to pace yourself. And a little tip before you’re on your way: better to buy one more package than you thought you wanted. The temptation to crack that package open which was actually meant for auntie Jane back home is very strong…
Availability: An online shop, which ships internationally, as well as Heinemann Konditoreien in Düsseldorf (5), Mönchengladbach (3), Krefeld (2), Duisburg (1), Neuss (1), and München/Munich (1)