Monday, April 9, 2012

Baumkuchen!...the Tree Cake!

Baumkuchen (Tree ring cake)

The concept of cooking cakes on stones or logs over a fire started with the Romans, who took it to what is now Germany. The cake was first cooked on a slowly rotating log next to a hot fire, the batter brushed on as the log rotated.  The first mention of the cake in a cookbook was in a Hungarian text in 1581. The name means “tree cake”, a reference to the many thin layers resembling growth rings on a tree. In Europe today they are done commercially on these weird looking rotisseries, with injectors (or minions with brushes) applying the batter as the spit rotates, and the cake comes off as a ring cake.

Oddly enough, baumkuchen are very popular in Japan, called baumukÅ«hen there. Baumkuchen was introduced in Hiroshima, Japan in 1919 by Karl Joseph Wilhelm Jucheim. Bakeries started later by his wife still exist under the Jucheim name, and it is still very popular. Spekkoek, or spiku, or more popularly called lapis legit (“very rich layer cake”) is an Indonesian layered cake similar to baumkuchen that was introduced by the Dutch during colonial times. In Indonesia it is usually flavored with cinnamon, mace, clove, and anise, and has no chocolate glaze.

I first tasted this cake in the mid 70’s when I was managing a restaurant in San Antonio, and my buddy Chef Ray Tatum came down so we could cook some ducks for a Thanksgiving feast. I had seen the recipe for baumkuchen or baumtorte in an issue of the old superlative Cuisinart cooking magazine, and Ray and I decided to cook one for the party, in the kitchen of my little bungalow in Alamo Heights. We both declared it as the best cake we had ever eaten. Matter of fact, most people say the same thing after their first taste: “best cake I have ever eaten”. I have to tell you, it’s kind of a pain in the ass to bake; easier with a restaurant style cheesemelter or salamander than it is in a home broiler. And it’s a hands-on project; you HAVE to sit there and ride it out until it’s finished. Without question, once it’s completed, you will be downright gob smacked with how truly delicious this cake is. The almond flavor from the marzipan and the toasted almonds blends perfectly with the apricot and the chocolate. It’s rich, moist, and luscious. Bake one, and you and everyone that gets a taste will be glad you did!


Serves 12
Cake should be well-chilled before applying exterior apricot glaze and chocolate glaze

For the cake batter
1½ cups almond paste (12 oz), softened in microwave
6 tablespoons half and half (¼ cup + 2 tbls)
1½ sticks unsalted butter (12 tbsp), softened in microwave
1 cup sugar
10 large eggs, separated
1½  teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour
¾ cup cornstarch

10 oz apricot jam, pureed to remove chunks
1 cup slivered almonds, dry-toasted until fragrant, chopped.

For the chocolate glaze:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon dark rum or amaretto
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chips, morsels, or squares

In the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the almond paste with half and half until it resembles mashed potatoes. Beat in butter until fluffy, and beat in the sugar. Scrape down the sides. Add the eggs and vanilla.  Sift together the flour and cornstarch and add to the mixing bowl in three batches. Beat until well incorporated, scraping the sides as needed. Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, and fold into the batter in batches. Get one pastry brush for the batter and one for the apricot jam.

Heat up broiler. Grease and line a 9 round cake or springform pan with parchment paper. Pour on ¼ to 1/3 cup of the batter, use the brush to cover the surface, and broil until golden brown. Be sure to watch the process carefully; scorch or burn a layer, and it is almost impossible to remove it. After three layers, spread a light layer of apricot jam. Continue the process (batter + batter + batter + apricot, repeat) until the cake pan is filled with layers. Note: As the level of the surface rises in the pan, and the pan heats up, it will take slightly less time for each successive layer. Pay stricter attention towards the end of the broiling process, as broiling time decreases. Allow to cool to room temp, wrap in plastic film, and refrigerate overnight.

Remove from the pan and trim the sides so that they slope down slightly. Lightly glaze the top and sides with the remaining apricot jam and reserve, chilled. Toast the almonds in a dry skillet and chop coarsely. Combine butter, corn syrup, vanilla, and liquor in a small sauce pan and heat while stirring until the butter is completely melted. Turn off heat, add chocolate, cover, let it melt for about 5 minutes, and stir with a whip until glossy and completely smooth. Let the chocolate cool slightly, and then pour onto the top of the cake in a spiraling fashion, covering the top. It should not be necessary to use a spatula to get a clean-looking surface. Use a spatula to add chocolate to the sides; don’t worry that much about appearance on the sides, as the almonds will cover much of the side surface. Add the almonds to the side as you rotate the cake; you may also use the remaining almonds to decorate the outer edge of the surface. Enjoy.

Mick Vann © 

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