We’re ending our year of Foreign Foods in Japan on a sweet note, with a luscious cake that spans the globe: baumkuchen!
Known as “The King of Cakes”, baumkuchen is most notably a German cake. Variations are claimed by other European nations as far back as Ancient Roman times, but the true delicacy of this spit-roasted cake was perfected in Germany. A baumkuchen cake is made with simple ingredients, like flour, butter, eggs and sugar. The beauty of this cake is that it is painstakingly made, with layers upon layers of sweet sponge cake batter roasted on a rotisserie-style spit, each layer cooked until golden and delicious.
Traditional baumkuchen were made over charcoal or open flames. The base layer was coated on the spit, cooked all the way through and then coated with another layer, which in turn was cooked over the heat. The process was repeated up to 20 times, resulting in golden lines between each layer of cake. The overall effect was similar to the growth rings found in tree trunks, hence the name baumkuchen, which literally translates to “tree cake”. This tree cake, inspired by German forests and open-flamed cooking methods, was transplanted to Japan!
Baumkuchen was first introduced in Japan during World War I. The Japanese Army captured a German expat named Karl Juchheim, who owned a pastry shop while living in Tsingtao, China, during the war. He was interred along with other Germans in Ninoshima Island of Hiroshima Prefecture. In 1919, an exhibition of commercial goods made by the prisoners of the camp was hosted by the Japanese, and Juchheim created his famous baumkuchen cake in a show of German pride for the exhibition. Needless to say, the cake was a smashing hit! Following the end of the war, Juchheim stayed in Japan and opened his eponymous shop. Known as a Master Baker or “Meister”, Juchheim offered the cake to an avid Japanese market.
Today, baumkuchen is prized all over the world. The cake is made in specialized ovens instead of over an open flame and found in specialty bakeries in Japan. The ovens are so prized that the first one was only recently sold in the United States!
In Japan, baumkuchen is a popular return gift at weddings, not only because of its lovely ring shape – which symbolizes love and adoration – but also because of its intricacy and fancy preparation. The ring pattern and light sweetness of the cake make it a perennial favorite, and we hope that the same sweetness and light follow you into 2020! Happy New Year!