A Cake Obsession


Photo by chatirygirl/Flickr CC

Some writers I know from the first word I'll read with surprise, admiration, delight, and yes, envy at the sheer craft she or he has put a lifetime into learning. A number of them are in the new annual food issue of The New Yorker: Calvin Trillin on poutine, the appalling but kind of irresistible Canadian national dish of french fries and fried cheese curd--"which might be described as Cheddar before the taste is added"--under brown gravy (even after last week's very pleasurable Canadian excursion, I remain a poutine virgin and have no plans to lose my innocence); Jane Kramer on Thanksgivings she has cooked in exotic places in exotic company, with the frequent expat's experience of never finding a turkey and of forcing friends from home to pack and schlep ridiculous items in ridiculous amounts; Adam Gopnik on cookbooks, a piece my brother called me up the night his issue arrived to insist I see and whose first page in particular I in turn urge you to read.

But I reserve special pleasure for Mimi Sheraton on the page--or on the screen; since the summer she has been writing for a new online magazine on Jewish life called Tablet, as she told me when I recently ran into her and her husband, Richard Falcone, at the Greenwich Village market near their house (typical opening line: "What are you doing at my market?"). As always, she picks subjects I want to know more about, for instance this piece on pretzels and salt as an appropriate housewarming gift for Eastern European Jews; I too was taught always to bring bread and salt when visiting a new house, and fresh, salt-flecked pretzels, a great Germanic tradition that is happily, if too slowly, being revived, is an ideal way to do it.

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In the food issue Sheraton introduces readers to another German baked specialty, a field of particular expertise; her two books on German food, The German Cookbook andVisions of Sugarplums, are indispensable references that will never leave my shelves. This cake consumed me in the late 1980s, as it first consumer her in the early 1960s, when she was researching her first German cookbook: Baumkuchen, stacks of tapered concentric rings on a cone spindle, exactly like those plastic children's toys in blatant, gumdrop-colored plastic but these all a buff honey color--and, mysteriously, baked in crepe-thin layers that show their own concentric rings when you cut into them, like beets cut crossways.

I was introduced to the plain, buttery, light cake with deliciously browned edges and dozens of them when visiting a graduate-level cooking school in a very small town in northern Germany. The town was Wolfenbuttel, and the somewhat unforgettable name of the school, listings for which I still find on the Web but not a Web site, was the Bundefachschule Fur Das Konditoren-Handwerk. The then-director, Gregor Frey, led me around, and our first stop was the room where I fell in wondrous love. I was able to rediscover my moment of discovery on my hard drive, thanks to the miracle of X1, the indexing program James Fallows and I can't live without:

My favorite of the rooms I prowl, closely followed by Frey, is the baking room. I watch him supervise the making of a Baumkuchen ("tree cake")--the emblem of the school, whose image appears with almost fetishistic regularity on brochures and even atop the gateposts at the driveway. A Baumkuchen looks like a child's toy with fat stacking rings, and it is even higher, with about a seven-inch diameter at the base. It tastes like a pound cake, and the school's batter is similar (for each cake, start with 50 eggs and a month's supply of butter). The stacked rings are sliced off horizontally and cut through vertically, so that each slice reveals vertical striations that look like the rings of a tree.

Frey has helped design the equipment the white-knuckled student, tall and thin and awkward, is using--an oven that looks like a rotisserie, with a trough at waist level filled with quarts of batter. A snub-nosed metal cone is slipped onto the spit and tied with string like a salami. The core is dipped into the trough, and a thin layer of batter sticks to the string. Each layer bakes quickly and the core is again spun in the batter. After the first few layers the student rakes the cake with an indented comb and spoons on more batter. This is where Frey comes in, taking less batter at a time, patiently dribbling more onto the emerging stacked-ring shape, closing the oven and occasionally peering in with an anxious concern that the student reflects.

I now learn from Sheraton's recent researches that the machine I was looking at was one of two sorts; the other is more of a traditional rotisserie in which the baker ladles spoonful after spoonful of batter over the spit as it turns, creating the ring. I saw the easier, more evolved version, which Sheraton finds in a Chicago shop called Lutz Cafe and Pastry Shop, which jumps to the head of my next Chicago itinerary.

Sheraton finds much else, including current sources, among them the Japanese pastry shop I always stop in at Rockefeller Center, Minamoto Kitchoan--where I now remember I did see Baumkuchen rings, along with other pancakes and cakes using a similar blond, airy, eggy batter. And she traces the history back to eastern and northern Europe, and twentieth-century Japan. With her impeccable ear she quotes a fifth-generation German konditorei proprietor named Elisabeth Kreutzkamm-Aumuller, who was offering baumkuchn samples at last summer's Fancy Food show (I missed them! How? Never again), who recounts young women entering her shop and asking whether they should have salad or cake: "What a question! If nobody wants my beautiful cakes, who will learn to be a baker?"

There's the dilemma facing almost every artisan practicing a dying craft--not, I hope, like Sheraton's lapidary prose, as I once and still describe it. In this case, there's an easy answer: find some Baumkuchen and eat it.