Baumkuchen
Photo by Ben Rhau

One night last week, I sat at home wondering about wedding presents. It was the night before two of my friends were to be married at City Hall and I had no good ideas. The wedding was to be minimal and casual (both the bride and groom are from Germany and they are planning to have a more elaborate celebration back home later on), so good ol’ standbys like blenders and fancy plates just seemed wrong. In fact, the “reception” would just be a bunch of friends drinking at a bar, so imagine how out-of-place a gift of say, a giant silver serving platter would have been. Then suddenly, a brilliant idea!! I will bake them a cake!

Off I go, then, to search for some sort of German wedding cake recipe on the internet and that’s how I came upon Baumkuchen or to us Americans, “Tree Cake”. Apparently known as the “King of Cakes” (not to be confused with King Cake), this multi-layered cake is usually baked on this crazy, spit-like contraption that some professional bakeries have that result in a cylindrical cake with rings in it like a tree. While I might be an engineer, I’m also not about to fashion a spit in my kitchen and risk personal (and Nathan-al) injury. So thank goodness there’s a revised version where the layers are built vertically in a cake pan – even someone as clumsy as me can manage that!

This cake was so delicious and so much fun to make that I’m sure I’ll do it again sometime, for another special occasion. Except, next time, I won’t underestimate the amount of time this recipe takes and will start before 11pm. That is, unless I’m mentally prepared to stay up until 2am again.

There are a few different Baumkuchen recipes out there and if you google around, you’ll surely come upon them. I settled on combining this one and this one and was pretty happy with the result. The only thing I might try next time is possibly add in some layers of apricot jam while building the cake. And be forewarned: this recipe requires a lot of quality time in front of a toasty broiler so it might be best avoided on a sweltering summer day.

1 cup + 2 tbsp flour, sifted
1 cup + 2 tbsp cornstarch, sifted
pinch of salt
1/3 cup sliced almonds
2 sticks butter, cut into small pieces and softened at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
8 eggs, separated
2 tbsp rum (I didn’t have any, so I substituted bourbon)
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup apricot jam

Chocolate Icing:
1/3 cup unsalted butter
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
3 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 tablespoons dark rum (again, I used bourbon instead of rum)

Place a rack right under the broiler in your oven and preheat the broiler. Grease a 8.5″ springform pan well with butter.

In a large bowl, combine flour, cornstarch, and salt. Ground almonds with a food processor and add to flour mixture. Set aside.

Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat butter and sugar together until creamy and fluffy. Add in egg yolks one at a time and mix well after each addition. Add rum/bourbon and lemon zest and mix again. Gradually add in the flour mixture and mix until you have a light, slightly runny batter (almost like a thick pancake batter).

In a clean and dry bowl with clean and dry beaters, whip egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Add in a small amount of egg whites to flour mixture and mix well with a spatula to lighten up the batter. Add in the rest of the egg whites and gently fold into the batter with spatula – be gentle!

Spread a thin layer of batter (~2-3 tbsp) on the bottom of your cake pan – I found this easiest to do by spooning a small amount of batter into the pan and then spread it around (or as I like to think of it, painting it on) with a pastry brush. Place the pan under the broiler and keep a close eye on it since it will only take a few minutes for the layer to bake to golden brown. You might need to rotate the pan every so often to make sure you get even browning.

Once the first layer is golden brown, remove it from the oven and paint on the next layer of batter. Repeat this process until you’ve used up all the batter. Let the cake cool for a few minutes in the pan while you prepare jam.

Over low heat on the stove, melt the apricot jam in a small saucepan, stirring frequently. Once the jam is melted and easier to work with, run a sharp knife along the inside of the cake pan and remove the cake, which should still be warm. Glaze the cake with the melted jam immediately and leave it aside to cool.

Once the cake is cooled, you’re ready to ice it with chocolate. Melt the chocolate and butter together in a small saucepan over low heat, being very careful not to burn the chocolate and stirring constantly. Once melted, add corn syrup and rum/bourbon and stir together until smooth. You should have a glossy, smooth chocolate icing at this point. Let it cool a little bit to thicken it up, which makes it easier to work with. Then spread it all over the cake, being mindful that it’s ok to lick the spoon at the end when you’re done.

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