Baumkuchen is a traditional German cake. It is baked on a stick, layer by layer, while turning.
Baking on a spit over open fire is an ancient method of cooking bread. We know that the Greeks did it, and the Romans spread this technology in their empire. Even today in Germany, children bake a white bread over a bon fire. It is called “Stockbrot” and the dough is wrapped around a stick. But isn’t grilling marshmallows for s’mores also something similar?
While this technology developed over time, the first version of a Baumkuchen recipe was mentioned in 1426 in an Italian cookbook. The first recipe in the German language is from around 1450. So, it was long before America was discovered by the Europeans.
In the 17th century the baking method was revolutionized: the dough was no longer wrapped around the stick, but layer by layer the dough was poured over the rotating stick. This was also the time when the name “Baumkuchen” was mentioned for the first time in a cookbook. Let’s set this as the birth of the traditional German Baumkuchen.
There are two possible explanations of the origin of the name “Baumkuchen”, which translates as “tree cake”.
One is that the cake is baked on a wooden stick (tree). The second, much more popular explanation, is that if you cut the cake into rings, you can see all the layers, which look like the annual rings of a tree.”
A nickname of the Baumkuchen is also “king of cakes”. The reason for this is that baking a Baumkuchen is very elaborate and technically challenging. First of all, you need a special oven and also a lot of experience and patience to bake a Baumkuchen. While the stick is turning, the baker has to concentrate for 1.5 hours (which is the baking time for 25 layers) on every single stick and layer and has to control the baking process so that the cake is not too dry or too moist. If it is too moist, it will be too heavy and the whole cake will fall off the stick. Because of this high level of experience required, the German Confectioners’ Guild has included the Baumkuchen in its logo.
Baumkuchen is not only the king of cakes but also the cake of kings. In 1843, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia (see photo) visited the town of Salzwedel in Germany, which is famous for Baumkuchen. There he tasted the cake and was so excited that he ordered the rest of the cake to be taken with him to Berlin. From then on Baumkuchen became more and more popular within the European aristocracy.
A good 20 years later, on November 22, 1865, King Wilhem the First (who then became the first German Emperor of the German Empire from 1871) made a visit to Salzwedel. There he was also served Baumkuchen. He made the baker of the Baumkuchen from Salzwedel his royal court supplier after tasting the Baumkuchen. From then on, many Baumkuchen from Salzwedel were delivered to the king in Berlin.
By the way, exactly this King Wilhelm the First received in 1876 from the State of Hawaii (under King Kalakaua; more about him see below) the honor “Knight Grand Cross”. Thus he was accepted into the order founded by the Hawaiian King Kamehameha V in 1865. This honor could be awarded to both Hawaiians and foreigners.
While baking Baumkuchen at home without the special oven was almost impossible since the 18th century, it was increasingly baked only by professional bakers.
Therefore, it was always a special treat and served at Christmas or as a wedding cake.
Baumkuchen is a traditional German cake. But Baumkuchen has brothers and sisters in other countries, too.
While the Romans spread the technique of baking on a spit, many different variants have developed over time in Europe.
Called “Sakotis” in Lithuania (see photo) and “Sekacz” in Poland, this is a cake quite similar to the Baumkuchen. It is slightly drier and has branches like spikes. It was Lithuania’s chosen pastry at the “Café Europe” event.
In France, Napoleon’s soldiers brought from Lithuania the now famous “Gâteau à la Broche”. It is very similar to the Lithuanian sakotis and is now a regional delicacy from the Pyrenees.
In Austria, there are hardly any layer cakes. Although Austria is so close to the Baumkuchen country Germany, we met a few Austrians at the Farmers Market here in Hawaii and none of them knew Baumkuchen. Only in a tiny little Tyrolean village there is a cake called “Prügeltorte”. It has a conical shape and even some spikes like the Sakotis.
In Hungary, the cake is known as “Kürtőskalács” (see photo) and is made of a different kind of (yeast) dough. Strips of dough are wrapped around the cylindrical shaped spit, patted down smoothly, brushed with egg, dipped in sugar and baked over charcoal. When taken off the spit, a 25-30cm (10-12 inches) long cake resembling a tube is formed. It is served sprinkled with cinnamon, crushed nuts, coconut or sprinkles, and tastes best when eaten while still warm. The Czech version Trdelník is similar to the Hungarian one, but adds walnuts.
However, the most recent addition to the Baumkuchen heritage is Japan. In 1919, the German baker Carl Juchheim moved from Germany to China and from China to Japan and baked a Baumkuchen there. Since then, the cake, also called “Baumkuchen” in Japan, has begun its success story and is now almost ubiquitous. You can find simple snack cakes in stores or beautifully packaged large cakes for weddings. Baumkuchen now is a part of Japanese food culture. It is more moist and soft in the Japanese version than the original German version.
In 1881, the Merrie Monarch King Kalakaua (see photo) was the first king ever to undertake a world tour. For more than 200 days, he visited many countries in Asia and Europe. During his tour, he also visited Berlin for one week. There he dined a few times with German members of the royal family. At that time, Baumkuchen was already very popular among the aristrocracy and we therefore assume that King Kalakaua was the first Hawaiian to eat a Baumkuchen.
Since 2021 Baumkuchen Farm on Hawaii Island is now a new milestone in the long history of the Baumkuchen cake.
Our cake is an interplay of German traditional baking and the soft Japanese style version, enhanced with great natural and tropical ingredients.
We have made it our mission to serve the people of Hawaii the Baumkuchen that their King Kalakaua probably enjoyed 150 years ago 🙂
Lueders, Manfred. (March 2018). Book: Der Salzwedeler Baumkuchen. Initia Medien und Verlag UG, Germany
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 27). Kürtőskalács. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCrt%C5%91skal%C3%A1cs
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 17). Spit cake. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spit_cake
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, July 11). Šakotis. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%A0akotis
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 25). Kalākaua’s 1881 world tour. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kal%C4%81kaua%27s_1881_world_tour
Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 22). Royal Order of Kamehameha I. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Order_of_Kamehameha_I
Pictures License information:
Wedding Cake: Photo: Salzwedeler Baumkuchenbetriebe Bosse GmbH/mensatic
Hawaiian King Kalakaua: James J. Williams creator QS:P170,Q16856976 This version edited by User:Greg L and Papa Lima Whiskey., Kingdavidkalakaua dust, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons