A short history of baumkuchen

You might find yourself in Berlin one cold and rainy midday, at the end of the year. A jazz band playing Christmas carols on the bandstand, the scent of sausages, beer and sugared almonds drifting in the air. You might look around at first, wondering if you should get a hearty soup to warm up with, but you don’t. Of course you don’t. You opt for the sausage, because when in Berlin you eat sausage. Beer is mandatory too, although you might split just one glass with your travel partner, as one glass of beer in Germany means a mug of beer the size of a giant’s fist. And even though it holds delicious cold and golden beer, you don’t want to freeze your ass off later on, on a dirty, stinky mobile toilet somewhere at the back of the market square. You listen to jingle bells performed by elderly men with white moustaches and a jolly smile on their face, a giant disco-ball shimmering above their heads. This is what a Christmas market should be like you think; cold and rainy, yes, warming up with sausages and beer, obviously. But dessert, you wonder, what should it be at a Christmas market?

The answer is Baumkuchen. If for no other reason than to figure out what that odd-shaped-cake-like thing is people are carrying around in a paper bag and what it tastes like. Which is why we had it for dessert on a cold and rainy midday at the Gendarmenmarkt Christmarket in Berlin.

After wolfing down piece of this fluffy cake, I turned to the internet for answers. It turns out that Baumkuchen has a diverse history. It’s like apple pie: every nation has it’s own version and every nation has the original one. Truth be told, I have no idea who invented it and where and when, but bless that person’s heart because it’s delicious and stunning.

Called spit cake in English (which is a minor disadvantage, because who wants to eat something with the word ‘spit’ in it, even though it revers to a rod that rotates over a fire or other heating source, and on which the batter is poured, one layer at a time) this type of cake might date back as far as the Ancient Greeks. Baumkuchen is the German version of a spit cake, the Hungarian version bears the name Kürtőskalács (I dare you to pronounce that with a mouthful of baumkuchen) and supposedly started out as a wedding cake. Nowadays German’s version of spit cake is mostly eaten on special occasions, Christmas being one of them.

Whatever the origin or name, baumkuchen is time consuming to make it seems. Your patience will be rewarded once you cut into the cake and layers like the rings of age in a tree appear. Hence the baum.

And so you might find yourself in Berlin one cold and rainy midday, at the end of the year. A jazz band playing Christmas carols on the band stand, the scent of sausages, beer and sugared almonds drifting in the air. You’re holding a paper bag with cubes of baumkuchen in it, certain that you’re the luckiest person in the world, despite the fact that you’re covered -head to toe- in powdered sugar. But what’s Christmas without a dusting of snow.

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