Cakes, among other sweet treats, are a hugely important part of German culture. The next step to getting to know someone in Germany isn't getting together at home for cocktails, like in France, or for dinner, like in the United States, but for cake and coffee on a weekend afternoon. Across the country people still bake tray-size cakes for the Sunday afternoon Kaffeezeit (coffee time) with their friends and family.
Cakes for Birthdays and Beyond
Also, birthdays are a very big deal in Germany — not just for children, but for grown-ups, too — and tradition dictates that on your birthday you have to make or buy cake to share with other people. Each year on my husband's birthday, in fact, I bake two separate batches of cake: one for the friends and family we celebrate with, and the other for him to take to work for his colleagues.
Homemade cakes are so important in Germany that at cafés and Gasthäuser (taverns with restaurants) all over the country, if you're celebrating a birthday or special occasion with a larger group, it's perfectly acceptable to bring your own homemade cakes, while the restaurant provides plates and cutlery and serves coffee and tea.
The Everyday Cake
But an afternoon cake break isn't just for weekend afternoons or celebrations. My father-in-law, for example, still takes an afternoon break for coffee and cake every single day at his auto shop, in the time-honored German tradition. At 3 p.m. sharp he and his colleagues put down their tools, wipe off their grease-stained hands, and troop across the street to their local bakery, where they order fat slices of cake — plum Streusel on a yeasted crust, maybe, or cheesecake made with grainy Quark, or Kranzkuchen, a flaky braided pastry stuffed with almond paste and raisins — to eat as they sip their cups of coffee.
Get Louisa's recipe: Sunken Apple Cake
Of course, our modern times mean that Germans, too, have less time for recreational baking these days, but with such strong traditions like the almost-holy Sunday afternoon Kaffeezeit with family or friends, the German baker needs to have a sizable repertoire of cakes to draw from. There are simple batter cakes leavened with baking powder or the impressive power of beaten egg whites; cakes topped with seasonal fruit; surprisingly easy old-fashioned sponge rolls filled with whipped cream and jam or fruit; nicely sour cheesecakes made with Quark; and sweet yeasted cakes, topped with everything from fresh fruit, to caramelized almonds and cream, to ground poppy seeds, to a big, knobby batch of Streusel.
German baking is a traditionalist's dream; the majority of its most classic treats have been made the same way for many decades, if not centuries.
This means that cake-baking can be done by every skill set — from the novice or baking-challenged, who will stick to simpler things like Marmorkuchen (marble cake, a nationwide birthday favorite — no matter the age) to the seasoned pro, who will surely try their hand regularly at fruit-filled Strudel or an intricate braided wreath cake.
German baking is a traditionalist's dream; the majority of its most classic treats have been made the same way for many decades, if not centuries. And yet, the contemporary German baker incorporates all kinds of modern trends into their cake-baking. My dear friend Maja, on her most recent birthday, made an impressive assortment of cakes and cookies that were very classical in theory, but rejiggered with all kinds of delicious "new-fashioned" elements. Her Frankfurter Kranz, a buttery layer cake traditionally filled and frosted with buttercream and chopped homemade nut brittle, was refashioned (and slightly lightened) with fresh strawberries folded into a vanilla pastry cream as the filling and frosting, and a "brittle" made with caramelized oats.
The Art of German Cakes
Unlike American baking, with its appealingly easy brownies and muffins, German (and Austrian) cake recipes aren't always quick and easy. Special occasion cakes are often multi-element affairs, with multiple layers of cake and cookie bases, cream and fruit or jam fillings, plus a special topping. There are various base recipes to master, like paper-thin Strudel dough or springy, enriched yeasted dough. But Germans grow up watching their grandmothers and mothers making these things all the time, and even the most reluctant cook will be able to tell you about his or her favorite way of making Pflaumenkuchen (yeasted plum cake) or Käsekuchen (Quark cheesecake).
In my new book, Classic German Baking, I gathered all of my very favorite cake recipes from as many sources as I could — my mother-in-law, antique cookbooks, the back of a package of marzipan, my friend Maja, even the grandfather of a little boy in my son's daycare. I tested them rigorously, adapting them to American ingredients and kitchens. And it is my fervent hope that as readers learn to bake German treats with my book, they will also incorporate some of my favorite German traditions into their lives, like pausing for a gathering with friends and coffee on a weekend afternoon, with at least two homemade cakes to share.