How a Prisoner of War Turned this Fussy German Cake into a National Obsession in Japan

While Baumkuchen, or "tree cake," is rare in Germany, it's now found everywhere in Tokyo from 7-11 to fancy department stores.

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Aug 7 2018, 5:45pm

All photos courtesy Juchheim.

When I lived in Berlin, I was always struck by the fact that German cuisine, which seemed so stubbornly pragmatic most of the time, took a turn for the fantastical when it came to baked goods. The lebkuchen made with more than a dozen spices and aged for months before being baked, the strudel dough rolled by hand until supple and translucent enough to read a newspaper through, and the pillow-sized sourdoughs that took days to ferment, were as intricate and impractical as meat-and-potatoes staples like Königsberger Klopse (veal meatballs in cream sauce) were utilitarian. Yet all these pale in comparison to one member of the German confectionery pantheon, a sweet so revered that its nickname is the König der Kuchen (“King of Cakes”).

Baumkuchen quite literally towers over other baked goods. Though usually served in small slices, when uncut it resembles a turret of glazed doughnuts of up to four feet in height. Unlike other cakes, it’s made by pouring batter onto a rotating spit over an open fire in a setup reminiscent of a horizontal döner. As each layer cooks, it caramelizes, giving the final cake a series of rings like those found in the trunk of a tree—hence the name, which literally translates as “tree cake.” Bite into a sliver and what at first appears to be a straightforward flavor profile that sings of butter, sugar, and vanilla gives way to a startling complexity that comes from the Maillard reaction occurring up to 30 consecutive times. There might also be hints of rum, bitter almond, apricot jam, cinnamon, or whatever other ingredients the baker has chosen to add. As soon as I tried my first piece of it at Conditorei Kreutzkamm in Dresden, I was hooked.

No one knows where Baumkuchen comes from, although it’s part of an extended family of spit-roasted cakes that includes Slovakian trdelník, Swedish spettekaka, French gâteaux à la broche, and Austrian Prügeltorte. Although the earliest known recipe appears in 1426 in an Italian cookbook, Italy has no such tradition today and few believe it originated there. The first German recipe appears in 1450 and evolved over the centuries to incorporate New World ingredients such as the chocolate that coats the outside of some versions. Otto von Bismarck was reportedly a fan, as was Kaiser Wilhelm I, who received an enormous Baumkuchen covered in marzipan roses upon his visit to Salzwedel, a small town still famous for the cakes today. In 1819, Maria Grosch, the daughter of an Austrian soldier stationed in Cottbus, Germany, received a recipe for Baumkuchen from a traveling journeyman in exchange for room and board. Her cakes became so sought-after that the Cottbus style of Baumkuchen remains the most popular of the three.

As delicious as Baumkuchen may be, it’s also something of a rarity even in its native land. That’s because even compared to the country’s other baroque baked goods, Baumkuchen requires a great deal of skill to make. A single lapse in attention can result in a lopsided cake tumbling from its spit and quite literally going up in flames.

“There are hardly any bakeries that still make it in Berlin,” says Luisa Weiss, author of the bestselling book Classic German Baking. “It’s available, I think, in far more places in Japan than it is in Germany and they’ve really taken it to new heights.”

Wait, Japan?

That’s where this gets weird, because while freshly baked Baumkuchen is tough to find in Germany, when I visited Tokyo, it was absolutely everywhere. There were lowbrow plastic-wrapped renditions in 7-Elevens and gorgeous packages of it presented like jewelry by babydoll-lashed, white-gloved attendants in Ginza. There were svelte women in Chanel who looked as though they’d never so much as smelled a carb in their lives dining on dainty matcha-tinted slices in the basements of swank department stores. Japan is so obsessed with the kingly cake that in 2010, the country declared March 4th to be National Baumkuchen Day. In 2014, 90 people teamed up in the city of Gifu to make a 37-foot long Baumkuchen, the longest on record. Adults have stacked Baumkuchen together to form the tiers of wedding cakes, while children chow down on them in almost all of the country’s major theme parks, including Kurashiki Tivoli Park, Tokyo Disneyland, and Huis Ten Bosch, a trippy replication of the Netherlands in Nagasaki complete with tulips, faux-canal houses, and a bakery called the Hexen House (“witch’s house”) dedicated to the delicacy.

It all leads back to 1914, when Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim, a baker from a small town to the west of Frankfurt, married a business-savvy young woman by the name of Elise and brought her with him back to Tsingtao, China. He was only 28 years old at the time, but had been running a small bakery in the Imperial German-controlled port town for a year. Although the small colony existed for all of 16 years, the Germans had done everything possible to make the Chinese coastline resemble home. When the young couple looked out their window, they would have seen a sea of red-tiled rooftops and church steeples, a crude approximation of Bavaria thrown together in roughly a decade. There was even a brewery that produced beer according to the exacting standards of the Reinheitsgebot, or German purity law.

The Juchheims’ timing couldn’t have been worse—within a few months World War I was in full swing. That November, the Japanese laid siege to Tsingtao. Karl and Elise spent the next five years in a Japanese internment camp in Okinawa. Karl managed to turn his fortunes around while still a prisoner of war. In March of 1919, he introduced Japan to Baumkuchen at the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition. His modest success and the fact that Germany was in financial ruin under the Weimar Republic convinced him to stick around. Two years later, he and Elise opened a Baumkuchen bakery in Yokohama Prefecture.

Tragedy continued to follow the enterprise—the Great Kanto Earthquake wiped out that shop, forcing the couple to relocate to Kobe. Their son, Karl-Franz, died during World War II and Karl followed in 1945, just one day before the Axis powers surrendered. Not long thereafter, the Allied powers deported Elise. The bakery would have ended there, were it not for a small band of former employees who decided to reopen—and, in 1953, convince the government to allow Elise to return. She remained an important part of the company until her death in 1971.

More than a century after Karl Juchheim arrived in Japan, the Juchheim bakery is the nation’s largest producer of Baumkuchen. At present, the company boasts 351 stores across the country, in addition to branches in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam.

“Baumkuchen has a simple taste, but there is something profound to it as well. Perhaps this is a Japanese way of thinking, but when there so many layers piled up, we say it is kind of like piles of happiness,” says Shota Kato, one of several Konditormeister, or certified master patissiers, at the company. “So we consider this sweet to be auspicious. We often use it for wedding and anniversary gifts.”

Aside from a few unconventional flavors like sweet black bean and cherry blossom, Kato and his colleagues don’t mess with the classic recipe, which he says is closest to the Salzwedel style. Many Japanese companies have had no compunctions about automating the baking techniques or reducing the cost of ingredients, resulting in the spongier versions widely available in convenience stores for a few bucks. The bakers at Juchheim, in contrast, still treat Baumkuchen as something of a luxury, much in the same way their German counterparts do.

“Baumkuchen became a holiday tradition in part because in the past the raw ingredients for it were so extraordinarily expensive,” says Monika Weiland of Konditorei Buchwald, a 166-year-old, fifth-generation family-run bakery in Berlin that has been making Cottbus-style Baumkuchen on the premises since 1904. It’s one of the only bakeries to produce the cakes year-round, serving them in the summertime with house-made plum compote, cinnamon ice cream, and a tuft of whipped cream. “Sugar was a luxury then and there needs to be a ton of butter in there, or else you cannot call it Baumkuchen. Most families would have saved the whole year in order to afford a single cake for Christmas.”

Today, it’s more manageable, but still not what you’d call cheap. A kilo of Konditorei Buchwald’s Baumkuchen, which is fragrant with marzipan and real vanilla beans, goes for €34.50. The labor-intensive process ensures it remains very much a special-occasion cake, which Weiland says is part of its appeal both at home and abroad. The bakery does a brisk mail-order business, particularly to emigres of German descent who fled during World War II and, of course, customers in Japan.

“So many Japanese travelers have come to visit us. They always want to have a real conversation about it and see how it’s made. They treat it as something to be celebrated,” she says. “I just think it’s lovely.”