The Origins and Rise of Baumkuchen in Japan

baumkuchen juchheim
Photo courtesy of Juchheim

If you’ve been to Japan, you may have noticed Baumkuchen everywhere. Perhaps you’ve tasted one before – simple, yet so delicious! This traditional German confectionery literally means “tree cake”, where its name derives from the layers of concentric rings that make up the dessert, resembling the rings of a tree.

Although its origins are in Germany, Baumkuchen is arguably more popular in Japan, where they are often sold in a range of places, from small slices being packaged as a snack in convenience stores, to whole rings being sold in renowned bakeries with many years of history and high-end department stores.

How did a traditional German cake end up in Japan?

Photo courtesy of Kihachi

Although this story starts out badly, it does have a happy ending. During World War I, a young baker by the name of Karl Juchheim was living in China when he was captured and brought back to an internment camp in the small island of Okinawa in Japan.

When prisoners of war were asked to put on an exhibition at the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition, Karl chose to showcase Baumkuchen. It must have been a success, because after his release two years later, he and his wife decided to open the first Baumkuchen bakery in Japan.

The Japanese embraced this sweet, where its many rings were seen as a symbol of prosperity, and so it became a very popular wedding and anniversary gift.

Traditional methods vs the new age

Baumkuchen Salzwedel
Photo courtesy of Baumkuchen Salzwedel

Despite its long history and popularity, not as many meisters (masters of the Baumkuchen) exist as you would expect. On top of having the patience and dedication to this labour-intensive process, you must also have the right tools: a rotating spit, a fire, a brush, and a good knife. But if you’re lucky enough, you may pass by bakeries with large windows where you can see meisters hard at work. 

Traditionally, the confectionery is made by having a rotating spit above a wood fire. The meister uses a brush to apply a thin layer of cake, waits for it to dry, before applying another layer. After 15 to 20 layers, an extremely long cake, resembling a log with a hole in the centre, is created.

The meister then uses a sharp knife to cut the cake whilst it is still rotating on the spit. Each cut has to be extremely clean as it is the cut face which is presented to the customers. For instance, one might think of the Masahiro 12cm MV-H Utility Knife or the Kasumi Damascus 12cm Utility Knife – the former being light and balanced to handle, the latter containing 32 layers of steel – as good candidates to slice through all the layers of the cake in one fell swoop. The resulting slices of rings can then be served or sold.

Whilst Karl’s original Juchheim bakery still very much keeps to the traditional methods of making Baumkuchen, other Japanese bakeries have had no qualms adopting machinery for automation. Whether that is the new way for this age or deviates too much from tradition can be deliberated, but it does indeed make the confectionery more widely available to meet the Japanese’ growing love and demand for this treat. In fact, the Baumkuchen Expo 2019 was held last year to celebrate the Baumkuchen’s 100 years of history in Japan!

Western desserts in Japan

Photo courtesy of Colombin.

While frequently sold as a whole ring, Baumkuchen is often served as a smaller piece in the shape of an arc. As the layers add up to form a firmer cake than your normal sponge cake, a forged blade such as the Global GSF-22 11cm Utility Knife will allow you to slice through the concentric rings cleanly, and the resulting piece is served.

Complementing the natural flavour of the cake, Baumkuchen can often be jazzed up by adding in an extra chocolate layer or added flavours such as marzipan or anise. In Japan, Baumkuchen can be found with matcha flavours, or Japanese-sourced ingredients (such as Harajuku honey from the Colombin bakery), for that extra Japanese flair.

It is amazing to see how this traditional German dessert is being embraced by an entirely new community, and flourishing in its own right with a touch of the taste of a new culture.

The mille crepe and mont blanc come immediately to mind, where they have been created with many Japanese flavours such as yuzu and matcha. With so many desserts from all over the world brought into and flourishing in Japan with their own unique twists, this is certainly a space to watch. What will the next era of Japanese desserts bring us?

Summary

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