My Family Rituals Series continues with author Luisa Weiss, who some of you probably know as The Wednesday Chef, or, if you’re a blogger like me, as “one of the originals.” Luisa grew up shuttling back and forth between Boston and Berlin, and it’s Berlin where she’s made a home with her husband and young son, Hugo. Not content merely to write one of the more beloved food memoirs of the past decade, she has now taken it upon herself to assemble a stunning cookbook called Classic German Baking, where she offers the definitive collection of German specialities (think sachertortes and Linzertortes, Apfelkuchen and Pfefferneusse) for the modern baker. (It’s what we in the industry might call a “category killer.”) This past weekend I baked her Marmorkuchen, or Marble Cake, which, I learned plays a crucial and delicious role in German birthdays. I’ll let her tell you the whole celebratory story.
It may come as a surprise to you, but I know no other country that takes birthdays as seriously as Germany does. Celebration rituals in general are sacred here, which of course makes sense when you contemplate all the pomp and circumstance that surround German Advent and Christmastime. But birthdays are considered similarly important. (Which never fails to perplex Italians of a certain age in Germany, like my mother, who moved here over 40 years ago and still thinks the whole German birthday rigmarole is slightly absurd, since adults of her generation in Italy really don’t celebrate birthdays at all and candles are lit only when someone dies!)
It all starts in childhood, when on the eve of a child’s birthday, while the child is fast asleep in bed, the parents decorate the Geburtstagstisch, or birthday table, with linens and candy, decorations and a homemade birthday cake. The next day, the birthday kid wakes up to breakfast at this table, with a special birthday candle and presents. Later in the day, homemade cake is shared with family and often, a children’s party for friends is planned too.
But adulthood doesn’t lessen the importance of celebrating a birthday. As a matter of fact, for Germans of all ages, birthdays are to be marked with gatherings and phone calls and cards, text messages, those ever-present candles and, most importantly, cake. (Beware wishing a German happy birthday before the actual day, though. This is a faux-pas of the first degree and is considered to bring bad luck for the honoree.) Part of German birthday culture is that on your birthday, you are the one meant to provide people with cake to celebrate with. For example, on my husband’s birthday each year, we not only make a cake to celebrate with at home, but we bake something for him to take to work to share with his colleagues too. And of course, the same goes for children. The cult of the homemade cake is so strong here, in fact, that in cafés and taverns all over the country, if you are celebrating a birthday, you are allowed to bring your own cakes, while the establishment serves coffee and other drinks.
In the United States, birthday cakes seem to come mostly in the form of generously frosted layer cakes or perhaps an ice cream cake from the store, if not a totally spectacular homemade creation in the shape of Elmo or R2D2 or Elsa from Frozen, or any other pop culture figure the child is currently obsessed with. And like many other parents who bake, I am in awe of the decorating (and crafting) skills of the stylists at Martha Stewart and the talented bakers who post their creations on Pinterest. But after ogling the artistry (and briefly blanching at the amount of frosting needed to produce such works of art), I power down my computer and feel rather sheepishly grateful that I live in a country where the pinnacle of birthday-cake-baking (especially for children) mostly ends up being the humble marble cake.
Yes, in Germany, one of the most popular and beloved birthday cakes is marble cake, almost always baked in a Gugelhupf pan (a slightly taller, slightly tapered Bundt pan), finished with powdered sugar or sometimes a chocolate glaze. At my son’s daycare, where parents bring homemade cakes on the morning of their child’s birthday, to be sliced up and served after their nutritious German breakfast of dark, seeded rye bread spread with butter and a slice of ham or cheese, unscientific polling shows that 9 times out of 10, that cake is a marble cake. But I know plenty of German adults who call it their favorite birthday cake too. In fact, my friend Maja Welker, whose marble cake recipe is the be-all and end-all of marble cakes, told me that her uncle recently requested it for his eightieth birthday party.
You may not think you need another recipe for marble cake, but Maja’s family recipe is the best I’ve ever had. Maja’s secret is stirring melted white chocolate into the plain batter. Don’t worry; this doesn’t make the batter taste of white chocolate. When the cake is baked, the white parts simply taste richer, toastier, and more complex. Instead of quickly munching through them to get to the chocolate cake, you’ll actually want to savor the white cake as well—a first, at least in my marble cake experience. Baked in a Gugelhupf pan, the cake rises up to great heights, making for satisfyingly big slices. But you can, of course, make this in a Bundt pan instead, just reduce the baking time by 10-15 minutes. Surprisingly, the cake actually gets better - moister and more flavorful – a day after baking, so if you can, try to bake it a day before you plan to serve it.
The next time a birthday in your household rolls around and you just can’t fathom attempting a cake in the shape of a Minion or a Lego piece, please don’t despair. Instead, walk away from the frosting and the food coloring and the pop culture characters, mix up this marble cake instead and watch your family swiftly embrace the German birthday way.
German Marble Cake (Marmorkuchen)
Makes 1 (9-inch) cake
3 1/2 ounces/100g bittersweet chocolate, minimum 50% cacao solids, chopped
3 1/2 ounces/100g white chocolate, chopped
18 tablespoons/250g unsalted high-fat, European-style butter, softened, plus more for the pan
1 1/4 cups/250g granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups, scooped and leveled/250g all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 tablespoons whole milk
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350°F/180°C, placing the rack in the bottom third of the oven. Liberally butter and flour a Gugelhupf or Bundt pan.
Put the bittersweet and white chocolates into two separate small stainless steel bowls that can be set over a small saucepan of simmering water or in microwave-safe bowls. Melt the chocolates, one bowl at a time, over the saucepan of simmering water or in the microwave in small bursts, stirring after every few bursts. Set aside to cool.
Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the flat beater attachment. Add the sugar and salt and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract and then the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl between each egg, until the mixture is well combined.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. Beat the flour into the butter mixture. Then scrape out two-thirds of the batter into a medium bowl and stir all of the melted white chocolate into the larger batch of batter until no streaks remain.
Add the melted bittersweet chocolate, cocoa powder, and milk to the remaining one-third of the batter and beat until fully combined and no streaks remain.
Scrape half of the white batter into the prepared cake pan. Top with the bittersweet batter. Then scrape the remaining white batter on top. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 60 minutes, or until the white part of the cake is golden brown and a tester comes out clean. (If using a Bundt pan, start testing after 45 minutes.)
Place the pan on a rack to cool for 10 minutes before unmolding it onto the rack and letting it cool upside down. When the cake has cooled completely, dust with confectioners’ sugar, if desired, and serve. The cake can be made a day ahead. Any leftovers will keep, wrapped in plastic wrap, for 3 days at room temperature.
Reprinted with permission from Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss, copyright © 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Aubrie Pick