i have many sweet obsessions and chief amongst them by a long stretch is the baumkuchen — a golden “tree” cake made with almond paste in the batter, lovingly baked on a spit, which when cut reveals hundreds of thin layers. i found myself in the isetan shinjuku food halls over the holidays, and upon stepping into it, i immediately proclaimed to hubby that i was in heaven. for fear of losing sight of me as i ping-ponged around from exquisite gourmet food vendor to vendor, hubby agreed to wait for me in front of the mochi stand. i spent about 30 minutes surveying the landscape. i probably saw proper kobe steak, the most perfect fruits and vegetables, creamy tofu and all that, but i only really had eyes for the baumkuchen! and my, there were a lot of baumkuchen brands at isetan. (yes, you also can get 100 yen baumkuchen in the local convenience stores and they’re pretty commonly found stateside as well in asian supermarkets for under $5. it just isn’t the same. a real, freshly made baumkuchen will probably be around 1,000 yen and up, for what seems like a sliver of a slice). prior to my isetan trip, i had tried the baumkuchen at club harie, madame shinco, karl juccheim, and the variety at minamoto kitchoan (available stateside but goes for double the price in japan). this time around, i saw several more brands of baumkuchen that i had never seen before. there were chocolate flavored baumkuchen, chocolate covered ones, as well as mini-ones stuffed with strawberries, chestnuts, and more. i was not just in japanese sweets heaven, i was in baumkuchen paradise.
i zeroed in on one particular shop: holländische kakao-stube. apparently, isetan shinjuku hosted the only holländische kakao-stube in all of japan. in turn, the tokyo store was some sort of franchise or licensee of the original holländische kakao-stube in hanover germany, one of the oldest sweet shops in all of germany. (as a side note, when i looked up the hanover mothership online there was no mention of baumkuchen at all on their website. was this just a clever marketing ploy? did the japanese baumkuchen branch just want to buy instantaneous heritage?) holländische kakao-stube at isetan attracted a very long line. 75% of the shop’s pastries were some sort of baumkuchen variety. there were a few cookies and danish-looking things on the side. among the baumkuchen offerings, were the plain baumkuchen with a sugar glaze, a chocolate glazed one, and one that looked like a flat baumkuchen with a chocolate topping. that flat version was called baumurinde and had won several prizes. there were fancy metals displayed next to it in the pastry case. the clerk asked me what i wanted. i first pointed to the baumurinde, they were out. then to the sugar glazed baumkuchen. they were also sold out. bummer! the only thing they had left was the chocolate glazed baumkuchen. i said that i’d take one. i gave the clerk i think something like 2000-2500 yen. she handed over an extremely well packaged cake with a deep bow from the waist — now that’s service!
when i got back to nyc, i unwrapped the cake. did i say that it was really well packaged? the cake itself was vacuum sealed, tied with a bow, and then placed in a foam cushioned box. it even survived the trip from tokyo in my suitcase, completely intact with not a scratch on to it. when i cut into the cake, the chocolate glaze crackled (a sign of well tempered chocolate). it may not have been my first choice or 2nd choice at the store, but it tasted like heaven — cake, which without the use of cream layers, tasted absolutely creamy, smooth, like a cup of warm tea cupped in my hands on a cold day.
nb: yes, i’ve tried baking baumkuchen at home before, but it really doesn’t come out right without the proper equipment. you need a baumkuchen machine. a commercial one from japan goes for about $6K and takes up about as much space as a baby grand piano.