For New York's German community, the rarest holiday tree on the market this December isn't a plant but a cake. In Germany, baumkuchen, or "tree cake," is a Yuletide fixation ubiquitous in bakeries and holiday markets. It's made by coating a spit with layers of batter and baking them layer by layer in a special oven. The finished cake emerges as a thick cylinder, with a hole down the middle surrounded by concentric rings of dough that look exactly like tree rings. It's usually coated with icing or chocolate and sold whole, in rings, or in little chocolate-coated wedges called baumkuchenspitzen.
Variations on baumkuchen are baked across Europe from France to Lithuania and Sweden. In the United States, however, I estimate that there are currently only four bakeries making the traditional treat: one in California, two in Chicago, and one in Queens. The crucial ingredients are bakers with the specialized knowledge and the presence of a special baumkuchen machine. Both of those elements are present at Stork's, my favorite German/New York/Jewish bakery, where they've been baking and decorating baumkuchen for weeks now.
At Stork's, the baumkuchen machine presses down grooves in the dough as it bakes, so it looks like a series of rings stacked on top of each other. (Maybe this is so the cake can hold more icing.) Once the three-foot tall column has cooled, the bakers cut it into three or more sections and begin the decoration process. First the cake is dipped into hot apricot jam to give it a hint of tartness. Once that's cooled, it's either coated with icing or milk or dark chocolate, depending on the customer's taste, and then decorations are affixed to the top.
Like most in the trade, the Stork's bakers are tight-lipped about ingredients. However, they did divulge that their baumkuchen contains butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and heavy cream. There's probably vanilla in there also. Given those ingredients, it's no surprise that the flavor is highly reminiscent of pound cake. What makes it remarkable is its texture: dense, almost chewy, yet creamy at the same time. A little bit goes a long way—if only you could stop eating those little bits!
The Stork's version is the only freshly-made baumkuchen sold in the city, but it's not the only baumkuchen. In 1919, a German baker began making baumkuchen in Japan, where they became a national obsession. Thanks to the unpredictable currents of international trade and culture, Asian-made baumkuchen are now sold at numerous Japanese and Korean bakeries and markets around New York. However, they're usually made of sponge cake batter, so they're lighter and more, well, spongy. I prefer the good, solid German-style baumkuchen.
It takes bakers hours in front of the hot oven to make a baumkuchen, so they aren't cheap. At Stork's, one large baumkuchen, weighing almost two pounds, costs about $45.