Today this blog turns five. Five! That’s half a decade, sixty months, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-five days. Whichever way you put it, that’s a long time. In some ways, it’s passed in the blink of an eye. In others, it feels like a lifetime. What’s perhaps most telling is that I have a hard time remembering what life was like before. What did I do with myself before blogging?
I remember clearly the day I wrote my first post. I had woken up in the morning with the idea to start my own food blog, and by day’s end I had a host, a site, and my first post was up. It was a completely impulsive act, and one I made with little regard for the enormous responsibility I might be saddling myself with. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing! Kind of like what I hear about parenting, it was probably better that I didn’t know what I was in for. Then again, if I had known in just how many ways having this blog would end up shaping my life – the new friends it would bring, the confidence it would give me that I had something valuable to say, and most incredible of all, the springboard it would provide for a establishing a career doing the one thing I’ve always most wanted to do, namely talk about food – I would have signed up even quicker.
Keeping this blog has also given me the unique experience of chronicling five years of my life. Of course it’s a very subject-specific chronicle, but it’s really surprising to see how much of my life can be relived through the prism of food: the slog through the final two years of my PhD, trying to stay sane in a country without summers (sorry Scotland!), birthdays and holidays and poignant visits home, the excitement and uncertainty of two international moves, and of course all my travels, many of which I would probably have experienced in a completely different way if I didn’t plan to share them right here. Like many people, I’ve discovered that blogging does much more than provide a platform to record experiences, it actually affects how those experiences are made. I, for one, have found blogging to make me more reflective and deliberate in my actions, and it’s greatly heightened my sense of esthetics as I become ever more aware of the beauty, texture, color and patina in the world around me.
Of course I could speculate now on what the next five years may bring, but since things never seem to go to plan anyway, I’ll just consider myself lucky if they’re half as fulfilling as the last five. I can tell you, though, that I’ve got a few things up my sleeve for the coming months, including some exciting long-haul travel on the horizon and a series I’m planning to run showcasing some of the fabulous food blogs I’ve been turning to for glimpses into kitchens around the world.
But enough with the philosophizing – it is a birthday after all, and you deserve some cake! Even though it’s not a typical birthday cake, I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce you a cake that hails from my new home. As you may already know, Germans have a thriving cake culture which revolves around the tradition of Kaffee und Kuchen, or afternoon coffee and cake. On weekends in particular, people will get together with friends and neighbors for some gossip and a slice of something sweet; some people bake their own cakes, but just as many stop by their local bakery for a slice of this and a slice of that. What took me a while to catch on to is that Germans actually never eat cake for dessert – it’s strictly an afternoon thing. But don’t think that means they lack for variety! Even a small bakery will have more than a dozen options, from a simple fruit-topped sheet cake to elaborate layered confections of chocolate, cream and nuts.
As much as I love all the chocolate, cream and nuts, though, I also have a thing for simple buttery cakes that don’t call too much attention to themselves. In particular, I have a thing for this Zuckerkuchen, and its quiet yet beguiling charms. I’m told this is not a typical Zuckerkuchen (sugar cake) of the type you’ll find elsewhere in Germany, but a version specific to the region around our home city of Göttingen (roughly from Kassel in the south to Hannover in the north). Like other cakes of the same name it consists of a yeasted base – the foundation for many types of Blechkuchen, or sheet cakes – topped with a mixture of sugar and butter that lightly caramelizes in the oven. What makes this one different, though, is the thin layer of sour cream – or Schmand, as it’s called here – painted on the top for the last few minutes of baking. It’s not enough to weigh the cake down but it is enough to give it some moisture and a subtle tangy freshness. I should warn you, though, that it also makes all that butter, sugar and yeast dangerously easy to eat, which shouldn’t be a problem if you just make sure you don’t inadvertently find yourself alone in the kitchen with it after foolishly skipping lunch. I’m telling you, those aromas do wonky things to your self-control.
Before I leave you to the recipe, though (and wander back into the kitchen to see if the remaining slices are feeling lonely), I do need to say one last thing that can never be said enough: thank you. Without you, dear readers and commenters and emailers and fellow bloggers, and this wonderful community you’ve helped create, I most certainly wouldn’t still be doing this five years later. For that, you deserve all the cake in the world.
Before you see the word ‘yeast’ and run away in fear, don’t. The dough for this cake is not hard to make, I promise. The kneading is minimal and can even be done right in the bowl, and I’ve both under- and over-shot the rising times to no apparent harm. Okay? Okay. Now, for the topping you should feel free to use whatever soured cream product you prefer, but I will say that when given the choice I prefer crème fraîche for its rich, tangy flavor. Whatever you use, though, should you find it not quite tangy enough (and tangy what we’re aiming for here), things could certainly be certainly be improved with a few drops of lemon juice. As for this cake’s keeping abilities, like most yeasted things it’s best the day it’s made. On days two and three you can revive it to nearly its former glory by heating it gently in the oven, covered with foil so it doesn’t dry out. Freeze whatever you won’t be able to eat within three days.
For the dough:
2 2/3 cups (375g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
rounded 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/4 cup (50g) sugar
5 tablespoons (75g) butter
3/4 cup (180ml) milk, cold
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or if you’re in Germany, 1 packet vanilla sugar)
For the topping:
5 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, cold
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 cup (250g) Schmand, crème fraîche or sour cream
equipment: one rimmed baking sheet, at least 12×16 inches (30×40 cm)
In a large bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, salt and sugar. Either in a pan on the stove or in a bowl in the microwave, melt the butter. Whisk the milk, then the egg and vanilla extract into the hot butter. The mixture should now be lukewarm. Pour this mixture over the flour and stir until a shaggy dough forms. Knead the dough, in the bowl, until it becomes soft, supple and smooth – about 5 minutes. If it seems stiff and dry, add additional milk, one tablespoon at a time, until it kneads easily without fighting back. If it’s too sticky to knead, let it sit for five minutes, then try kneading again with clean hands; if it’s still sticky add additional flour a tablespoon at a time. Form the dough into a ball, cover the bowl with a cloth and let rise until nearly doubled in volume, about 45 minutes to an hour.
Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a piece of baking parchment the same size as your baking sheet. Using a lightly greased rolling pin, roll out the dough to a roughly 11×15-inch (28×38-cm) rectangle. You can use your fingers to stretch and pat it into shape. It should be about 1/4-inch (2/3-cm) thick. Carefully transfer the paper containing the dough to your baking sheet.
For the topping, cover the surface of the dough with thin shavings of cold butter. Evenly sprinkle the sugar over the top. Let rise in a warmish place until puffy, about 30-45 minutes.
About fifteen minutes before baking, preheat your oven to 350F/175C. Bake the cake on the middle rack for about 20-25 minutes, or until golden on top. Remove from the oven and immediately dollop the cream over the surface. Using the back of a spoon, spread it around as evenly as possible (it will melt – that’s ok). Return the cake to the oven and bake for a further 7-10 minutes, until the cream has set and looks translucent in places.
Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature, in 4-inch (10-cm) squares.