Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Search For The Roots Of Butter Cake

I've recently become RE-obsessed with butter cake. Yep, that buttery-sweet goodness that's so, so evil. Growing up in Philadelphia, we had some German-style bakeries in our neighborhood. A few of those sold butter cake and I loved it. Nothing says home like butter cake and eggnog coffee... I still eat butter cake every time I go back.

What got me fired up again was being contacted by a woman who lives in Philadelphia and has a website called Cakespy dedicated to, what else, cakes. She wanted to feature my March 2010 story where I talk about my worship of Holmesburg Bakery's butter cake. You can read my original story here. She's changed her original article since it was posted but you can still see one of my photos and a link back to whereisdarrennow at Serious Eats - 7 Butter Cakes We Love In Philadelphia. Actually, I believe she might be one of the few people I've seen that's more obsessed with butter cake than me.

Her and I had a couple of email exchanges where we talked about butter cake and, in one of them, I mentioned that I was living in Germany now. We agreed that what we know and love in Philadelphia as butter cake is most likely an adaptation of recipes from here. This got my fire going. I wanted to go to the butter cake Mecca if it exists. I began talking to some people here to ask what they knew of "Butterkuchen" (German for butter cake) and looking in local bakeries.

I also started experimenting with trying to master my sister's butter cake recipe. Diana took the remains of one to work with her to share and it was Gabriela, one of her coworkers, that said "oh, I like his Hamburger Butterkuchen". She sent me a link to a website called Chefkoch that has about 140 different butter cake recipes. Score!!! It was the break through that I needed as we already had plans to go visit Hamburg two weeks later.

We were only going to be in Hamburg for two full days so I figured that discovering the roots of butter cake would be tough but, right after getting off the metro the first night, I saw this sign inside the door of a closed bakery:

It didn't look like what I have in my head as a butter cake (and it had rhubarb in it...) but it definitely said Butterkuchen so I knew that I was in the right place! That night I had dreams of butter cake fairies dancing in my head and first thing the next morning I made a beeline for the bakery down the street. Since it was my first butter cake spotting and it was at the first bakery I visited, I didn't try anything - besides, who wants rhubarb in their butter cake? That's like nuts in chocolate chip cookies! I figured that if I'm in butter-cake Mecca I want to save room in my stomach for what was coming. I did snap a photo though...

I checked a few more bakeries throughout the first day but most were bread bakeries, not the Konditorei type of bakery that I was looking for (the voice of Obi-Wan just entered my head - these are not the butter cakes you are looking for ). I started to panic a bit because I wasn't finding anything and it had gotten too late to go back to the first bakery to get a sample. I went to bed that night and had nightmares with some you're-not-going-to-find-your-butter-cake-Mecca demons! Argh!

Oh well, the next day was Saturday and fortunately the bakeries in Germany are open unlike on Sunday when pretty much everything is closed. Our friends took us to the Sternschanze neighborhood where, praise be, there are a bunch of independent-style Konditorei bakeries that should have butter cakes for sale if I were in the right place...

...and I was! Each bakery had at least one cake in their case labeled as butter cake. None of them looked like my beloved Holmesburg Bakery butter cake but they did look like some of the other butter cakes that I've seen around Philadelphia (and on cakespy).

What I ended up mostly finding was a slightly-dense, cake-like crust with a somewhat-crusty buttery topping. Many of the cakes had almonds or other toppings on them as well. This is one of the better ones IMO that I saw so we bought two pieces and ate if for dessert after our fresh-fish lunch.

My search for my butter-cake roots has not come to an end. I will continue on by trying to bake one myself (with my sister's help) and, if I get the chance to go back to Hamburg, on the streets of northern Germany. I do look in every Konditorei in Stuttgart that I come across but haven't had any luck. Down here, fortunately or unfortunately depending on your perspective, it's all pretzels. I do feel like I've come close but I need to keep searching. Until then, if you're in Philadelphia, get up to Holmesburg and have a butter cake for me...

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