There is a beautiful cake I’ve seen from time to time in French pâtisseries, made in a charming molded shape and dusted lightly with icing sugar. It’s so gorgeous it brings sugarplum fairies to mind. What could it be?
We were recently in the Alsace region of France (a stunning area, you must add it to your travel list), and I finally learned the answer: it’s called Kugelhopf, and it’s a specialty there, though everyone from France to Germany to Austria to Poland claims to have invented it. You’ll see it in every boulangerie, in sizes that range from muffin-esque to a grand cake.
Kugelhopf is a slightly sweet bread/cake that’s sprinkled lightly throughout with raisins or currants or nuts, or even mini chocolate chips. The first one I sampled, with chocolate, was dry and dull. But the second one, with currants and almonds, had me at the first bite. It’s a simple confection, a cross between cake and bread, but it's strangely addictive. One eats a slice with morning coffee, or with tea, or with a glass of sweet wine after dinner, or with an espresso, as dessert. It would be perfect for a brunch. Well, you get the picture, it’s endlessly flexible.
It so happened that the very next week, back in La Bourgogne at one of the Sunday vide greniers (empty attic sales) I always frequent, that I spotted something interesting. One of the sellers had miscellaneous items spread out on an old blanket, and there amongst the broken ashtrays and chipped vases was a beautiful ceramic mold, with a glaze on the inside the color of ripe wheat.
Madame la vendeuse was lounging in her hammock chair, puffing on a cigarette. “What is that exactly?” I asked her. “C’est quoi, ça?”
“C’est pour faire une Kugelhopf”, she told me. Aha! “Combien?” I asked, how much? “Deux euros,” she answered lazily.
I had expected a price more serious than a couple of bucks, as the pan was pristine. I hadn’t considered making a Kugelhopf, but the pan was decorative, and anyway, pourquoi pas?
“Is it easy to make?” I queried. “Est ce que c’est facile à faire?”
“Aucune idée,” she said breezily. “Je déteste cuisiner.” Translation: “Haven’t a clue. I hate to cook.” Well, that explained the low price.
And so it was that I, the sort of baker who rarely ventures beyond brownies, found myself in the kitchen with a fresh package of yeast and a brand new pan, puzzling over a Kugelhopf recipe.
So WAS it easy to make? If you have what the recipe calls for, which is a standing mixer with a paddle blade, I think it would be a snap. I don’t, but I figured Kugelhopfs were around long before mixers, so I decided to wing it. Though I’m now guessing the bakers of old were likely big German frauleins with arms the size of thighs. If you too are mixer-less, just consider it your upper body workout for the day. If you have teen-agers or a spouse you can press into service, tant mieux, all the better. And if you happen not to have a Kugelhopf pan on hand, you can fake it with a bundt pan. Or you can buy a Non-Stick Kugelhopf Pan reasonably from Amazon, but an Earthenware Mold like mine will set you back $70. Did I get a bargain or what!
RECIPE: Kugelhopf from the Alsace
I used this recipe from Epicurious, with a few changes. In case you don’t have a standing mixer, here is how I faked it: I have a hand mixer which came with dough hooks (stuck in the back of the cabinet and never used), and these worked pretty well to mix in the liquids (I tried the regular mixing blades, then a spoon, neither worked as well). I added the liquid a little at a time, instead of a steady stream. And after it was blended, for the 5 minute aerobic beating portion I used a flat wooden spoon. I added the baked-in almond garnish, which I stole from Alsatian bakeries: just put a whole almond in the bottom of each crevice, and spread the batter over them.
Amazingly, given my lack of equipment and dubious baking history, my Kugelhopf was as beautiful as hoped and delicious as could be. The only problem was, it stuck to the pan, and, despite lots of coaxing, came out in 2 parts! However it was a clean break and I was able to put it back together, after extracting the top part with care—see photo (OK it looks a bit worse at the back). Interestingly, the many crevices in the pan were not the problem, it was the center of the mold that stuck. Maybe I should have cooked it longer? Any advice from veteran bakers is welcome, as I will be making it again!
In the COMMENTS: I've just discovered that our reader Kathy and her husband Charley do European tours, and she has a special one called The Luberon Experience. If you liked last week's post, do check it out! And going back to our recent post on Les Gîtes Ruraux, our reader Page promised a review on her recent stay in a gîtes in the Dordogne, which she has now kindly posted. Read the final comment on that post for her update.