japanese baumkuchen

On my last visit to Germany, I was on a mission. A foodie mission. I wanted to try Baumkuchen, a German log cake a friend assured me was a must-have. Accustomed to seeing Trdelnik, a Czech spit cake, on nearly every street in Prague, I was convinced that finding Baumkuchen, the German version of it, wouldn’t be all that hard. 

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that in Germany, Baumkuchen is only found in specific bakeries that specialize in the product, and there aren’t that many of them around.

In fact, apparently, you’ll have a much easier time finding Baumkuchen in Japan of all places. Apparently, Baumkuchen is one of Japan’s signature pastries, and has been for over a century now.

I was so fascinated with this fact that I just had to dig deeper. How did German cake that isn’t even that popular at home become Japan’s not-so-secret favorite?

What is Baumkuchen?

Baumkuchen is a German spit cake. No, not that spit, a spit as in a cylindrical rotating skewer that has multiple layers of dough or batter deposited upon it while it’s rotating over an open fire or a specialized oven.

That’s right, Baumkuchen is basically rotisserie cake. 

Spit cake is made either by wrapping the dough or batter around the spit without taking it off the heat or, in the case of very thin dough, by dipping the spit in the bowl a few times. Czech Trdelnik I mentioned above has a thicker dough, while Baumkuchen is from thin batter made with butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, flour, and a bit of salt. Despite its liquid consistency, Baumkuchen batter is usually deposited on the spit without taking it off the heat to dip it in the bowl.

Baumkuchen is very labor-intensive, as it's supposed to consist at the very least of 15 layers (though the number can go as high as 25). When the cake is taken off the spit, it’s cut into thick slices, and you can see each individual layer. The visuals were likened to the tree’s growth rings, and that’s where the cake got its name: Baumkuchen means “tree/log cake.”

Classic Baumkuchen has a mildly sweet taste with a vanilla aftertaste, but either batter or filling can be additionally flavored with ground nuts, honey, brandy, rum, or chocolate. Some varieties are covered with sugar glaze or chocolate ganache from the outside. More complicated recipes have the cake fully cool first, and then cover it with either jam or marmalade, and cover everything with firm chocolate glaze, creating a three-layer pastry.

Nowadays, Baumkuchen is one of the most oft-consumed Japanese pastries and easily competes in popularity with staples like melon pan, curry bread, and Korone

How Did Baumkuchen Come to Japan?

The beginning of Japan’s love story with Baumkuchen is a sad one, even if their ongoing relationship is one of genuine appreciation. It starts in World War I and ends with World War II, with internment camps, displacement, debt, and deportation all playing a part at one time or another. And yet, it must be admitted that on this tragedy-filled soil, something remarkable has bloomed that still has Japan under a spell to this day and has written the name of its tragic creator into the annals of history.

It’s a relationship with over a century’s worth of story.

Baumkuchen was first introduced to the Japanese in 1919, in Hiroshima city, by a man named Karl Joseph Wilhelm Juchheim (now try saying that three times without messing up!). At the time, Karl Juchheim was a prisoner of war.

Let’s rewind a bit.

While he was born in the German town of Kaub, Juchheim had left his native country and moved to China in 1908, at the age of 22. At the time, Shandong Province’s Jiaozhou Bay was under a German protectorate, and while still under Chinese rule, it boasted a thriving German diaspora. The records point to Juchheim’s life in China being by all accounts successful, since about a year after his arrival he managed to open his own pastry shop and operated it with moderate success for the next five years (it’s not specified, but Baumkuchen might’ve been among the cakes he offered). 

Unsurprisingly, his business success solidified Juchheim’s resolve to stay in China for a longer period. He only returned to Germany for a brief time in 1914 and with a specific goal: to find a German wife. He met 22-year-old Elise through his uncle, engaged her in spring 1914, and promptly returned to China, taking her with him. It’s unclear how long they stayed in Germany after the engagement, but their wedding took place on 28 July 1914 in Jiaozhou Bay. Shortly after, they started another pastry shop in the city of Tsingtao.

Unfortunately, their marital bliss lasted less than a month. On August 27, British and Japanese forces started the Siege of Tsingtao. The siege lasted almost three months and ended with the fall of Tsingtao. After the fall, the German citizens were taken as prisoners of war by the Japanese and transported to various internment camps. Among the 4,700 German prisoners were Karl Juchheim and his pregnant wife.

Juchheim’s family was first kept in an internment camp on Okinawa and, in 1917, transported to the one on Ninoshima island near Hiroshima city. This was where the Japanese would first get a taste of Baumkuchen about two years later.

By all accounts, German prisoners were treated as well as could be by the Japanese, who showed signs of interest in their culture. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall administration decided to host a Ninoshima Prisoner of War Product Exhibition in 1919. The prisoners were to organize an exhibition to showcase some of the signature German products. Karl chose to showcase Baumkuchen at the urging of his friend.

In hindsight, Baumkuchen was not the best choice. The cake is already labor-intensive, and without proper tools, it can become a pastry chef’s nightmare. Juchheim had no proper spit (he had to make a pole from an oak brunch himself), had limited wood supply, and had trouble sourcing butter. In the end, he spun his oak spit by hand while applying batter (which was in a limited amount due to the butter shortage). 

But his dedication paid off. Around 16,000 Japanese are said to have attended the exhibit, with Juchheim’s tree log-shaped cake being one of the most memorable exhibits. This was Japan’s first taste of Baumkuchen.

The Rising Popularity of Baumkuchen in Japan

A year later, in 1920, Japan finally started repatriating German prisoners to their home country. Most of the 4,700 prisoners took the opportunity to return home, but around 170 decided to stay behind and try to build a life in Japan.

Karl Juchheim, newly reunited with his wife and young son, was among them. Initially, fate seemed to be on Juchheims’ side. Karl got promptly hired to run a bakery in a popular Ginza cafe. Over the next year, he managed to set aside enough money, to move the family to Yokohama and set up his own store. Karl ran the bakery with his assistants and pupils, Elise manned the storefront, and all seemed to have settled well for a while.

Ironically, once again, his fortune lasted only a couple of years. An earthquake hit Yokohama on September 1, 1923. Subsequently named the Great Kanto Earthquake, it was immediately followed with extensive fires that took well over a hundred thousand lives and decimated multiple cities. The Juchheim family survived, but their shop was utterly destroyed. According to the tale, all Karl Juchheim had to his name when he arrived in Kobe after the earthquake was a 5-yen note in his pocket.

Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t feeling particularly inspired to set up a new shop, but the former pupils he ran Yokohama bakery with insisted he try again.

The Kobe store was the riskiest among Karl’s endeavors. When setting up his previous bakeries, he always had the means to fund a substantial part of the expenses from his own pocket. In Kobe, he had to borrow a large sum to get things going. But it seemed that fate was once again on his side: Westernization was slowly creeping into Japanese trends with European products, including food and sweets becoming more and more popular, and Juchheim’s Kobe bakery, specializing in European cakes and pastries, soon began to thrive. Baumkuchen seemed to have been one of the most prominent items on the menu, its sweet mellow taste fitting with Japanese sensibilities. 

The family’s latest stroke of luck lasted until 1944, when maintaining production became impossible amidst the Pacific War. Juchheims lost the lease on the store and moved to a hotel, waiting for the war to end. Karl Juchheim died on 14 August 1945, just before Japan surrendered. Elise was deported to Germany soon after.

Juchheim Co’s Second Lease at Life

Juchheim's former students and employees decided to put what he taught them to good use and established Juchheim Group in 1948, with Baumkuchen becoming the primary product due to its already established popularity coupled with the post-war Westernization boom.

Elise Juchheim returned to Japan in 1953 and took a position as the Chairman of Juchheim Group and held the position until she died in 1971. 

During this time, Baumkuchens popularity grew rapidly, with many established bakeries and confectionary companies adding the cake to their product lineup. 

Nowadays, it’s inarguably of the most famous Japanese sweets. When in its native Germany, you need to put in the effort to find Baumkuchen; in Japan, it’s at what feels like every corner, from train stations and convenience stores to upscale bakeries.

Why is Baumkuchen so Popular in Japan?

It can be said that “stars aligned” when it comes to Baumkuchen in Japan. It simply fits with Japanese sensibilities. It has a moderately sweet taste that doesn’t overwhelm the palate and has a light but firm, springy, and slightly chewy texture. The original flavor is neutral enough to easily fit with additional flavorings like milk, matcha, or chocolate. If that description sounds familiar, it’s because it has a lot of similarities with one of the other staple Japanese sweets, mochi. Though, of course, mochi is a lot stretchier and chewier.

The cake’s aesthetics also play an essential role. Baumkuchen’s layers, reminiscent of a tree’s growth rings, have come to represent long life, happiness, and luck in the Japanese mentality. The visuals have helped cement Baumkuchen’s place as a festive gift, with high-end Baumkuchen a common present for weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations.

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