Thursday, 7 November 2013
Butterkuchen means 'Butter Cake' in German. It's part of a family of sheet cakes (called Blechkuchen) that are often made with yeasted dough. This is one of the simplest.
More poignantly, Butterkuchen is also called Freud-und-Leid-Kuchen or 'Joy and Sorrow Cake' because it is often served at weddings and funerals in North Germany. I think the name shows beautifully how entwined food is with our celebrations, our emotions and our lives.
When I decided to make a Butterkuchen I wasn't sure where to start. If I'm looking at making a recipe where I either have no idea who to trust or there are so many authoritative recipes that I don't know where to begin, I turn to a method I developed a few years ago for choux pastry.
First, I found six recipes, three in English and three in German: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.
I then typed each ingredient into a spreadsheet, making conversions and translations as I went. From there I divided each ingredient weight by the flour weight in each recipe (i.e., for no.1 below, sugar was 30/250 = 0.12) so that I had a ratio (I sometimes use eggs as the starting point too). This means I can directly compare the proportions in each recipe.
Instead of working out the average proportion for each ingredient I tend to have a look and decide on a sensible value, taking into account my general preferences and outliers. For instance, with the sugar for the dough, I chose 0.1 after looking at 0.12, 0.28, 0.11, 0.12, 0.12 and 0.1, as I tend to err on the side of less sugar and 0.28 seemed out of line.
I then decided on a size for the recipe based on the ingredient I started with (i.e. flour). For this one I chose to make a small sheet, as it's much better when it's fresh and warm from the oven, so I went for 250g of flour. I then multiplied up the remaining ingredients (i.e, for the sugar, 0.1 x 250 = 25g).
Finally, I work out a method from comparing the recipes and my experience with similar recipes. I then adjust the ingredients and method if needed as I test. This one worked perfectly the first time, so I just tested it twice again to check it was consistent.
A few of the recipes I found included cinnamon in the topping but I decided to focus on the butter, almonds and vanilla. Vanilla is often included in the recipes as vanilla sugar sachets but I was in a luxurious mood and decided to rub the seeds from half a vanilla bean into the sugar for the topping. I think it's worth it - the flavour and smell is wonderful and the flecks look very pretty in the sugar crust.
This is a really enjoyable recipe to make. There's something incredibly satisfying about poking the holes in the soft dough and then filling all of the dents with the little chunks of butter. It's also absolutely delicious - buttery, crisp, crunchy, nutty and almost like a doughnut.
(created as explained above)
For the dough:
125ml whole milk
50g unsalted butter
250g plain flour
25g caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 tsp fast action dried yeast
For the topping:
60g white caster sugar
1/2 vanilla pod*
75g unsalted butter
60g flaked almonds
Put the milk and butter into a small pan and heat until the butter has melted and the milk is steaming. Pour into a bowl (preferably metal) and place in the fridge or freezer to cool. Once the milk has cooled to warm, whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle in the yeast and whisk in. Lightly beat the egg then add it and the milk to the bowl. Stir until the dough comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 4 minutes - by the end, the dough should be smooth and elastic. It's very sticky at this point but don't worry. Cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled (about 45-60 minutes).
Dust a work surface with flour then tip the dough out onto it. Dust the top with flour then roll out to an even rectangle of about 28 x 20cm (11 x 8"). Transfer to a greased, rimmed baking sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for about 20-30 minutes - it won't rise a huge amount, but when it's ready a poke should leave a clear indent.
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Weigh out the sugar into a small bowl. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the bowl. Rub the seeds into the sugar until they're evenly distributed. Cut the butter up into tiny cubes. When the dough is ready use a finger to poke lots of dents in the dough (pushing down to the bottom but not making a hole - see picture above) - you may need to dip your finger in the sugar if it starts sticking to the dough. Place a small cube of butter in each of the dents. Sprinkle the dough evenly with the vanilla sugar, then the almonds.
Bake for about 17-20 minutes, turning at 10 minutes, until the dough has risen, bronzed and the almonds are golden-brown all over and caramelising. There might be butter in the tray - don't worry. Once it has cooled a little, you should be able to tap it and get a hollow sound. Leave to cool until warm, then slice up. Best eaten while still warm or very fresh. You can freeze it and reheat it but it's not quite the same.
(Makes one slab, about 12 slices)
*You could use vanilla sugar instead, though I love the way the seeds look and the amount of flavour they give. You can make a batch of vanilla sugar from the scraped pod when you make this and use it next time (or for something else, of course). If you don't have vanilla sugar or a pod, you could add 1 tsp of vanilla paste, or failing that, extract, to the dough, though it won't have the same effect.
Three more recipes for sweet yeasted breads:
2011: Super Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls
2012: Chelsea Buns
2013: Cinnamon Cardamon Kringel Bread