I have these random food epiphanies sometimes. Like what is hummus if not a sort of vegan mayonnaise (where the chickpeas take the role of the egg white and the tahini that of oil)? And I may be wrong, but at least it would explain why hummus is such a good base for a tomato sandwich. But I digress, because what I really want to talk about today is German Butterkuchen (butter cake). Which actually takes us to another food epiphany I had the other day…
… because what is German Butterkuchen – where you take an enriched yeasted dough, press it onto a sheetpan, dimple the dough with your fingers, add a dollop of butter into each indentation and shower the dough generously with sugar before baking – if not what you might end up with if Focaccia travelled North of the Alps and en route transformed itself into a butter-laden sweet cake?
Either way, Butterkuchen is a beautifully fluffy and buttery cake with some crunch and stickiness from the extra layer of sugar. And in a way, not all that different from what you would expect a sweet version of focaccia to be like (as hard to believe it might be, German Butterkuchen actually often includes more butter than Focaccia does olive oil … ). Butterkuchen is one of those simple cakes you find at bakeries all over Germany. The type of Blechkuchen (the German equivalent of traybakes), whose large size lend themselves equally well to village fetes and church fairs as to the mandatory German Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) following baptisms, holy communions, weddings and funerals alike.
Like Focaccia, the options for add-ins and toppings are as limited (or not) as your imagination: some people mix cinnamon into the sugar topping, flaked almonds are common and so are some cherries or blueberries pressed into the dough so they bake into jammy little pockets. But there is no need to stop there – I could also easily imagine adding some chopped dried fruit or lemon or orange zest to the dough or using nuts other than almonds to top your Butterkuchen.
For this recipe I added both a pinch of saffron and some ground cardamom to the dough – because what is Kaffee und Kuchen if not our version of Sweden’s fika? That being said, I have not been overly generous with the saffron here – a pinch is enough to let the saffron play up the buttery flavour of the dough and lend it a beautiful yellow hue but not so much as to scream saffron. Either way, saffron and cardamom are a match made in heaven if you ask me. And the only thing that could possibly top this would be if you also had some roasted or gently poached apricots which you could serve alongside a slice of this Butterkuchen and maybe some whipped cream.
Notes: There is nothing inherently difficult about making Butterkuchen but what I would suggest is you make this the day you are planning to serve the Butterkuchen as it really does taste best fresh (but will keep for a few days). One alternative way to serve Butterkuchen is to slice it horizontally in two and fill it with custard or a mix of custard and buttercream – which makes the whole thing resemble another classic German cake I love so much: Bienenstich (our version of France’s Tarte Tropezienne, but we will talk about that another day!).
For the dough
400g all purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1.5 tsp dried active yeast
Pinch of saffron, ground
½ tsp of cardamom pods, ground
150ml milk, lukewarm
80g butter, softened and cut into small cubes
For the topping
100g butter plus 25g butter (for greasing the pan), cut into small cubes
½ tsp of cardamom pods, ground
Pinch of salt
Start by making the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, dried active yeast, salt, saffron and cardamom. Form a well in the centre and pour in the milk followed by the eggs. Combine everything on low speed, then turn up the speed to medium for about 5 mins.
Next, and while the standmixer is running, add the butter, cube by cube. Once all the butter has been incorporated, turn up the standmixer to high and keep kneading the dough until it passes the window pane test (i.e. you can stretch a small amount of dough so far between your fingers without tearing the dough becomes translucent).
Cover the bowl and set aside to proof somewhere warm for 1h or until doubled in size.
Grease a sheetpan with butter and gentle stretch the dough into a flat rectangle covering the sheetpan. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Dimple the dough with your fingers and distribute the cubed butter evenly over the dough. Whisk together the sugar, ground cardamom and salt and scatter over the dough.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until well-risen and golden brown. Note you may see some puddles of melted butter while the Butterkuchen is baking – these will disappear once the cake cools down as the cake absorbs the butter.
Set aside to cool to room temperature.