I never thought I would be doing some food blogging as part of my European trip stories. But after my earlier tour de foodie blog posts on spargel (white asparagus) and dumplings, a European Tour de Gateau (cake) seemed appropos.
During my discovery and devouring of delightful cake slices, I did not jot down any cake names or flavours that I tasted. I am only left with photos and visceral memories of café locations, flavour sensations and street ambience when we lounged in our chairs and watched the world drift by
a few cobblestoned feet away. Unlike many places in North America, to enjoy a delicate cake in an European outdoor yet smoke-free café, was challenging at times. There, the unholy trinity of smoking, coffee and cake, was harder to break.
We had reached our dessert cafes by bike. Good thing we did. Good thing I had off-set the decadent cake samples with spargel, dumpling or goulash earlier in meals.
Southern Germany and France: With Style and Influence
Selection of cake slices and tortes in southern German cities, was common yet diverse in choice and quality. There were cross-influences in cake style and even cake-naming, in southern Germany and the French Alsatian region which flip-flopped politically between France and Germany in the past. We saw kugelholpf in Strasbourg, France and the same kugelholpf ceramic baking molds in both countries.
Most definitely, cake presentation and taste quality was overall, higher than cakes sold in many bakery cafes in major North American cities that I have visited. My biased opinion means that even mediocre cake in southern Germany still has a better taste profile than a mediocre cake in a typical North American bakery cafe. I use the bakery café as a reference point, rather than full-service gourmet restaurant which can afford to focus on just a few desserts instead of whipping out day after day, year after year, many different cakes and pastries, en masse.
After all, we were travelling in a region of Europe that spawned and perfected centuries-old techniques used by some celebrity chefs on Food Network tv channel for their pastry-making theatrics. Once you become familiar with cakes and pastries crafted by a pastry chef trained on classic techniques, which includes making puff pastry from scratch, suddenly many other pastries and cakes are too sugary, flat in taste, unnecessarily gummy or too heavy in texture.
European Patisserie: Defining Stars for Quality
More taste pointers for finely crafted, tasty cake, tortes and pasteries: (Aided by memory of Jack’s mother’s fine cakes. She was trained in pastry-making in Germany and part of a familial line of pastry chefs and bakers for several generations.)
- Use of fresh ingredients with a light-handed taste result.
- No use of preservatives.
- More use of fresh plums, fresh whole cherries, hazelnut flour and other ground nuts.
- Icing if used at all, is very light-handed and never too sugary.
- Cake crumb is not gluey, but light and flavourful with any spices, fine nut flours.
- Deep fried pastries are not the norm. Exceptions would be beignets – a type of jelly-filled donut found in France and Germany.
- Common use of clear or fruit gelatins to finish off some cakes for dewy, jewel-like sparkle.
- Crème spreads between multiple cake layers are thin, and can vary throughout 1 cake.
- Multi-layered cakes are thin layers –as in a fine torte. 4-5 layered tortes are the norm.
- Light use of wine or liquor to sweeten whipping cream, pastry layer fillings. Occasionally for cake crumb itself.
We found in the Czech Republic and Denmark, fewer places that served fine cakes and pastries. Often dessert menu did not venture too far beyond strudel. No matter. By then, our stomachs needed to be tamed away from desserts for more goulash or alas, boiled over-salted spinach.