I recently passed the Gill Wing cookshop in Crouch End, which is always good for picking up a new kitchen implement. Sitting at the front of the store were a selection of ring pans. Given this is about the only thing missing from my collection of trays, I bought one.
Now, what could go in this new pan? Time to explore the culinary delights of France. Not the fancy-pants glamour of Paris. Nope, it’s a little baked item from the eastern border region of Alsace. We’re making a kugelhopf.
For me, this cake has something of a Germanic character, a little reminiscent of a Viennese coffee house, and that’s not surprise when you think about where Alsace is – it’s on the border with Germany, and the regional capital, Strasbourg, has a distinctive style of architecture that is certainly very different from that you would see along the boulevards of Paris or in the towns of the Loire valley. There are some street signs in the local Alsatian tongue (a Germanic rather than a Romance language). Even the wine glasses has a local and distinctive twist – the characteristic green stems, which you can spot on the tables of just about every bistro-style street cafe in Strasbourg. It’s clearly part of France, but it’s a distinctive part of France.
Enough tourism. Let’s go back to kugelhopf. This is something between a bread and a cake. It’s enriched yeast dough with a decent amount of butter and eggs, plus brandy-soaked fruit, almonds, vanilla and lemon zest. It’s a little bit like brioche, but more aromatic and not quite as rich. It gets its distinctive shape from a traditional ring mould – the Alsatians have a special tall pan for making kugelhopf, but (like me!) you can just use a normal ring pan for this. There is also a little tradition of placing a whole almond in each of the dimples in the bottom of the cake pan. I’ve not idea what this represents, but it seems like a nice tradition, and I had a pack of Mallorcan almonds to use for this purpose. If you know the story behind the almonds, do tell!
In making this, I did a bit of experimenting. I followed a “traditional” recipe to the letter, which involved a very elaborate series of steps – creaming butter and sugar, folding in eggs, adding vanilla and lemon zest, and finally working in the yeast, milk and flour by hand. It looked alright, but in the end the texture was most peculiar – a heavy dough with very large gas bubbles, and a peculiar chewiness. Hand-made is nice in theory, but I sensed it was time to try again.
On the second attempt, I embraced modern technology. Good, fresh ingredients, but it all went into the bread machine with fingers crossed, hoping for the best. This time – the dough came out silky-smooth and with a nice elasticity. Once transferred into the pan, it puffed up nicely and baked perfectly. And this time, the texture was great. Fluffy, fruity, moist and tasty. Now, maybe it had something to do with adjusting the mixture to add a little more flour and replacing some of the butter with cream cheese…but whatever it was, it worked!
I’ve seen a variety of ways to finish this cake, all they way up to elaborate frostings and glazes. But in my view, this cake is best with a simple dredging of icing sugar, which imparts a subtle sweetness and complements the fruit, nuts and delicious aroma of baked cakey goodness.
To make a kugelhopf (for a 2.5 litre (4 1/2 pint) tin):
• 120g sultanas
• 2 tablespoons brandy or apple juice
• 2 teaspoons dried (not instant) yeast
• 120ml warm water
• 1 teaspoon sugar
• 75g butter
• 30g cream cheese
• 90g caster sugar
• 3 eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1 teaspoon salt
• zest of one lemon
• 475g white bread flour
• 120ml milk
• 75g flaked almonds, chopped
• whole blanched almonds
• icing sugar, to finish
Put the sultanas in a bowl with the brandy or apple juice. Put to one side.
In another bowl, combine the yeast, warm water and the teaspoon of sugar. Mix well and leave for 15 minutes until frothy.
If using a bread machine: put the yeast mixture, butter, cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, lemon zest, flour and milk into the machine. Run the dough cycle. At the end, work the raisins and almonds into the dough.
If working by hand: put the flour and salt in a large bowl. Rub the butter and cream cheese into the flour mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, vanilla and lemon zest. Add the yeast mixture, the eggs and half the milk – work with your hands until you have a soft, elastic dough – add more milk as needed. Finally, work in the dried fruit almonds. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
Once the dough has risen, knock it back. Grease a ring tin with butter, and place a whole almond in each dimple in the tray. Carefully add the dough. Cover and leave in a warm place until the dough reaches the top of the pan. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Bake the kugelhopf for 45 minutes until golden brown. If the top is getting a little too dark, cover the tin loosely with tin foil.
When the kugelhopf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tray. Turn out and dredge with icing sugar.
Worth making? This was a spectacular success! I’ve actually made it twice since the original (successful) recipe. It’s also simple to adjust the flavours according to your tastes – experiment with different nuts and dried fruits, orange zest or a little dash of spice. I’m also going to try this in muffin cases to make sweet breakfast rolls. Watch this space for an update!