Practice makes perfect, or, as you say in German, “Übung macht den Meister”. Well I wouldn’t dare to say that my baking is perfect but baking several times a week, and having baked hundreds of different recipes from the classic German baking repertoire in my almost 19 years in America, I have a pretty good handle on how to bake authentic German cakes, cookies and other pastries, and with readily available ingredients.
As German cooking and German baking cookbooks increase in popularity in the US, you need to keep in mind when you select and a buy a cookbook that many of the cookbooks aimed at the American market have been written in Germany using many German ingredients, which are different from the ingredients in the US. When you evaluate a cookbook be sure to look if the recipes have truly been adapted – and, more importantly, tested – with American ingredients.
I regularly get questions from readers about the ingredients used in German baking so I have put together this “German Baking Ingredients 101”: how I have adapted key ingredients, what works and what doesn’t, what are possible substitutes, what are must-haves, plus some of my favorite tweaks.
Ingredients used in German baking (in alphabetical order)
Not an ingredient but one of the most important requirements, and just as important as the ingredients themselves, is an accurate kitchen scale. There is just too much variation in the US measuring system by volume, not just for flour where, depending on how you measure, a cup of flour can range between 125 or 140 grams (4¼ and 5 ounces). I don’t bake anything without my digital kitchen scale!
Baking powder. US baking powder can be used for German baking without any problems. I use aluminum-free baking powder. German baking powder is different from US baking powder. It is single-acting, which means that it only reacts once, and upon contact with moisture. US baking powder is double-acting which means that it first reacts upon contact with moisture and gets a second burst from the heat in the oven. US baking powder, unlike German baking powder, allows you to let the dough or batter sit before baking and it will still rise in the oven. Because of this difference, US baking power can be used in German recipes but not the other way around.
Butter. Sweet unsalted American butter works well in German baking recipes. True, German butter, like other European-style cultured butter, has a higher fat content than American butter which can make a flakier dough and gives baked goods a more pronounced buttery flavor. But is that really crucial to the recipe and worth spending more than $10 per pound? Even my grandmother’s signature thumbprint cookies, buttery Fingerkolatschen, taste good with American butter so I fully agree with Cooks Illustrated here, which does not universally recommend European-style butter for baking.
Imported European butter has become more widely available in the US in recent years. It has, however, a very long shelf life of several months, which makes me suspicious because the butter you buy in Germany keeps for a month or so (and it is much cheaper there too!).
The alternative to imported European-style butter would be fresh domestically produced European-style butter though that butter comes with a hefty price tag. The artisan butter I buy from a local cheese maker costs more than $5 for 8 ounces, and we only spread it sparingly on homemade bread.
My take on butter is: go with the economical solution of sweet unsalted American butter and save your money for high-quality ingredients that really make a difference in the end result such as:
Chocolate. The chocolate mostly called for in German baking has a cocoa content of 50% (Zartbitterschokolade or Halbbitterschokolade). There is also a darker chocolate with 60% cocoa content (Bitterschokolade) and higher but those chocolates are less commonly used in baking and result in a firmer texture, as I found out when I made Chocolate Hedgehog Cake (Rehrücken) with extra-dark chocolate a few months ago.
The US equivalents for German baking chocolates are semi-sweet chocolate and bittersweet chocolate. I only use chocolate that lists the cocoa content on the package, and I use only chocolate bars, never chips or morsels because most German recipes call for the chocolate to be grated. Also, chips or morsels contain stabilizers to keep their shape during baking.
High-quality chocolate bars, whether domestic or imported, are well worth the higher price because the higher the cocoa content, the lower the sugar content.
And remember, German’s Chocolate, and German Chocolate Cake, have nothing to do with Germany whatsoever. German’s Chocolate is a sweet chocolate that was invented by a guy named Samuel German in 1852 and the cake became popular in the 1950s.
Cocoa. German baking uses what’s called Dutch processed cocoa in America. The processing consists of removing the fat from the cocoa beans, and there are two types of cocoa in Germany: cocoa where much of the fat has been removed (stark entölter Kakao), and cocoa where a lesser amount of the fat has been removed (schwach entölter Kakao).
Dutch processed cocoa lacks the acidity of natural cocoa so it cannot be used in recipes with baking soda. That is not an issue in German baking because the leavening agent is almost exclusively baking powder and never baking soda.
I use unprocessed natural cocoa for all German baking recipes.
Cream. The cream used in German baking, Schlagsahne, is similar to heavy cream in America, which contains 36% fat. Especially when the cream is whipped and used for cake fillings, American whipping cream is not an option, as it contains only 30% fat and won’t hold. But to top a slice of fruit cake or pie in the German style, with a generous dollop of whipped cream, whipping cream works fine.
Farina. Other than for pudding or porridge, Farina (Grieß) is great for this little trick that prevents the crust of fruit pies from getting soggy: sprinkle the crust with a few tablespoons farina and it will absorb the juice that plums and other juicy fruit release during baking. In America farina is often known under its brand name, Cream of Wheat, and it can be found in the hot breakfast aisle of the grocery store.
Flour. The German wheat flour used for cakes and pastries with baking powder is Type 405, a flour with a low protein and high starch content, like US cake flour and pastry flour. For that reason some German recipes adapted for the American kitchen call for cake flour or pastry flour, or suggest to mix your own flour by replacing 2 tablespoons of each cup of all-purpose flour with cornstarch. I find this unnecessary.
I have always baked with unbleached all-purpose brand flour with good results. But note that not all all-purpose flour in the US has the same protein content, the lower the protein content the better for German baking. Usually the percentage of protein is not listed on the package but the grams are. I mostly use Gold Medal All-Purpose Unbleached Flour, which is at the low end of the protein spectrum with 3 grams of protein.
Mind you, bread baking, especially wholesome breads, is a totally different matter. As you can read in my recent post about bread and my interview with German bread baking blogger and book author Lutz Geissler, there are many different varieties of wheat, rye and spelt flour in Germany that do not exist in the US. Finding suitable substitutes requires quite a bit of improvisation and trial and error for each recipe.
Fruit. A summer without gooseberries, red and black currants is just not a summer for me, and it seems that others feel the same way – I often get inquiries from readers about where to buy them. While the berries are occasionally popping up in CSA bags and at farmers markets these days, they are still hard to find in most places, and very pricey. Therefore I am encouraging all gardeners who have some space to spare and live in a cooler climate with subzero winters to grow their own. In the right location the shrubs are long-lived and low-maintenance. The half dozen shrubs I planted in 2004 in my garden are still going strong.
German plum cake (Pflaumenkuchen or Zwetschgenkuchen) is made with the oblong Italian Prune Plums, Empress Plums or Damson Plums with yellow flesh. In the northeastern United States they appear at farmers’ markets in the late summer.
Gelatin. This is a no-brainer. The powdered gelatin in the US is the same as in Germany, sold in ¼ -ounce (7 gram) sachets. It is sufficient to set about 2 cups (500 ml) liquid.
Less frequently used nowadays but still available in Germany is sheet gelatin (Blattgelatine). 10 sheets equal one sachet and they set the same amount of liquid.
Glaze. I have never liked the aspic-like clear glaze (Tortenguss) on classic German fruit cakes where the fruit, either fresh or canned, is placed on a baked crust. Therefore it does not bother me that Tortenguss is not available in the United States unless by mail order.
But since you still need something to hold the fruit layer together so that your strawberries do not roll off the cake, you can make your own glaze very easily: depending on the size of the cake, strain about half a cup to a cup of a matching jam or a jam of a similar flavor (raspberry for strawberry, apple for pear, etc., and vice versa) through a fine sieve. You can also use a matching jelly without straining it. Warm it over low heat in a small saucepan or in the microwave. If the jam or jelly is very stiff, add a teaspoon of water. When it is warm and runny add a tablespoon of sweet unsalted butter and stir until the butter is melted and fully incorporated. The butter gives the glaze a nice shine. Immediately brush the glaze onto the fruit and put it in the refrigerator until set, about half an hour.
Jams and jellies. Often German baking recipes call for a small amount of preserves, either jam or jelly. If I do not have those handy, I make my own quick preserves, which are much fruitier and less sugary than most commercial store-bought American preserves.
Put a small amount of fruit – a handful of raspberries, a few apricots, etc., either fresh or frozen – with a few tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan and cook them until they are soft. Push the fruit through a fine sieve. To make it thicker and stiffer, return the fruit pulp to the saucepan, add a tablespoon cornstarch diluted in cold water, and cook stirring until it turns clear again. Let cool before using, it will stiffen considerably.
Lemon zest. This ubiquitous ingredient of German baking should be made with organic lemons only. Because organic lemons are not always in stock where I shop, and because they mold much quicker than regular lemons, I always have a supply of lemon zest in the freezer. I wash the lemons well, dry and zest them, then juice them. The zest goes into an airtight container into the freezer and the juice I store in a jar in the fridge and use it within a week or so. The lemon zest keeps several months in the freezer.
Marzipan. The raw marzipan used in German baking (Marzipanrohmasse) is easy to make at home from only raw almonds and confectioners’ sugar.
Marzipan is very versatile: you can incorporate it into dough, color it with a few drops of food coloring, flavor it with rum or other liqueur, shape it, or roll it. The only thing you cannot do with homemade marzipan is produce one large flat sheet to cover an entire cake called Marzipandecke in German. I learned that the hard way when I made a wedding cake for my cousin from Henriette Davidis’ 19th-century recipe. It ended up being covered in patchwork marzipan, not what I had planned but still delicious and quite pretty.
Milk. German baking recipes usually do not specify the type of milk and usually mean whole milk. I find that reduced-fat (2%) milk works just as well in most recipes, especially those that already contain a good amount of butter.
Poppy seed. In Germany you can buy ground poppy seeds or ground and steamed poppy seeds (Dampfmohn) for baking. In the US you can only find whole poppy seeds or ready-to-use, overly sweet and gooey poppy seed cake filling, which I do not recommend.
The best thing is to buy whole poppy seeds from a store with a high turnover to make sure they are as fresh as possible, store them in an airtight container in the freezer and grind them as needed. A special poppy seed mill (Mohnmühle) is not required, I grind poppy seeds in an electric coffee grinder dedicated exclusively to spices and small batches of grains and seeds.
Pudding mix. Some German cake fillings, especially for Käsekuchen (German Cheesecake) are made with vanilla pudding mix for cooked pudding. In recent years I have had no trouble finding it at our local supermarket (European Gourmet Bakery Organics or Dr. Oetker Organics). It’s one less thing to bring back from my trips to Germany.
Quark. When I first worked on my book, Spoonfuls of Germany, I made my own quark from rennet, milk and buttermilk. The quark tasted OK but it did not hold up well in baked goods. Nowadays luckily Greek yogurt is available everywhere.
German baking recipes mostly use Magerquark, which contains less than 10% fat. I use 0% Greek yogurt instead, with great results.
Some brands of Greek yogurt are more solid than others. My favorite is Fage 0%. It does not require additional straining, it is solid enough for fillings, especially when used in combination with several eggs and/or pudding mix, like in German Cheesecake (see above). It also works great in my favorite low-fat pie crust called Quark-Ölteig in German (find the recipe here).
Sure, you can find quark in the US but at $5 for 8 ounces I would not dump a whole pound of quark into a cake like I would do in Germany, where quark is inexpensive. Plus, as I wrote in a previous blog post, some of the quark made in the US has salt added.
So my take on any baking recipes with quark: go for no-fat Greek yogurt instead.
Starch. Most German baking recipes that call for starch mean cornstarch. I use organic cornstarch in all German baking recipes, unless a recipe explicitly call for potato starch (Kartoffelstärke), which you can also find in the US.
Vanilla sugar. This staple of German baking is sold in small sachets and comes in two types: synthesized Vanillinzucker and the real thing, Vanillezucker.
I am a purist when it comes to vanilla sugar; the fake stuff just won’t do it for me, and because it is so easy to make your own high-quality, intensely flavored vanilla sugar, I always have a jar of it in the pantry. Find my rundown on vanilla sugar and recipe here.
Yeast. German baking recipes call for either fresh yeast (Frischhefe) or dry yeast (Trockenhefe). Because where I live fresh yeast, aka cake yeast, has entirely disappeared from the supermarket shelves over the last decade, I bake exclusively with active dry yeast and that works just fine.
However, I have had several failures with the small sachets in which active dry yeast is mostly sold. Even though the expiration date had not been reached, the yeast was often not viable. I have resorted to buying a large 1-pound package of active dry yeast, which I store in an airtight container in the freezer. Then I let it come to room temperature before using. I’ve never had a dough not rise.