In yet another cultural dessert, M shares his memories of the Kougelhopf, an iconic coffee cake from his hometown in Alsace. Part of the same cake family as the Austrian bundt cake, the Alsace version is made from a dough similar to a Poor Man’s Brioche, with the addition of raisins and nuts. You can read more about the Kougelhopf’s ambivalent history and the heated debate over the phonetics and spelling of its name in this New York Times article by Mimi Sheraton.
I remember this cake to be part of the Sunday repertoire that my mother would spend her entire Saturday preparing, along with streusel, fruit tarts and other pound cakes, to cater for the host of visitors that descended on our house on a regular Sunday. Her Kougelhopf was always a hit, widely regarded as being much better than those prepared by the local baker. They were so popular that our relatives would ‘order’ half a dozen Kougelhopfs for large family gatherings and reunions, which, despite the grumblings and insane amount of work, she would undertake to everyone’s delight.
“Le plus important c’est d’obtenir un gâteau léger” (“Everything hinges on how light the cake is”), she would say. Her secret? Nothing more than pure elbow grease, to beat the dough with all her might for 10 exhausting minutes with her beloved wooden spoon to achieve a dough that was adequately smooth and elastic. Each time I return home, I cannot resist checking the state of the wooden spoon that she’s been using all these years. After the numerous cakes, Kougelhopfs and brioches that it has helped prepare without the help of a mechanized companion, the spoon now bears a closer resemblance to a wooden stick tapered with a rounded triangle at its end.
It was only when I first tried this recipe back in Singapore that I understood the daunting task at hand. Kougelhopf dough is pretty similar to brioche, although with a lower butter content, making it a relatively heavy and sticky compound to beat by hand. Not surprisingly, my right arm ached for days after that first attempt.
Preparing this cake again here, I was reminded of the radically different French approach to recipes as compared with the detailed, step-by-step guidance evident in the British and American approaches. My mother would only write recipes when asked to do so, and even then, it would be nothing more than a list of ingredients with ambivalent instructions on mixing and the desired texture and consistency.
The Kougelhopf was no exception. Out of the four different recipes we had, the three French versions combined were half as long as Dorie Greenspan’s meticulous guide. With four kids and a house to take care of, a baking session with my mother would typically involve lots of tasting and smelling, as opposed to measuring and referencing the written word. It was only when I started baking in my own kitchen that I realized the value of this rather ambiguous method of passing down recipes, drawing on my memories of taste and smell as I tried to replicate her recipes. This is what I find today to be my best tool when baking – knowing what the consistency should feel like, what the mix of ingredients are supposed to smell like and how savory, delicate or sweet the combination of flavours should taste.
You can enjoy this cake either freshly-baked, two hours after getting out of the oven – in which case I would slowly deconstruct the cake, starting with the almonds, moving on to the raisins before eating the cake itself – or have it with a spread of butter to moisten the crumb in the following days.
Kougelhopf (adapted from a variety of local recipes and Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home To Yours)
Makes 8 to 10 servings
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup milk
3 teaspoons/ 20 grams instant yeast
Mix all the ingredients together in a medium bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes or until the mixture starts to bubble and turn foamy, like this.
½ cup milk
15 ounces/ 425 grams all-purpose flour
3 ounces/ 75 grams granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1 stick/ 114 grams unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
5 ounces/ 150 grams raisins
3.5 ounces/ 100 grams sliced almonds
8 to 10 whole almonds (optional)
2½ tablespoons/ 20 grams powdered sugar, for dusting
When the pre-ferment is ready and with the paddle attachment on low speed, add the eggs, one at a time, waiting for each egg to be incorporated before adding the next one. Add the milk and butter, increase the speed to medium and mix until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. Add the rest of the flour and salt, switch to the dough hook, turn the speed to medium and mix until it clears the sides of the bowl and the dough is pliable but not sticky. Add more flour or milk to achieve this consistency. Add the raisins and sliced almonds and mix to distribute them evenly throughout the dough. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes or until doubled in size.
Pre-heat the oven to 375F/ 190C. Grease the kougelhopf pan and add the whole or sliced almonds to the bottom of the pan, if desired. Turn the dough out into the mold, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise a second time, about 20 minutes or until the dough starts to crest the top of the pan.
Bake the kougelhopf for 45 minutes to an hour, until the visible part of the dough turns a golden brown. Turn out to cool on a wire rack before sprinkling with icing sugar and serving.