Paul Gauweiler stands over his baumkuchen oven and ladles scoopfuls of cake batter over a 3-foot-long spindle rotating in front of a wall of flames. He takes a seat on a lidded bucket, scooting across the floor in front of the oven, tweaking a few of its 25 knobs to adjust the flames. As each layer bakes to a perfectly even golden brown, he pours on more batter until he has a long cylinder of a cake that when sliced reveals concentric circles, like the growth rings of a tree.
It’s an esoteric cake baked in an idiosyncratic oven, one of just a few of its kind in the U.S. That Gauweiler and this baumkuchen oven have been brought together at his Huntington Beach bakery, Cake Box Pastries, is due to a remarkable series of coincidences.
The oven had traveled over decades from Germany to Milwaukee to Philadelphia to, of all places, Southern California. Gauweiler, a native of Hanover, Germany, whose journeys also eventually led him to California had baked baumkuchen, or “tree cake,” on exactly the same type of oven back home.
It was a friend who happened to work with Gauweiler for six months in 1959 in a Hanover cafe (baking baumkuchen) and who is now a culinary instructor at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, who connected them.
Put it all together and it’s nothing less than a miracle that the oven, instead of languishing in somebody’s garage (or worse), is turning out freshly made baumkuchen at a bakery in a shopping center in an Orange County beach city.
Gauweiler makes the cakes through the winter because it’s too hot in the sunny California summer. “When you’re right in front of [the oven], it’s kind of like a good, hot sauna,” he says. He also makes them by special order, such as for weddings, when he decorates them with spiraling garlands of leaves and flowers.
Demand doubled this year when a New Yorker article mentioned his bakery, and Gauweiler made 250 pounds of baumkuchen, also known as spit cake, over the holiday season. “We got calls from Chicago; Ohio; New York, New York,” says Gauweiler’s wife, Irene, who had the job of shipping baumkuchen to fans across the country.
“It’s considered a privilege to bake baumkuchen,” says Gauweiler, who is 72 years old, trim, spectacled, and has a shock of hair nearly as white as his chef’s coat. “In the Konditorei [pastry shop], not just anyone gets to make it.”
Gauweiler started his pastry-making career as a 15-year-old apprentice at Opernkonditorei in Hanover with Hermann Heising, an accomplished pastry chef who co-wrote the German pastry-making tome “Das Konditorbuch.” After earning the title Konditormeister (master pastry chef), Gauweiler worked in Mannheim, Germany; Paris; and again in Hanover. He moved to California in 1965 and opened Cake Box in 1973.
The oven might be nearly the same age as Gauweiler. It spent a previous life at the family-owned Gastreich Bakery in Milwaukee, until in 1972 Bob Gastreich decided to close up shop. (Gastreich’s parents had opened the bakery in the late ‘30s and special-ordered the oven from Germany, his nephew says.) Gastreich agreed to sell the oven and his recipe for $200 to electrical engineer Phil Alspach, who lived in Philadelphia but phoned in an order for baumkuchen every Christmas -- as long as he promised not to bake any in Wisconsin. “I guess Gastreich wanted to be remembered as the only baumkuchen maker in the state,” Alspach says.
So, Alspach drove to Milwaukee in a Winnebago, picked up the oven and set it up in his garage in Philadelphia. According to Alspach, a longtime baumkuchen connoisseur who fell for the cake in the ‘60s at Geiger Cafe in New York, it’s one of three left in the country, the other two being in Chicago. He and his wife, Loretta, took baumkuchen making to heart and baked it for local festivals.
After moving to Irvine in 1986, the couple eventually tried to sell the oven. Except nobody knew what baumkuchen was, much less how to use the oven. So they donated it to the culinary department at Orange Coast College several years ago.
But the school couldn’t use it because of all of the exposed mechanisms, the pulleys and the open flames. It was closeted until instructor Guenter Rehm, who had worked with Gauweiler at Südstadt Cafe in Hanover in ’59, contacted him about the oven.
“Paul is so good, he’s a real craftsman, and I remember we both baked baumkuchen” at Südstadt, says Rehm. (The two reconnected in California when Rehm noticed Gauweiler’s name on a piece of paper on an employment agent’s desk.) “So, I asked Paul and right away he said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to have it!’ ”
Gauweiler has been baking baumkuchen at Cake Box ever since. Hanging on a wall at the bakery is a black-and-white photo of a baumkuchen he made in 1961 for his master’s project, topped with a shield decorated with “the four Fs,” an emblem of the German athletic-movement slogan “frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei” (hardy, pious, cheerful, free).
He also makes old-world pastries such as Sacher torte, napoleons, spritz cookies, florentiners (one of which he eats for breakfast every morning) and something he calls fruity nutties -- cookies he makes with the candied fruit, nut and marzipan mixture for his stollen. “We’re open every day but Sunday,” says Irene, “so we can go to church and confess our sins so we can make some more.”
Gauweiler tested a few recipes for the baumkuchen batter. According to Walter Schulze’s pastry primer “Grundbegriffe der Konditorei,” one traditional batter calls for 1 pound of butter, 1 pound of sugar, 1 pound of flour and 30 eggs. “There’s a saying in Germany. When something is good, you say, ‘It must be pound for pound and 30 eggs,’ ” Gauweiler says.
But recipes vary widely from region to region. The Dresdener is made with warmed eggs beaten with sugar and is sold in tall pieces, according to Schulze. The Cottbusser is made with finely ground and toasted hazelnuts and sometimes nougat and spices, “but it is debatable whether this suits everyone’s tastes,” writes Schulze, who must not have been from Cottbuss. The baumkuchen of Salzwedel, which claims to be the cake’s birthplace (though the Greeks were making a primitive version in 400 BC on a stick over an open fire), is made with cornstarch and no flour.
Gauweiler eventually settled on the recipe that Alspach inherited from Gastreich, making some modifications. “It’s an American recipe,” Alspach says. The texture is closer to chiffon than pound cake. “The German cakes are dry, meant to sit on your counter for weeks.”
Gauweiler’s son, Eric, also works in the bakery, preparing puff pastry in the afternoons for the next day’s viennoiserie, but he has yet to learn to make baumkuchen.
An intern once tried her hand at it.
“She was good,” Gauweiler says. “She could get to nearly three layers, but then she’d say, ‘Here, Paul, you take it over.’ ”
Cake Box Pastries, 6054 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 842-9132, www.cakeboxpastries.com.