Billiger Kuchen, or: what is your reputation worth to you?

I have tried out the the first recipe from my granny’s recipe collection: the “Billiger Kuchen“. It’s not the first one in the notebook, but I was intrigued, because “Billiger Kuchen” means “Cheap Cake”, and I was wondering about that. I figured it might just be a way of saying “simple cake”. After all, these are just notes, and it is a pretty simple cake of the Rührkuchen variety, as in, the ingredients are more or less just stirred together (rühren means stirring) – flour, eggs, butter, sugar, milk, baking powder, and lemon zest for flavouring.

As it turns out, the cake would probably have been considered cheap as well as easy, but I fear, so would the hostess. At least the first part…

Here is the original recipe in the notebook:

Billiger KuchenBilliger Kuchen
65gr Butter mit 200gr Zucker einem Eigelb schaumig rühren mit Zitronenschale abschmecken. 1Pfd Mehl 1Pckg Backpulver mit 1 Tasse Milch hineinrühren Eischnee 40 Minuten backen

“Beat 65 grams of butter to a foam with 200 grams of sugar one egg yolk season with lemon peel. Stir in 1 pound of flour 1 pack baking powder with 1 cup of milk. Beaten egg whites. Bake 40 minutes.”

By the way: stiffly beaten egg whites are called Eischnee, egg snow, in German. Isn’t that neat?

Now, it was a pretty spontaneous decision to make the cake on a Sunday afternoon; I was not exactly prepared. It was my colleague’s birthday and I felt like baking. I did not have any lemons. But I figured, I’ll just flavour it with something else – for example saffron and cardamom, a winning combination I got to know and love with my Bombay friend’s homemade ice cream (which I will have to try out myself some time, when it’s ice-cream weather). Also, the only flour I had was whole wheat flour, which is not always great in cakes, but I decided to try it anyway. I also decided to decorate it with some apricots from my fridge that were losing their mojo.

The cake came out looking nice (if a bit homely for the whole wheat brownishness) and it smelled lovely. It then just so happened that we did not eat the cake the next day but on the Tuesday, so between that and the whole wheat goodness, I was not surprised that it came out a little dry.

I tried again for my brother’s birthday. Entirely according to recipe, except for my usual honey-for-sugar-substitution. Even slathered the whole thing in cream, for good measure. And guess what? Dry. Tasty, but dry.

I decided to get to the bottom of this. I guess it looks pretty obvious to anyone who bakes every once in a while: one egg and about two tablespoons of butter do not exactly suggest a rich cake (note the interesting metaphor here, of cheap and rich…). But I wanted to KNOW. Thus, I looked through my arsenal of hand-me-down baking manuals for basic recipes for Rührkuchen. I found several, from the 1930s to recent times, and I compared the measurements of the main ingredients – calculating them all to 500g of flour, as the original recipe of my grandmother called for. Yes, I had a bit of a nerd-out. It happens.

Cake calculations...click to enlarge

Cake calculations…click to enlarge

It turned out pretty quickly that baking powder remained the same and milk and sugar varied somewhat, but not hugely. However, the butter and egg content of the Billige Kuchen was much less than the other cakes – 4 to 5 times less. It was probably the bare minimum of butter and egg you can get away with to still make a sort of cake. That would explain the dryness…and the name: I calculated the cost of each cake according to the prices I pay now in my supermarket, and yes: eggs are the big one. And butter is not cheap either. Milk, flour and sugar are not hugely expensive (now, anyway). I guess this was not different in 1938.

This brought me to Round 3 of the Billige Kuchen challenge: making a nice one…and whipping that recipe into a recognizable shape.

The not-so-cheap cake:

Butter, softened – 200 gr
Sugar or honey – 200 gr
Egg yolks – 3
Lemon peel – a few scrapes with a vegetable peeler
Salt
– a pinch
Flour
, white – 500 gr
Baking powder
– 2 Tablespoons, or 1 Pack
Milk
– 1 cup
Egg whites
, beaten stiff – 3

What to do:
Beat the butter foamy with the sugar, egg yolks, lemon peel and salt

Sift in the flour and baking powder. Stir, add the milk and stir some more. The dough probably seems heavy and sticky.

Egg whites are stiff enough when the holes stay.

Egg whites are stiff enough when the holes stay as you take the mixer out.

Beat egg whites until stiff. Carefully mix them into the dough with a wooden spoon (don’t use the mixing hooks, they are too rough on the egg fluff). The dough will become more smooth and silky again.

Scrape the dough into a buttered form. Bake 40 minutes at 180C.

Optional: Decorate the completely cooled cake with a sugar glazing made from ½ cup of icing sugar and the juice of ½ a lemon

The result: not exactly a sinful experience, but tasty and pleasant. The cake was not overly dry, just very simple. A recipe to be elaborated. One more note: 500gr of flour make quite a rather large cake. Depending on the occasion and the baking pans you own, the recipe could reasonably be halved, and the cake then jazzed up a bit instead.

This should be very good laced with cream and fruit...

This should be very good laced with cream and fruit.

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