I am standing in one of the three boulangeries in Chatenois, enticed by its sumptuous treasures, so vibrantly and artfully arrayed in the window. What’s not to like about crispy pralines coated in a layer of chocolate so thin it cracks when you bite into it, or salted chocolate caramels or glistening strawberry tartlets? These are the dilemmas faced on a daily basis.
With a population of just over 2000 in Chatenois, these boulangeries have a constant stream of locals filing through, invariably departing with at least a freshly baked baguette or two tucked under their arm. The boulangeries in France are like pubs in Australia, an essential part of the village DNA and infrastructure.
It’s tough going, with a boulangerie on almost every corner, testing my resistance at every turn. However, once through the threshold, I’m gone, succumbing to the mouth-watering chocolate box treats and the smell of the freshly baked breads in all shapes and sizes. Then there’s the Kougelhopf, an Alsatian yeast cake. They are often placed in pride of place on the counter wafting their subtle scent to tempt the unsuspecting customer.Unlike the locals, who seem immune to the charms of a fresh raspberry tart or a flaky mille-feuille, when I’m asked what I would like to buy, I panic, and just point my finger at anything and say “ça”, which is how end up leaving the boulangerie rather unexpectedly clutching a Kougelhopf.
The Kougelhopf is cooked in a high sided, crown-shaped mould and can be found in various forms across Europe. It is believed to be of Austrian origin although there are a number of conflicting stories around. Some say it was brought to France by Marie Antoinette when she married Louis, others say it was Careme, the legendary patissier, who popularised the cake in Paris and others believe that Napoleon even had his finger in the hopf. Roughly translated, the name means “jumping ball”, because it rises so much as it cooks.
While snooping around some antique and collectibles shops in Alsace, I have come across a number of old ceramic Kougelhopf moulds in various sizes. I am told that the older the mould, the better the cake turns out. I choose one that still smells of butter and flour and its aged and blackened patina perfectly illustrates its provenance. While the mould I have chosen is very old, the tourist shops here are full of modern reproductions. I have since found that there a number of modern metal Kougelhopf moulds available in stores in Australia, but this cake can also be cooked in any ring or bundt pan.
It is usually served for Sunday breakfast with butter and jam, but is also eaten as a morning or afternoon tea-cake served with sweet Alsatian white wine. It is generally prepared the day before as the flavours intensify when the cake is a day or so old. It can be sliced, similar to a brioche or panettone, and toasted and served with sweet toppings and cream or mascarpone. I like mine served warm as a dessert with poached and alcohol laced fruit and cream.
As with all yeast cakes, the Kougelhopf is a bit fussy to make, but worth persevering as you will be rewarded with something quite spectacular and unique. Because the dough is quite wet and sticky, I would recommend using the dough hook on an electric mixer, otherwise you will need plenty of elbow grease to do it by hand. There is something ultimately satisfying about getting down and messy to make your own bread or cakes, and the smells wafting from the oven when the Kougelhopf is baking are sensational.
I could not find a warm enough place in the kitchen that would allow the dough to rise, so I placed the bowl of dough in a very low oven covered with a tea towel. I covered the top of the cake with baking paper to reduce burning. Don’t be tempted to trim the bottom of the cake when it’s cooked, as the raggy edge adds to the rustic nature of the Kougelhopf.
There are many variations of Kougelhopf recipes around but this one is by Chef Emile Jung, formerly of Au Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg, France.
Quantity filled a 22cm mould when measured across the top.
300g plain flour
2 sachets of dried yeast
120ml lukewarm milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tbsp dark rum or kirsch
120g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
extra butter for greasing the mould
large pinch of salt
35g flaked almonds, and extra for the mould
45g raisins, soaked in hot water
icing sugar for dusting
Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine the yeast with a small amount of milk to make a smooth paste, then add the remainder of the milk. Form a well in the flour and pour in the milk mixture, eggs and rum. Mix to combine with a wooden spoon.
Mix the dough vigorously for 10 minutes, this can be done with an electric mixer using a dough hook. Add in the softened, cubed butter and continue mixing for another 8 minutes. The dough will be very sticky and elastic. Add the almonds and drained raisins, mixing again to combine.
Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let the dough rise for 30 minutes in a warm spot or a very low oven. After the first rise, punch the dough down and knead it again briefly.
Butter the pan generously, right up and over the top sides. Place the extra almonds in the bottom of the mould. Spoon the dough into the mould and return it to the warm spot. Let the dough rise again to fill the mould, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 180C, and place a cup of water in a heatproof bowl in the base of the oven. Place the Kougelhopf in the oven and bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until crusty and brown or when tested with a skewer that comes out clean. Place a sheet of baking paper over the cake if the top is browning too quickly. I adjusted my oven back to 170C after 20 minutes.
Let the mould cool until just warm on a rack before gently turning out. Kougelhopf keeps for a few days, tightly wrapped in a clean tea towel. Slices can be toasted or you can freeze part or all of the loaf.
Photos by Steve Shanahan