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Cakes with a hole in the middle

"There is no denying that Bundt cakes are all about the look. But no matter if you are soaking yours in syrup, dusting with icing sugar or drizzling with glaze, don’t forget about the actual cake itself ­– because Bundts are best when shared in person rather than on Instagram!" Anneke Manning/SBS

In addition to The Guardian Newsletter I now subscribe to The Happy Foodie newsletter, which I think is a Penguin Books publication. This post is inspired by the latter - a few words - very few - on bundt cakes - those cakes with the hole in the middle. I do have a bundt cake tin but I think I've probably only used it once. They come in a wide range of designs these days, the latest trend, I think, being this one in which the indents are quite deep. Great photo isn't it?

The Happy Foodie newsletter was mostly publicising a recent Penguin book called Bundt by a young lady called Melanie Johnson, of whom, of course I had never heard. So I've looked her up and honestly she seems to be quite a remarkable young woman. So here I go with one of the several detours that developed whilst writing this post, because it was sort of interesting.

Look at her - she's just beautiful and when you read her About piece on her website Mel at Home you find that she's one of those very annoying people who are brilliant at everything. I can't remember all the details now, but here are some - born in Australia, moved to London aged 6, travelled backwards and forwards, and also lived in Austria where her family owned a hotel, and where she first fell in love with food. Considered a career in music, but instead did a degree in art history; worked at Sothebys, and in fashion and work with Red Cross. Married and moved to Ireland, where she rediscovered a love of food - and gardening, and eventually wrote columns for Country Life whilst also training as a chef. Then came disaster in the form of breast cancer - now in remission - which led to setting up the website, Instagram and all that. Fame and now her first book Bundt. She says she is now able to realise her love of: "food, design, interiors, photography, family, travel, people". Sort of wow really. It's not fair is it that some people seem to be given all the gifts and others get nothing, although even those with everything sometimes get knocked sideways by life. Anyway - a much to be admired young lady. And if I was into cakes I would buy the book because they look wonderful. Here are two: Snickerdoodle bundt cake and Lemon bundt with lemon curd buttercream. Did I say she takes her own photographs too? I bet she's a lovely person too. Like I said - it's not fair.

Anyway, also as I said, that was not really what I was going to talk about. I was really investigating the bundt cake - which I have to say I thought was German/Austrian. And it sort of is, but not really.

Across central Europe and Russia they have a similar cake with a long history - known as Gugelhopf or kugelhopf in Germany. There are of course very many other names depending on which country you are in, or also where you are and who you are in Germany. What they all have in common is the hole in the middle and also the fact that they are made with a yeast dough. For me it's a bit like panettone in that they look dry and uninteresting. This is what Wikipedia has to say about its history:

"In late Medieval Austria, a Gugelhupf was served at major community events such as weddings, and was decorated with flowers, leaves, candles, and seasonal fruits. The name persisted through the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eventually becoming standardized in Viennese cookbooks as a refined, rich cake, flavoured with rosewater and almond. Many regional variations exist, testifying to the widespread popularity of the Gugelhupf tradition. Several narratives claim the origin of the cake in Roman times with a spurious claim relating even further back to the Three Wise Men. The cake was popularized as a prestige pastry by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and was popularized in France by Marie-Antoinette."

But my inspiration book is called Bundt, so that is what we are talking about. And bundt is an American thing. Well it's Thanksgiving today so very appropriate. Not that they eat bundt cakes on Thanksgiving - I think it's more likely to be pumpkin pie - about which, some other time perhaps.

I mentioned that there were lots of other names for the Gugelhopf and indeed one of them is Bundkuchen. Kuchen means cake but there is some dispute about bund - is it a reference to bound sheafs of wheat, or is it a group of people because it's suitable for a large group of people and those medieval versions do seem to have been served at feasts of various kinds.

Anyway, the bundt cake became a thing in the 1940s when a company called Nordic Wares who made cookware, and it's boss David Dahlquist were approached by Jewish immigrants to make an aluminium version of their cast iron gugelhopf pans. Which he did The 't' was added to 'bund' for trademark reasons and there we are - a new kind of cake - well a new kind of cake tin initially, which eventually came to mean a particular shape of cake. A cake with a hole in the middle. To leapfrog over the middle of the story here is a picture of some of the very elaborate versions that the same company makes today. There are lots of different designs, and doubtless there are other companies making them too.

Back to the history. Actually the pan did not sell that well and the company considered abandoning them until in 1966 the story took another turn. Another company called Pillsbury that made cake mixes and the like ran a bake-off competition and in 1966 second prize went to this lady, Ella Rita Helfrich and her Tunnel-of-fudge cake, which was a bundt cake with a squidgy chocolate filling made from Pillsbury's Double Dutch Fudge Buttercream Frosting Mix. The recipe went viral, as we would say today, which hugely increased the demand for the pans. So much so that eventually David Dahlquist licensed the name 'bundt' to Pillsbury who then made lots of different cake mixes for all kinds of bundt cake. Alas they eventually ceased making the frosting mix and so the Tunnel-of-fudge cake you make today might not be quite the same.

A website called The American Table gives the complete recipe and some tips, as well as a recipe, for making the cake today. The version shown above though is a modernised version from The New York Times and is the one I have linked to above.

So there you go - what you might have thought was some central European or Jewish traditional thing is actually American - although based on what I thought it was. Really the cake itself can be absolutely anything. It's the shape that counts. SBS has a good run down on the things to look out for when you attempt one of these, and below are a few examples: Pumpkin maple bundt cake from Claire Ptak; Chocolate hazelnut bundt cake from Nigel Slater - he thought this was a Christmassy thing and Black onyx bundt cake from Living the Gourmet. It's rather sensational looking but is made with cake mix, so maybe it would be a good starting point.

Happy Thanksgiving America.

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