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If you love coffee and you love cake, you'll love this German afternoon tradition.

By Nadia Hassani
April 07, 2021
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What Is Kaffee und Kuchen?

Germany is famous for its cakes and pastries, such as Schwarzwälder Kirschttorte (Black Forest Cake) and Bienenstich (Bee Sting Cake). But how and when these delights are consumed is also special. It's a tradition with a long history, dating back to the 17th century, called Kaffee und Kuchen, meaning "coffee and cake." Despite significant lifestyle changes in the twentieth century, the tradition is still very much alive. Germany's neighbors, Austria and the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, also have a rich Kaffee und Kuchen traditions, with an equally delectable array of cakes and pastries.

The traditional German Kaffee und Kuchen is a social ritual where friends and family gather to enjoy coffee, cake, and conversation, happening any time between two and five o'clock. It is notable that Kaffee und Kuchen is a meal on its own, as in Germany, cakes and other sweet pastries are not served for dessert as they are in the United States.

Traditional German marble cake
Traditional German marble cake, a favorite for kaffee und kuchen
| Credit: Nadia Hassani

Germany's Kaffee und Kuchen Tradition

For most people, the weekend, especially Sunday, is prime time for a relaxed chat during Kaffee und Kuchen — for which Germany also has a name, of course: kaffeeklatsch. It doesn't mean that Kaffee und Kuchen cannot happen during the week at the workplace, or only when it's someone's birthday. Coworkers often bring cake or pastries from a local bakery (Bäckerei) or a pastry shop (Konditorei) to share in the afternoon.

German bakeries sell simpler, more rustic cakes, which are usually sheet cakes, as well as yeasted pastries such as cinnamon rolls and danish. These everyday pastries have different names. In some regions they are called Kaffeestückchen (small coffee pastries). Pastry shops, on the other hand, specialize in the high art of cake-making but their offerings usually also include fruit pies.

coffee and cake at a cafe in Switzerland
Credit: Diana Moutsopoulos

Pastry shops often have an adjacent café. Besides people's homes, cafés are the other important place where the Kaffee und Kuchen tradition is kept alive. If you see people lined up in front of a shop on a Sunday afternoon, it's most likely in front of a pastry shop. Both at bakeries and pastry shops, cakes are sold by the slice, which makes it easy to accommodate different personal tastes. Because the cakes are often so rich, sharing a slice among tablemates so everybody gets a taste of everything is common, and part of the social ritual.

What Makes German Kuchen Unique?

The German language does not distinguish between a cake and a pie. Fruit pies are all called kuchen. However, the German language has two different words for cakes, and the distinction is important. A Kuchen is usually dry or with a fruit topping or fruit filling, whereas a Torte has a rich filling, such as whipped cream, buttercream, or anything layered. The most famous torte is hands-down the Black Forest Cake. The nomenclature can often be somewhat random — sponge cake topped with fresh strawberries can be called either Erdbeerkuchen or Erdbeertorte.

There are a few products used in German cakes that are particularly German. For fruit cakes, you can buy ready-to-use, no-bake sponge or shortcrust bases (Tortenboden). All you need to do is cover them with fruit and the clear, colorless or red glaze (Tortenguss), which holds the fruit in place and prevents it from drying out. The glaze comes in powder form in small sachets. The powder is mixed with liquid and promptly spread over the fruit before the glaze sets.

homemade vanilla sugar in a spoon
Credit: Buckwheat Queen

Two other ubiquitous ingredients in German cakes are vanilla sugar and quark. Vanilla sugar is easy to make from granulated white sugar and vanilla beans, and quark can be substituted with fat-free Greek yogurt.

In recent years Germans have increasingly adopted American cakes and pastries. Nowadays muffins, cupcakes, brownies, donuts, and American-style baked cheesecakes are common but the traditional German cakes haven't gone away.

Regardless of what's served, when you sit down for Kaffee und Kuchen, a nice tablecloth on the table, and using one's good china and pastry forks are a must for many families.

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