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This picture shows a German Buamkuchen (tree cake) with one slice cut.
Baumkuchen [Tree cake]. Photo by Ursula Fornefeld-Schwarz. Nov. 8, 2023.

Legal Layers of Delight – The Origins of German “Tree Cake”

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The following is a guest post by Laura Schwarz, a foreign law intern working with Foreign Law Specialist Jenny Gesley at the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

Today, December 12, fans of Christmas candies in Germany joyfully mark the unofficial Baumkuchen Day (Tree Cake Day). This regal cake, baked layer by layer over an open flame using a sand mixture, is considered the “king of cakes” and is a symbol of the confectionery trade, even appearing in the logo of the German Association of Confectioners.


The ingredients of a Baumkuchen mixture are butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt, and flour. Baking powder finds no place in its creation. According to the German Guidelines for Fine Bakery Products, the ratio of butter to eggs to flour must be at least 1:2:1. Honey and alcohol, such as rum, may be added as flavorings, as can nuts, marzipan, and nougat. Yet the basic recipe remains unaltered.

The dough is spread thinly on a spit rotating over a heat source. The previous layer must be completely dry before a new layer is applied. The dough is applied in about 10 to 20 individual layers, usually by dipping and baking in layers. When sliced, the cake has a beautiful texture and appearance resembling tree rings, hence the name Baumkuchen, which literally means tree cake.

A special technique for applying the layers of dough, such as shaping it with a wooden comb, gives the cake a wavy contour, forming rings. After the spit is removed, the cake roll can be cut into portions, usually one to five rings. These are covered with a fondant or chocolate glaze (either dark or milk chocolate). Miniature, cut-up slices of this cake – called Baumkuchenspitzen – are usually glazed in chocolate and sold individually.

This picture shows the layers of a German Baumkuchen that resemble tree rings.
Baumkuchen [Tree cake]. Photo by Ursula Fornefeld-Schwarz. Nov. 8, 2023.

While the precise origins of Baumkuchen remain elusive, glimpses into medieval practices reveal breads with dough wrapped around a spit and roasted over an open fire. Some historians suggest that Baumkuchen was invented in the German town of Salzwedel, which popularized it. Another theory is that it began as a Hungarian wedding cake. The first recipes for the cake can be found in an Italian cookbook from 1426. An early German-language recipe can be found in a 1581 cookbook by Marx Rumpolt as a spit cake. The term “Baumkuchen” (Latin: placentae cylindricae) was first used in 1682 in a dietetic cookbook written by Johann Sigismund Elsholtz, the personal physician of Elector Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg.

Diaeteticon. Das ist Neues Tisch-Buch, oder Unterricht von Erhaltung guter Gesundheit durch eine ordentliche Diät, und insonderheit durch rechtmäßigen Gebrauch der Speisen, und des Getränks. Photo by Laura Schwarz. Nov. 16, 2023.
Page of the Diaeteticon, showing the term “Baumkuchen” (Latin: placentae cylindricae). Photo by Laura Schwarz.

The recipe commonly used today was not developed until the 18th century. One of the first known recipes of this new type is contained in the 7th edition of the Niedersächsisches Kochbuch written by Marcus Loofft in 1758. At that time, the finished Baumkuchen was sprinkled with grated chocolate or completely coated with chocolate.

Nieder-Sächsisches Koch-Buch [Lower Saxonian Cookbook]. Photo by Laura Schwarz. Nov. 21, 2023.
Recipe of Baumkuchen contained in the Nieder-Sächsisches Koch-Buch. Photo by Laura Schwarz. Nov. 21, 2023.

In the 1800s, Baumkuchen gained significance among confectioners, making Berlin the initial hub for this pastry. This gave rise to satellite bakeries in Dresden, Cottbus, Stettin, and Salzwedel during the latter half of the 19th century. To this day, Cottbus and Salzwedel in particular continue to uphold their status as prominent suppliers of Baumkuchen with regional influence. Today, the cake can be bought in any German supermarket in the run-up to Christmas.

Trademark Protection for Baumkuchen from Salzwedel

Among the many varieties of Baumkuchen, Salzwedel Baumkuchen stands out as a culinary specialty. Salzwedel is a town located in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was here that a baker named Johann Andreas Schernikow baked his first Baumkuchen in 1807, which impressed even Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1865. (2021/C 269/08, art. 5.1.)

Salzwedel Baumkuchen enjoys a distinctive legal safeguard— the EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Similar to protected wine varieties or cheeses, which may only be produced in certain regions, Salzwedel Baumkuchen can preserve its authenticity through a protected geographical indication; it has held the PGI quality mark since 2020. This means that the cake may only be baked within the boundaries of the town of Salzwedel and only in the purely traditional way in a brick oven over an open flame. (2021/C 269/08, art. 4.)

Geographical indications, indications of source, or designations of origin are names of places, landscapes, or other geographical indications that designate the origin of a product. (Regulation (EU) No. 1151/2012, art. 5, paras. 1, 2.) In commercial transactions, they provide consumers with insight into the region of production or processing.

For a long time, appellations of origin could not be registered as trademarks at the national level in many European countries due to the need to maintain their unrestricted use, meaning the need for the general public to be able to freely use certain descriptive indications and generic names, with the result that appellations of origin were misused or used for imitation. The gap in protection was addressed in 1992 when the first rules “on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs” were adopted at the European level. The underlying Regulation (EEC) No. 2081/1992 was then further amended and extended in 2006 (Regulation (EC) No. 510/2006) and 2012 (Regulation (EU) No. 1151/2012). Agricultural products and foodstuffs registered under Regulation (EU) No. 1151/2012 are legally protected against any misuse of the name or imitation by article 13, paragraph 1 of the Regulation, even if the correct place of origin is indicated or if the name is given in a translated form or if another name is accompanied by additions such as “kind” or “type.” A PGI must comply with a specification containing at least: the name to be protected as a designation of origin or geographical indication, a description of the product, proof that the product originates in the defined geographical area, a description of the method of obtaining the product and, where appropriate, the authentic and unvarying local methods, as well as information on packaging. (Regulation (EU) No. 1151/2012, art. 7, para. 1.) It is sufficient if one of the production stages (production, processing, or preparation) has taken place in a specific region of origin.

As we enjoy Baumkuchen throughout the festive season, let us savor not just its delicious layers but also appreciate the traditions and protections that preserve its authenticity. Guten Appetit!

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  1. One of my favorite German cakes but such a hassle to make. Frohe Feiertage nach DC!

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