Cultural history of the Gugelhupf
by Thomas Stiegler
If there is an original Austrian dessert, then it is surely the Gugelhupf. It should not be missing from any menu, there is no home movie in which it does not appear on the table and the list of its lovers runs into the millions, regardless of whether it is Anton Bruckner, Franz Joseph or Wolfram Siebeck.
Yet it is not even so certain that it really originated in Austria.
Or, to be honest, the Gugelhupf is not an Austrian invention at all. Pre-forms of it existed long before the name “Ostarrichi” first appeared on a document.
And we can’t take credit for the rediscovery either, because that actually belongs to the French. But more about that later.
First of all, let’s talk about its name.
We Austrians never ask ourselves where the name comes from, because we have been familiar with the word Gugelhupf since childhood.
But if you think about it, it is a strange name for a cake, because it is made up of Kugel and Hupfen.
So maybe it’s supposed to remind you of a ball that bounces? Yet this cake does not honk at all, but sits enthroned Sunday after Sunday in all its glory on the white lace ceilings of Austrian coffee house tables, quietly waiting for its lover.
The truth is a little more mundane and, as always, comes from our history, but it is still poetic enough to tell here.
“Gugel is an old German word, so meaning a cap or cover of the head.”
If you’ve ever been to a medieval market, you’ve probably seen this cap. Later, this term was also used for the headgear of the Capuchins, and this brings us a little closer to the real story.
Just as the reverend lifts his gugel and reveals his tonsure underneath, so it is with the Gugelhupf.
For it is only when the baking tin, i.e. the ball or gugel, is lifted that this work of art is revealed and shows itself to us in all its fragrant splendour.
In history, the Gugelhupf can be found under many names such as Aschkuchen, Bäbe, Rodon or Topfkuchen, which already shows that it is a very old and widespread dessert.
Unfortunately, it is no longer known what ingredients were used to bake the various cakes, but that is not so important.
Because that is precisely what is special about this pastry: that it was never about the recipe itself, but always only about the shape to which it owes its name.
Although preliminary forms of the Gugelhupf were already known in ancient Rome, it did not reappear in our latitudes until the 15th century.
This has to do with the fact that the most common form of Gugelhupf requires yeast, which was not used in Europe until the Middle Ages. The necessary yeast was produced by brewers and distillers and sold as a by-product to bakeries.
In the 16th century, the Gugelhupf spread rapidly and became a well-known speciality, which also appeared in the first printed cookery books, for example in Marx Rumpolt’s “Ein new Kochbuch” from 1581.
“Take milk and butter into a pan and let it boil, stir in some nice white flour that will thicken well, keep it against the fire and the pine so that it will be fine, take some eggs, put them into warm water, put the dough into a clean dish and beat one egg after the other into it, carefully stir one with clean hands, don’t make it too thick or too thin.
And you can use such a dough for sprinkling baked goods and for bunches, especially when you make a hole in a harbour and dip the dough through it in hot butter.
You can also use it to bake sausages, and to bake large brown buns, if you take small black raisins underneath.”
At the beginning of the 18th century, people were already talking about “Gogelhopfen” as “an old German food”.
And only a hundred years later, in the Viennese Biedermeier era, the triumph of the Gugelhupf was unstoppable.
For the bourgeoisie, politically thrown back on the intellectual confines of their own four walls, increasingly sought comfort and distraction and found these also in culinary delights.
And so the Gugelhupf, together with a cup of hot coffee, became the epitome of Viennese cosiness.
But Vienna was not the only place where the Gugelhupf was common. In every country, indeed in almost every city, there was its own variant of it, which differed greatly in recipe and appearance.
For, as I said, it was the shape to which it owed its name, and so the researcher Irene Krauß was able to write as early as 1999: “Depending on the region, festive occasion and economic fortune, the Gugelhupf was made from yeast, sponge or sponge cake dough, either quite simply or with elaborate ingredients, i.e. lots of butter, almonds, lemon or sultanas, and covered with chocolate or even dusted with icing sugar.”
Finally, I would have two little stories about the Gugelhupf and its spread in France.
One tells of how the French queen Marie-Antoinette felt so lonely at the court of Versailles that she began to long for the familiar delicacies of her childhood.
Whereupon her mother Maria Theresa instructed the kitchen at Schönbrunn to send the recipe to her daughter, who introduced it at the royal court in Paris.
However, this is contradicted by the fact that gugelhupf moulds dating back to the 16th century can be found in many French museums and that it was apparently known long before.
The French version of the story is a little different: once upon a time, the Magi travelled through Alsace on their way back from Bethlehem and were warmly welcomed there. To thank their hosts, they baked a delicious cake, which they gave the shape of a turban.
This is why the French believe that they are the true inventors of the Gugelhupf (or “Kouglof”, as it is also called) and that their little town of Ribeauvillé deserves sole credit.
Last but not least, only here is there a Gugelhupf festival (Fęte du Kougelhopf), which is celebrated every year in June.
So I’d say let’s leave the French to glory and concentrate on what we’re really good at: getting cosy with the family, a hot coffee and a big slice of the gugelhupf.
“The Gugelhupf is still an indispensable part of the Viennese family breakfast (especially on Sundays) and the Viennese coffee snack. The Gugelhupf, with or without sultanas, marbled, with or without chocolate icing or sprinkled with almonds in the old Viennese way, has long since become something like a bourgeois status symbol of affluence,” Franz Maier-Bruck said in the 1970s.
And there is nothing more to add to that.
250 g butter
250 g sugar
350 g plain flour
100 g sultanas
50 g grated almonds
1 pkg. baking powder
1 pkg. vanilla sugar
7-8 tbsp milk
Cream the butter and gradually beat in the sugar, vanilla sugar and eggs.
Mix the baking powder and almonds into the flour and fold into the fluffy mixture alternately with the milk. Use only enough milk so that the dough falls from the spoon with difficulty.
Fold in the sultanas and pour the dough into a well-greased and floured ring cake tin.
Bake in the preheated oven at 180 °C for about an hour. Turn out while still lukewarm and dust with icing sugar.
Zedlers Universallexikon aller Wissenschaften und Künste,
Johann Heinrich Zedler, 1731 A new cookery book, Marx Rumpolt, 1581
Chronicle of beautiful baked goods, Irene Krauß, Stuttgart 1999
Franz Maier-Bruck, on the website: Culinary Heritage Austria