The nicest small pleasures
Sour Cherry Streusel Cake
It has been over 12 years since I moved back to Berlin from New York, a fact I frequently find hard to believe, even though I have two children now and one of them is about to turn 10. Time can sometimes feel elastic and strange and even subjective. I can, on occasion, if it is very quiet and very dark and if I concentrate very hard, conjure up the way I used to feel waiting for a friend at a bar downtown, or the very particular sensation I used to feel upon taking a walk in Central Park. But by and large, all of that is in the past. And what ends up amazing me most about 12 years in Berlin is the fact that the advent of spring here never stops feeling miraculous, like a prize, a gift, a magical bestowing upon those of us lucky enough to live here.
May is the best of the warm months in Berlin, because the foliage has exploded seemingly overnight and so much has burst into blossom. It doesn’t matter where you look, trees and bushes are heavy with lush, thick leaves and flowers. The embankments of the highways ripple with wild lilacs. The medians of streets small and large shimmer with long grass, wild poppies and cat’s tails. Baby acacias drip with fragrant inflorescences. Wild roses adorn the most mundane corners, pulsing with color, and a heavy, floral scent hangs in the air everywhere. Most exquisitely, there is a sense of anticipation in the air, excitement for what is still to come.
For June will be here soon, bringing warmer weather, streets sticky with linden sap and blue skies at 9:00, then past 10:00 pm. In these months, life in Berlin opens up and is lived outdoors, on balconies, in parks and cafés. All the cold and pinched winter months are avenged and we are reminded why we fell in love with this city in the first place.
In the lush countryside surrounding Berlin, there are a handful of U-pick farms where we go to pick our own strawberries in late spring, apples in early fall and blueberries in mid-summer. The blueberry fields are in the middle of a towering pine forest, and when we have finished filling our pails with kilos and kilos (and kilos, it is so hard to stop picking) of blueberries, we head to a snack area at the edge of the clearing.
Next to picnic tables and benches made out of long slabs of rough-hewn wood, there is a little hut where coffee and treats are sold, like freshly made waffles topped with whipped cream and hot blueberry sauce or a thick yellow cake with blueberries baked into the top. The cake has a wavy, bumpy top and a vanilla-scented, close-crumbed structure. Eating a chunk of it under the pine tree canopy, a cup of steaming coffee in hand and feet resting on wood chips, after an afternoon of blueberry picking with family and friends, is one of the nicest small pleasures of a summer already rich with them.
While many fruit- and Streusel-topped cakes in Germany are made with yeasted doughs, like Pflaumenkuchen, batter cakes like this one are richer and sweeter than those made with a puffy yeasted dough. I find that this type of cake pairs well with fruit that is on the tarter side, like freshly picked blueberries. But as I discovered when developing this recipe, it is even better when made with sour cherries. I use jarred sour cherries, thickening their liquid with some cornstarch, but only just enough to let it hold its gel somewhat, and then spread cherries and gelled juice over the thick and creamy batter. The fruit is topped with Streusel that has been seasoned ever so lightly with cinnamon, which brings a bit of warmth and depth to the sweet-tart fruit.
In the oven, the cherry juice thickens further and bubbles, while the cake rises high and the Streusel turn crunchy and crisp. Warm from the oven, the cake is incredibly good, but as the days go by, the Streusel solidify a bit, getting pleasingly chewy, and the cherry topping keeps the cake moist. The cake will never actually last that long without getting eaten, but you’ll be happy to know that it tastes just as good on Day 4 as it does on Day 1. And even though I associate this cake with these glorious warm months in Berlin, the preserved sour cherries mean it can be made year-round.
Yes, Hugo turns ten next month. His face is changing before our eyes and the top of his head is inching closer to mine every day. He takes public transportation home from school, refuses to be seen holding my hand in public and grinds hot pepper flakes on his pasta at dinner. Our ritual for all his previous birthdays except for the first, when we were in Italy and our friend made him a plain Italian sponge cake to plant his face into, was to leaf through a handful of baking books until we found a chocolate cake that looked good to him. But this year, things are different. This year, Hugo has requested Sour Cherry Streusel Cake for his birthday celebration. He’s growing up and his tastes are too.
I’ll be teaching a virtual baking class on Sour Cherry Streusel Cake at Milk Street the weekend of Hugo’s birthday in June. In the class, I’ll also tell you how to make a gluten-free version of this class. The class takes place on Saturday June 11th at 1:00 pm EST (7:00 pm CET), but if you can’t make it at that time, a recording of the class will be sent to you. To buy tickets, which cost $29.95, please follow this link. For 15% off, please use the code STREUSEL.
Paid subscribers will be able to access the recipe below.
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