Last weekend, I visited a good friend who had some very momentous things go right in her life, and to celebrate the day, I made a cake. She requested something with fruit, and there being raspberries available, that was what we used in place of the more usual, but out-of-season strawberries.
Take eggs, the yolks alone or all together as you wish, beat and whip them well, then take good thick cream that is sweet, stir in as much as there are eggs, add rosewater if you wish, grind of almonds what is right and pass it through (a cloth) with the cream, but in that case take a little more of the milk (cream) than of the eggs. Hold it over a bright fire, but far away, stir it diligently until it begins to thicken a little, but do not let it boil. Then the dish (pastry) should be ready, and it should not be too high, half as high as another tart is. Then pour the mix into it and place nice strawberries or gooseberries in it so that they are half in the mass and half sticking out, and strew it well with sugar so that you neither see the mass nor the berries. The strawberries should be washed in rosewater and not too ripe, for then they turn to mush immediately, but the gooseberries are fine and right when they are already yellow and clear. They need much sugar. Bake them well and give a lot of heat below, but not too much above so that they stay nicely white. It is enough quickly. If you bake them in an oven, lay a piece of paper on top.
This is from 1598 and clearly not what we think of as Erbeerkuchen today, but it still comes surprisingly close with its custard base and the sugar covering the fruit.
The thought of maybe tracing the ancestry of modern strawberry cake intrigued me and I decided to do some digging. What I found was mostly that there were many variations of putting strawberries on cakes, but the modern version seems to be very recent. The Brandenburgisches Kochbuch of 1723 (which is itself a pirated edition of Die wohl-unterwiesene Köchin by Maria Sophia Schellhammer) does not include any recipe for strawberry tart, but has instructions for currants (p. 295), gooseberries and brambles (p. 296):
Currant Tart. This is the best way
You pluck the currants from their stalks, wash them, and lay them in the crust. Add to this a Nössel of sweet cream, rosewater, six eggs, sugar, and a Pfennig worth of Semmel bread. But this must first be all beaten well together before pouring it over the currants.
You must strew sugar, clarified butter, Semmel crumbs and pounded cinnamon between them.
When you have placed one layer of brambles in it, you must strew sugar, cinnamon, and butter over it, then brambles again and so forth until the pan is full.
Aside from the currant tart, which looks like a distant relative of the custard described by Anna Wecker, these are very basic fruit pies of the kind we still find very commonly in the United States. They are not at all like Erdbeerkuchen. Neither is the recipe for a tart of strawberries or raspberries (#565) in Markus Looft’s 1758 Niedersächsisches Kochbuch:
Strawberry or Raspberry Tart
The strawberries or raspberries are only cleaned and then poured out on as sieve so they dry nicely. Then they are mixed with a little sugar, pounded cinnamon, and chopped lemon peel. You may also add a little pounded biscuit into it, especially into the raspberries which are juicier. Then they are only put into a tarte with flasky crust (Blätterteig), thus it is proper.
This is not very different at all, though the side note that raspberries are juicier than strawberries indicates that the strawberries referenced here are the European forest variety, not early forms of our modern cultivars, despite the fact that strawberry cultivation was pioneered in Northern Germany. The 1831 Hamburgisches Koch-Buch (XIV.20) goes a different way, even more reminiscent of American pies:
You must first remove the stones from the cherries and then place them in a casserole with a good piece of butter and let them cook a little so the juice comes out. Then you remove the cherries with a skimmer and boil the cherry soup or juice with a little pounded biscuit, pounded cinnamon, and finely chopped lemon peel to make it thick. Then the cherries are returned to it, boiled up once together, and set aside to cool. They are then worked into a tart with fine crust. Strawberries and raspberries are prepared the same way. You can also strew biscuit on the bottom of the tart instead of between the fruit, but alsdo pounded almonds.
It is not quite a pie filling yet, lacking the cornstarch binder for one thing, but it is fairly close. I dread to imagine how raspberries or modern cultivated strawberries would respond to this treatment. But for many generations it seems German cooks used berries to make something more and more like pie. But by the middle of the 19th century, something different shows up. The 1844 Der Dresdner Koch by Johann Friedrich Baumann (vol. II p. 155) gives instructions for serving raw strawberries on vol-au-vents:
Small Blätterkrustchen with strawberries / Petits vol-au-vents glacés au gros sucre garni de fraises
The Blätterkrustchen are dipped in sugar syrup as before and immediately strewn with white coarse sugar. Eight Loth of sugar are are then added to the sugar syrup and a little strawberry juice pressed out is poured on it, boiled up, skimmed, and set aside as soon as it forms a very fine (short) thread between the fingers. When they are served, these Krustchen are filled with nice fresh strawberries and the strawberry syrup, or otherwise plain white syrup, is poured over them. These Krustchen are similarly prepared with raspberries or with white or red currants.
These are clearly not Erdbeerkuchen, but the use of either white or red syrup over fresh fruit is reminiscent of modern Tortenguss and the flavour for fresh fruit is valued here. As an aside, Blätterkrustchen for vol-au-vent is a less than stellar example of Baumann’s otherwise quite impressive project of translating the vocabulary of emerging haute cuisine into German.
Johann Rottenhöfer’s 1866 Anweisung in der feineren Kochkunst (#2023) has a very similar treament for fruit served on a cake base:
Strawberry Cake / flan aux fraises
2 1/4 litres of good forest strawberries are picked over meticuluosly, placed in 3/10 litre good thick sugar syrup and swung once, then, if possible, placed on ice. Meanwhile, a flat cake based on dough #1967 is prepared, baked to light brown, and set on a tart sheet. Shortly before serving, the strawberries are placed on the cake, spread out evenly, and immediately brought to the table.
Dough #1967 is a rich short crust:
Short Crust (Mürber Teig) in a different way, also known as Bröselteig / Pate brisée d’une autre manière
The same consists of 560 grammes of fine, dry flour, 420 grammes of butter, eight egg yolks, one coffee spoon of pounded cinnamon, 70 grammes of pounded sugar, and one knife tip of salt. It is worked as the preceding (i.e. quickly by hand) and wrapped in a cloth whereupon you allow it to rest for an hour prior to use.
This is clearly an ancestor of our Erdbeerkuchen. Small berry tartlets are still commonly made on short crust rather than the more common spongy cake today. The first instance of what is cleartly modern Erdbeerkuchen I know of occurs in Meta Adam’s Hamburger Kochbuch, here taken from the 1949 edition that must have seemed like cruel mockery to many readers at the time:
Ingredients: Short crust, Vanilla crème of 1/4 litre milk, 25 grammes of Maizena or Mondamin (starch), 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 piece vanilla, Topping: 1 kg strawberries, 120-150 grammes sugar, 2 tablespons starch, 2 sheets white gelatin
Bake short crust. Fill with vanilla crème. Remove the flowers (stems) from the strawberries, sugar them and allow the juice to be drawn out. drain! Lay out the strawberries on the vanilla cream, bind the juice with potato starch and gelatin, and pour over the strawberries.
It is interesting I have not found this in any of the classic 20th-century go-to books. Dr Oetker’s Backbuch does not have it, neither does Krackhart, Davidis, Prato, Das Blaue Kochbuch, Grete Willinsky’s Kochbuch der Büchergilde, or 1001 Kochvorschriften. Erna Horn’s Der neuzeitliche Haushalt (1941 edition) has recipes for gelatin used to cover fruit on cakes and a leavened, but still crusty base for Obstkuchen. However, there is no indication of a cream or custard layer and her recipe for strawberry cake bakes the fruit encased in whipped egg whites much as Krackhart does in 1898. It looks like the combination of these specific elements happened sometime around 1930-1940 in northern Germany and spread out from there. Today, pre-packaged Tortenguss and pre-baked cake bases are staples of any supermarket throughout the country and thousands of families enjoy a quick and easy Erdbeerkuchen every summer weekend. I usually make my own base using the 5-4-3-2-1 method. A close friend, originally from the Rhineland, taught it to me:
Quickly mix 5 tablepoons of sugar, 4 tablespoons of flour, 3 eggs, 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Bake in a flat springform pan at 180°C until light brown, remove and cool.
This base can be flavoured as desired with vanilla, cocoa, or rum. Vanilla custard is spread on it (instant Vanillepudding mix is customary), the cooling mass covered in fruit, and the gelling Tortenguss spead over it. If you are feeling artistic, closing the springform around the base again allows you to cast a layered cylinder of cake, custard, fruit, and gelatin, encasing the fruit in a block of jelly. I don’t particularly like to, but it looks very 1990s.