Today, my son and I visited his grandmother and she had bought Schoko-Quarkbrötchen (a nice, if slightly heavy kind of bun with chocolate flakes baked into it). My son, though, asked for a Franzbrötchen. This above all marks him out as a proper Hamburger, but it also gave me the opportunity to involve him in producing that sticky confection – or to try, given he defected from the kitchen to watch an Asterix movie with his grandma. He enthusiastically helped eat them, though.

The Franzbrötchen is a legendary piece of local lore, its history lost in the mists of deep time, but like many such patriotic fables, it turns out to be an invention of the nineteenth century. Today, it is ubiquitous. No bakery in Hamburg is without the sticky, squashed cinnamon roll either in the buttery original or the many varieties that have been multiplying lately. Depending on the season, I can now get Franzbrötchen with nuts, chocolate, marzipan, streusel, plums, strawberries, pumpkin, apple, or cherry compote on my way to work. My preference is still the basic version, though.

Legend has it that Franzbrötchen were created by Hamburg’s bakers when the occupying troops of Napoleonic Marshal Davout demanded croissants. This is implausible because a) though they look a little like failed croissants, the technique is not similar at all, b) Hamburg’s bakers were quite capable of producing a flaky butter dough and c) croissants are not that old. Rather, they seem to be associated with the Franz’sche (French) Bäckerei in neighbouring Altona and make their first appearance in the 1820s. While this business had been founded by French immigrants, it was then run by a German family. There is no reason to think they were inspired by croissants, Emperor Franz, or a Franciscan friar’s medieval charity. The nineteenth century saw a creative explosion in confectionery. The Franzbrötchen is, after all, quite similar to the Danish cinnamon roll which was also invented then (and Altona was a Danish city until 1864).

So, what is this thing the Hamburgers are so proud of? Basically, a Franzbrötchen is a piece of butter-laminated yeast dough rolled up with cinnamon and sugar. Unlike a Danish pastry, it is not turned on its side, but squashed down the middle to expose much of the filling during baking. This caramelises the sugar as it mixes with the melting butter, creating the sticky, brown layer covering a proper Franzbrötchen. It’s a great treat for a wet, drizzly, dreary day.

A professionally made Franzbrötchen depends on folding butter into its dough multiple times. Bakeries use machines to do this and produce many layers. If you are working at home, there is no need to. All you need is a yeast dough of flour, milk, eggs, and sugar that you roll out, spread with butter, fold over, and roll out again once or twice. Since you are working with yeast, you need to use room temperature butter rather than the iced blocks of classic pate feuilletée, but that actually makes it easier. After you have worked the butter layers in,m you rioll out the dough one last time, brush it with water (or melted butter, if you are looking for a very rich mix), cover it with sugar and cinnamon, and roll it up. You then cut the roll into pieces about four centimetres long and squash them dowen the centreline with the handle of a wooden spoon. That produces the characteristic shape of the Franzbrötchen.

If you make them at home, you are free to vary the spices – I like ginger and mace along with my cinnamon – and the richness, and produce small rolls rather than the large portions bakeries sell. I like to have them about 5-8 centimetres across, perfect for serving with tea. So far, all responses have been encouraging. Try it, and be sure to mention that the recipe was brought to the Hanseatic city of Hamburg by a baker sentenced for manslaughter to complete a pilgrimage to Rome, where he learned it from a Franciscan. It’s not true, but everybody likes to hear these kind of stories.

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