Taking a break for coffee and cake Culture: In Germany, the afternoon ritual of 'Kaffee und Kuchen' is a sweet pause that refreshes.

June 17, 1998|By CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

BERLIN, 2:30 p.m.

Potsdamer Platz is a sea of mud and machinery as the largest construction site in Europe emerges from a wasteland that once stood between two segments of the Berlin Wall. By the turn of the century, this will be a complex of corporate headquarters and government offices, but it has to be built first, and there seems to be a dearth of construction workers at the present moment. Where are they? Drinking beer? That's a good guess, but it's wrong. They're thronging the Stehcafes ("standing-cafes") of the local bakeries, participating in a sacred ritual that's at the heart of German food, one that cuts across lines of class, age and occupation: Kaffee und Kuchen.

Translated, it's "coffee and cake," but this is about as accurate as describing "afternoon tea" in England as a cup of leaves steeped in hot water. Kaffee und Kuchen (KOO-khen) is the quintessential Mittagspause, the pause in the middle of the day, and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, it's the primary activity of a number of Germans.

As a social ritual, Kaffee und Kuchen is all-encompassing: as intimate as having friends over to the house, or as businesslike as a meeting out of the office. It's a way for parents and grown children to get together socially, for workers to congregate for a break, for old friends to see each other and new friends to get acquainted. You can pause for pastry in a tony cafe with starched-linen tablecloths and a long history, or drop by a corner bakery in an out-of-the-way neighborhood. Kaffee und Kuchen is part of the cement that holds German society together.

The "cake" can be an intricate Viennese-style pastry, or, at some times of the year, the jelly-doughnut-like pastry (usually stuffed with a liqueur-fortified jam) known as Pfannkuchen or Berliner. And although there's a trend in Germany these days to substitute tea for coffee, Kaffee und Kuchen is still the real deal for most people.

Kuchens aren't layer cakes, which are called Torten. They're flat cakes, baked on baking sheets and usually cut into 2- by 4-inch rectangles. But other pans and shapes are also used, especially in other countries. The variety is as staggering as it is seasonal: Most kuchens are made with fruit in season - particularly strawberries, which Germans revere with a devotion that would fill a doctoral thesis. In the winter, dried fruits are deployed, along with such standbys as chocolate, custards and poppy seeds.

The different names are closely tied to the type of kuchen, because each varies with the region of the country. Fortunately, in a bakery or a cafe, one can usually just point at one's selection. And not all kuchens are sweet.

Like coffee, kuchen probably came to Germany from Austria. The Viennese are to pastry what the French are to sauces: masters of invention. While not everyone can afford to buy a Sachertorte in a cafe or prepare one at home, kuchens are simpler pastries that invite experimentation and can be made by any person with a flair for baking. Germans took to them enthusiastically, and the basic form underwent changes until distinctly German recipes emerged.

So think of kuchen as coffeecake if you want, or think of it as an easily prepared delicacy with an Old World flavor.

Dried-Cherry Streusel Kuchen

Makes 10 servings

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tablespoons chilled stick margarine or butter

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/3 cup egg substitute

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon amaretto (almond-flavored liqueur) or water

2 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon grated lemon rind

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 cup dried tart red cherries

cooking spray

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Lightly spoon 1/4 cup flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine with 1/4 cup brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl; cut in margarine with a pastry blender or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Set streusel mixture aside.

Lightly spoon 1 2/3 cups flour into dry measuring cups, and level with a knife. Combine with granulated sugar and next 4 ingredients (granulated sugar through salt) in a large bowl. Combine buttermilk and next 6 ingredients (buttermilk through almond extract), and stir with a whisk. Add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture, stirring until blended. Gently fold in dried cherries. Spoon batter into a 9-inch round cake pan coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle streusel mixture evenly over top.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

242 calories (24 percent from fat); 6.4 grams fat (1.3 grams saturated, 2 grams monounsaturated, 2.6 grams polyunsaturated); 4.2 grams protein; 40.1 grams carbohydrate; 1.2 grams fiber; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1.7 milligrams iron; 167 milligrams sodium; 80 milligrams calcium

Glazed Plum-Raspberry Kuchen

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