The first event on my current trip to Germany was yet another family birthday, a big one. And, as is usual, it was celebrated with food – lovely food, homemade food, mountains and lashings of food. In this case, cake.
Germany has a cake culture. Well, a whole baked-goods culture, actually – it’s the country with the most varieties of bread, which is the staple food, eaten for breakfast, break (even called “Brotzeit“, bread time, in some places), and supper. (Dinner – eaten at midday – is a cooked meal, and it does not usually include bread.) Having a good bakery in easy reach is crucial for one’s comfort – “Give us this day our daily bread”, and all that.
But there are times when the occasion calls for cake. And Germans know how to make the most of it. None of this “Bake one cake, and serve a single slice at the end of a large meal when you’re already stuffed” thing. No – cake (like bread) needs to be properly appreciated. So eating cake is a separate meal here: Kaffee und Kuchen, coffee and cake. It takes place in the mid-afternoon, half-way between dinner/lunch and supper, and it consists of, well, coffee and cake. Or tea and cake, or cocoa or milk or juice and cake.
Now, let me be clear: this is not a daily occurrence. Not even a weekly one, to the extent I’m showing it here. It’s a special-occasion one, for holidays, celebrations and company. On an ordinary weekday, many Germans have a cup of coffee and perhaps a few cookies or some other goodie in the middle of the afternoon; and for Sundays, they might bake a cake – a simpler one, say, a pound cake – or get a few pieces of Torte from the aforementioned bakery. But if there’s special company (like, a relative who’s visiting from Canada), or it’s Easter, or someone has a big-number birthday, they’ll pull out all the stops. It’s perfect for inviting guests – as festive as you could wish, but you can prepare everything ahead of time, don’t have to fuss with hot food, and the guests don’t stay ’til all hours.
So next time you find yourself in Germany, and someone says “Kommen Sie zum Kaffee!” (“Come for coffee!”), first of all, feel honoured (Germans aren’t quick to invite people to their houses, so an invitation like that is special). And here is what you can expect:
Kaffee und Kuchen usually happens around 4:00 PM, or 16:00 Uhr (saykh-tsayn Oor, sixteen o’clock). It’s not just a quick hand-you-a-cup-of-coffee affair, but a sit-down meal at a nicely set table, and it can easily last an hour or more – because, of course, eating is only part of the point; having a conversation is the main thing.
For a proper Kaffee a hostess will often put out her good china, and perhaps bring out a nice cut-crystal dish for the whipped cream. (Side note: no ice cream with cake here – ice cream is another thing that’s enjoyed by itself in its own right, not as an afterthought to cake; and it usually comes out as an immediate after-dinner dessert or special treat, not with Kaffee und Kuchen). The table is set with cake plates, coffee cups & saucers, cake forks and teaspoons. In the middle of the table, there’s the creamer and sugar bowl, whipped cream, and platter of cake – or platters, rather, as it’s usual to have at least two, if not three or more kinds of cakes.
The number of goodie varieties depends on the number of guests, of course. For today’s birthday party, which took place in a church hall and had about 45 guests, there were 12 cakes. Go ahead, pick up your dropped jaw again. It was lavish, and people commented on just how lavish (especially as the hostess had baked almost all of the cakes herself), but not all that unusual. Did I mention Germans know how to appreciate cake? By the end, about half or two-thirds of the cakes had been eaten, and whoever wanted to got to take a few pieces of the remainders home.
Of course with this number of cakes you don’t get to try every single variety – not because it would be socially unacceptable, but because it’s physically impossible. So you choose your favourites, and have those (apricot cheese cake, raspberry cream, red currant meringue, and fruit flan for me, in this case). With a buffet-style Kaffee und Kuchen like we had today, it’s fine to put a couple of pieces of cake on your plate at once, eat them, and go back for seconds; in a smaller circle (which is the normal way) you’ll just let your hostess serve you one piece at a time, eat it, make appreciative noises, then have another one. Repeat until fill point is reached, then say “Nein, danke!” (No, thank you!) to the next offering (you might have to repeat that phrase several times with escalating levels of firmness before it’s accepted as a fact that you actually don’t want more).
Speaking of appreciative noises, letting your hostess or host know that their cakes are amazing, impressive and utterly delicious and that you’d love to have more but you absolutely can’t (“Ich kann nicht mehr!“) is always acceptable. Appreciated hostess is a happy hostess, and you’re that much more likely to get invited back next time. Incidentally, you might also bring along a little hostess gift to express your gratitude for the invitation, especially if it is a special occasion – some flowers, or chocolates, or what-have-you.
By the way, Kaffee und Kuchen is something that’s practised at all ages. A children’s birthday party is often held as a Kaffee – it’s still called that even though the kids don’t drink coffee, but have cocoa or juice or pop. Also, the goodies are often more kid-friendly; one of my aunts, who long since passed away, for kids always made her specialty of fresh-baked waffle cones, which she filled right in front of you with whipped cream from a cream syphon (the kind that coffee shops top fancy drinks with) – it was very exciting.
As I said before, many Germans will bake their own cakes for a nice Kaffee und Kuchen, but it’s also perfectly acceptable to buy some from a bakery, which will usually have a really good selection. Another option for Kaffee und Kuchen is to go to a café for it. In that case, the timing is the same (mid-afternoon on Sundays or special occasions – perhaps on an outing), but you’ll generally only order one piece of cake with your cup of coffee or tea – and that’s usually enough, too, as café portions tend to be generous.
Incidentally, if you’ve ever heard the term Kaffeeklatsch or Coffee Klatsch, that’s where it comes from: women meeting in the afternoon over Kaffee und Kuchen and having a big gossip fest.
Life, the Universe, Kaffee und Kuchen. What’s your favourite kind?