I’m a big fan of the spectacular Swedish spettkaka. Ribbons of batter piped onto a conical form make-up the unique confection sometimes called a pyramid cake in English, probably because the literal translation of spettkaka is spit cake. That’s a bit unfortunate, but makes sense when you learn the cake is baked on a rotating spit. Popular since the 17th century it’s a specialty of the southern region of Sweden called Skåne and has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the EU. That means it’s only a spettkaka if it comes from Skåne just as champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France.
I was introduced to spettkaka (SPEHT-kah-kah) in 1998. It was my first trip to Sweden and my then Swedish boyfriend and I became engaged. For our farewell dinner a towering spettkaka made an appearance on the table. Being a fan of meringue, spettkaka is right up my alley and I love the artistic nature of the form. The layers of piped batter make beautiful patterns as they are overlaid on one another and the final layer of icing can produce spectacularly delicate outcroppings.
Spettkaka is a variation of the German baumkuchen and has several other relatives throughout Europe including the Sękacz/Šakotis in Poland and Lithuania, the Kürtőskalács in Hungary, and the Skalický trdelník of Slovakia. There are probably others as well, but back to the spettkaka. It is first mentioned in Sweden in 1644 and was initially only a delicacy for the wealthy. By the 19th and early 20th century it was a popular celebration cake among all levels of society for weddings, christenings, and even funerals.
Johanna Jeppsson bakes a spettkaka over an open fire in 1917. Grandma Ida Håkansson assists. Photo from Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri.
The basic ingredients for the cake are the reason it is tied to Skåne, the main farming portion of Sweden. The Scanian region was plentiful in poultry for eggs, beets for sugar, and potatoes for flour which are the three ingredients in spettkaka. Traditionally it was cooked on a rotating spit above an open fire and ordered based on dozens of eggs rather than servings. People could even bring their own eggs to a spettkaka baker to have a cake made. Today they are baked in special rotating ovens and sold by the number of servings. Heights typically range from 6-25 inches tall (16-64 cm).
I had a heyday photographing spettkaka with nearly 400 photographs to choose from. Not just of the actual cake mind you, but because I
am obsessive compulsive visited a local spettkaka bakery and they kindly let me hang around for a couple of hours to shoot loads of pictures and share the process of making a spettkaka with you.
Since it was founded in 1928 Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri has been owned by three different families. The current owners are Mikael Jönsson and Frida Gylldorff who took over the business in 2005. Frida is a trained baker and does the actual cake making while Mikael handles the business side, as well as the eggs. Which brings up an important point about spettkaka from Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri. They use fresh eggs and separate them by hand whereas some bakeries buy eggs and whites pre-separated which must make a difference in the final product.
To make the batter yolks are mixed with sugar and then whipped egg whites are folded in by hand along with potato flour. Using potato flour means that the cake has a soft consistency and is gluten-free. Some bakeries use regular flour to make the cake sturdier for shipping so if you are in need of a gluten-free spettkaka be sure to check that the ingredients include potato flour only. Adding regular flour also affects the texture of the finished cake so buyer beware.
And now for the actual baking process. At Johanna Jeppssons there are 13 different ovens for baking and a variety of conical forms that give the finished cake its shape. Each oven can hold 4 of the smallest spettkaka so technically they can bake 52 cakes at one time. To start the process paper is taped onto one of the forms and then it is marked for the correct height.
A large pastry bag is filled with the batter that is then piped onto the rotating form. It’s a time-consuming process since each layer needs to dry completely before the next can be applied and each cake contains 9-10 layers. It takes seven hours to complete the process when baking several cakes at one time. You can click here to see a video of the batter being applied. As I was watching Frida work she said “I know it looks easy,” and my response was “no it doesn’t.” It requires just the right amount of pressure and movement combined with accuracy. I have no delusions this is an easy task.
In the final stages of baking a collar can be added for a more formal and festive touch. It’s the perfect spot for writing the names of a bride and groom or cradling a bouquet of flowers. Layers of the batter are applied, skillfully smoothed with a spatula and trimmed with a knife when dry. The final step is a layer of icing that is piped on. The most common colors are pink and/or white although in the Österlen region pink and green are common.
Once the cakes have dried briefly they are removed from the forms and are ready to package. Because spettkaka is so delicate it can disintegrate into a gloppy mess if exposed to too much humidity so they need to be packaged quickly. Once packed in plastic they can be stored away from heat, damp, and sunlight for 2-3 months.
Before postal rates sky-rocketed Johanna Jeppssons shipped cakes as far away as Asia and the U.S. but today long-distance orders are less common. You can purchase a spettkaka either by ordering it or picking up a pre-made one in the store at Johanna Jeppsons Spettkaksbageri. They also have their spettkaka available at several bakeries in the region which are listed on their website. The cost ranges from around $18-$225 with an additional cost for a collar. You can also buy pre-cut bits in a bag. I used to think those were the product of broken spettkaka but Frida enlightened me that they actually create the pieces intentionally on the cylindrical forms (as opposed to the conical forms) and that it’s rare for a spettkaka to break during the baking and packaging process.
To serve spettkaka a special saw-like knife is used to cut swaths out of the tower essentially creating columns as you go. It’s best that someone with experience takes on the task of the cutting. The goal is to make as many openings as possible and taller the cake, the more dramatic it becomes to figure out the next best way to procure a piece without sending the remainder of the confection crashing to pieces. Tradition states that how the cake is cut determines the future of the bride and groom such as how many windows their home will have or the number of children.
Spettkaka can be eaten on its own or served with ice cream, whipped cream, or a variety of sauces such as chocolate or caramel. Fresh fruit or berries are a nice accompaniment as are a glass of champagne or port. The peak occasions for spettkaka are Christmas and Midsommar but they are also popular for weddings, banquets, and special occasions year-round. A particular specialty of Frida’s is a tiered spettkaka that mimics a more traditional wedding cake in form but it is all one piece. It’s an extraordinary artistic creation that is exclusive to Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri.
On the left: Tiered spettkaka created by Frida Gylldorff and available exclusively at Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri. Photo acquired from www.johannajeppssons.se.
So what does spettkaka taste like? It has a meringue-like consistency but the potato flour keeps everything soft. It’s very airy and light, sugary sweet, and richer than meringue since it includes egg yolks as well. Not everyone appreciates it and some say it has an almost fishy aftertaste. I can understand where the naysayers are coming from, but I really enjoy it. And after visiting Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri I have a whole new appreciation for this spectacular confection. Many thanks to Mikael and Frida for sharing their craft. I love that the traditional spettkaka continues to find a place in our modern world and there are people keeping the art alive.
Johanna Jeppssons Spettkaksbageri
212 14 Malmö