In my defense, in that period of time, I moved apartments, had a kid, wrote a book, and went on a 25-city book tour, all while (mostly) keeping up with this here website and
spending a truly horrific amount of time staring slack-jawed social media ahem, maintaining occasional hobbies. But I know the truth, which is that I’ve been intimidated by making it because I felt like I was cooking blind. The Bee Sting Cake (Bienenstich) is a German specialty and while my mother’s parents came over in 1935 and 1936 respectively, the areas once known as German epicenters (the middle of Queens, where my mom was raised, and Yorkville, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan) have now mostly dispersed, and most of the accompanying stores have shuttered. Calls to German bakeries to see if they sold it were almost futile, until I found one in Ridgewood, Queens that sold us a whole one that was rather awful; let’s not speak of it at all. The only thing left to do was go it alone, researching obsessively along the way.
What everyone seemed to agree on was that the cake was a yeasted one, baked round or in a sheet pan, barely sweet, but topped with a crunchy almond-honey-butter caramel. It’s from this topping that the name, and a story (always a story with cakes, yes? forgive me, but the premise here seems awfully thin) emerged, something about a bee being drawn to the honey topping and stinging it/it not being an authentic bee sting cake unless it has been stung. Needless to say, this has not been stung. I’m okay with that.
The filling I understood to be classically made as a pastry cream, sometimes lightened with whipped cream, but you’ll find an equal number of versions that call for packaged pudding mix instead. I probably don’t need to tell you which way I went.
From there, the Great Week Of Bienenstich Experiments (GWoBE) — it was kind enough to coincide with us finding two one-pound bags of sliced almonds in the freezer. [Seriously; who loses track of this stuff? Wait, don't answer.] During Round 1, I learned that — get this — yeast goes bad, especially 1.5 years after its expiration date. Who knew?! The cake was otherwise delicious, but the batter too wet to even consider doming, yeast issues aside, and the topping was sad and pale. It was too sweet and needed more salt. Round 2 produced a lovely cake, bronzed caramel lid, but a too-thin custard filling, the result of me attempting to make it while dictating a grocery list for that weekend’s Lasagna Bolognese to my husband, and omitting an ingredient in both, grr. Round 3 looked like the platonic ideal of a bee sting cake, but the filling was too soft and the cake too hard.
This is when I should have stopped.
I didn’t stop.
In Round 4, I decided that the wet batter might have been onto something, and that was, the most tender cake of any of the rounds. Having no German grandmother peering over my shoulder to tell me which turns would doom any claims of authenticity forever, I decided that doming was overrated, and a tender, soft crumb was the only thing that would ever make me happy. This was my favorite cake body, but I decided at the last minute to lighten the pastry cream with whipped cream and it … was so soft that it squeezed out the sides when you put the top half on, the way you always hope an overstuffed Oreo would but never does.
By Round 5, it was my mom’s birthday and I thought if I ever saw a bienenstich again, I might run in the other direction, but I made it anyway, because I guess I rather like my mom. For dinner, we had this soup, this salad and this lasagna, and for dessert, the finest bee sting cake I’ve yet to taste. Two weeks ago, pre-GWoBE, that wouldn’t have been much of a claim, but a lot can change in two weeks.
One year ago: Banana Bread Crepe Cake with Butterscotch
Two years ago: Blackberry and Coconut Macaroon Tart
Three years ago: Shakshuka, Easy Jam Tart and Classic Cobb Salad
Four years ago: Chocolate Caramel Crack(ers) and Simple Potato Gratin
Five years ago: Lemon Yogurt Anything Cake, Fork-Crushed Purple Potatoes and Whole Wheat Apple Muffins
Six years ago: Potato Rosemary Bread, Gnocchi with a Grater and The Tart Marg
Bee Sting Cake (Bienenstich)
Cobbled together from other yeasted cakes I’ve known and loved, much trial-and-error, and with some helpful guidance from a version translated from a German cookbook, link forthcoming (Thanks, Luisa!)
This is a tender, yeasted lightly sweetened cake with a honey-almond-caramel crunch topping. Needless to say, the topping is one of the best parts. This single-layer cake is split and filled with pastry cream; I used a thin amount (about 1 cup) but for a more traditional towering bienenstich (which are often 1:1:1 with halved cake layers and custard) you might want to double the filling. As for flavorings, I put some vanilla bean scrapings in the custard, but a 1/4 teaspoon of almond extract would be more fitting. Almond or vanilla extract or even a little lemon zest could be added to the cake layers, but I didn’t feel it was necessary.
How does this differ from other bee sting cakes out there? The cake itself has slightly more milk and slightly less flour than most recipes I saw; I preferred the more tender crumb. I opted for instant yeast (which doesn’t have to be proofed with warm liquids, hooray) to create a one-mixer-bowl cake, which means this is a breeze to put together. Many recipes use pudding mixes to create the filling, but I come from a family of custard junkies, and would never cut corners there. (But by all means feel free to if it’s all the same to you.) Finally, the cake is often baked in a square or rectangular pan (double it for a 9×13) and cut into squares.
Psst: I think this cake would be absolutely delicious as a lightly-sweet coffee/brunch/teatime cake without the pastry cream filling. The pastry cream just puts it over the top.
This cake is best the day it is made but if you absolutely must get a head start, you can make the pastry cream in advance and refrigerate it until needed, up to two days. You might need to whip it up slightly to make it smoothly spreadable again. You can also make the batter the night before, and let it do its final rise in the cake pan in the fridge overnight. Bring it back to room temperature before adding the almond topping and baking it.
Update on cornstarch versus flour in custard: A few people have mentioned a floury taste in the final pastry cream, so I am adding a suggestion that you might want to use cornstarch instead. I switch back and forth between the two in custards, but seeing as I find little difference in the result, originally suggested flour because more people have it around. If you’ve got both, opt for the cornstarch instead.
2 1/4 teaspoons (or 1 1/4-ounce package) instant yeast (not active dry) (also sold as rapid rise or bread machine yeast)
3/4 cup whole milk, ideally at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon table salt
2 large eggs, ideally at room temperature
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold is fine
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 cups (4 3/4 ounces) sliced almonds
Two pinches of sea salt
Pastry Cream Filling
1 cup whole milk
Seeds from 1/4 to 1/2 vanilla bean, 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3 large egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour or cornstarch [updated]
2 pinches sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold is fine
Make the cake: Combine all of the cake ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, stirring till the mixture becomes cohesive, then stirring for two minutes more. In a stand mixer, you can mix this with the paddle attachment (no dough hook needed; batter is thin) at low-medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down sides, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a draft-free place for 60 minutes, till it’s a little puffy. (It won’t fully double; this is fine.)
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Stir the batter a few times to deflate it slightly, then scrape it into the prepared pan and nudge it until it fills the bottom. Cover again with plastic wrap (don’t let it drape in and touch the top) and set aside for another 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the honey-almond-crunch topping: In a small or medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter, sugar, honey, cream and salt until the butter is melted. Bring to a simmer and let it boil for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mixture becomes a shade darker (it should go from a yellowish tone to a light beige), stirring frequently. Stir in the almonds. You will probably panic because this mixture is going to get very thick — but don’t. Set it aside to cool slightly.
Heat your oven to 350 degrees.
Once the cake has finished its second rise (again, it’s not going to rise a lot; don’t sweat it) use a small spoon to scoop out small amounts of the almond topping and distribute it over the top of the cake. It’s going to be a little pesky because it is firm, but I promise (see above: multiple photos of this process to ease your worry), even if it’s not perfectly evenly distributed, it will all smooth out gorgeously in the oven.
Bake cake on a foil-lined tray to catch any caramel drips, for 20 to 25 minutes, until top is bronzed and toothpick inserted into the center comes out batter-free. (Caramel on it is fine, and should be tasted.) Transfer to a cooling rack and let it sit in the pan for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, run a knife along the outside of the cake, making sure no places are stuck and invert the cake onto the cooling rack. If you’re like me, you’ll be positive that all of the almonds will fall off, but shockingly, in five rounds, I only lost one or two. Reverse it back onto another rack to finish cooling, replacing any almonds that fell off right back on top. They’ll merge back with the caramel as it cools; nobody will know.
Make pastry cream: Warm milk and vanilla bean scrapings (if using; if using an extract, don’t add yet) in a medium saucepan. Pour into a small bowl or cup, ideally with a spout. Set aside. Rinse saucepan with cool water, to rinse and cool; wipe to dry. Off the heat, whisk the yolks and sugar vigorously together for a minute, until pale and ribbony. Whisk in flour and salt until smooth. Drizzle in warm milk mixture, a spoonful at a time, whisking the whole time. Once you’ve add half of it, you can add the rest in a more steady stream, again whisking the whole time. Return the saucepan to the stove and cook on medium-high heat until it bubble, then simmer for one to two minutes, more whisking the whole time. Off the heat, whisk in the butter and any extracts you may be using. Cool custard completely before using, a process that can be sped up in the fridge or whisking it over a bowl over ice water.
Finally, assemble the cake: Once both the cake and pastry cream are fully cooled, place the cake on a serving platter and divide it horizontally into two layers with a long serrated knife. Spread pastry cream over bottom half. Place top half on pastry cream. Serve in wedges; watch out for bees. Refrigerate any leftovers.