I made a Sacher-Torte yesterday. I'd never made it before. "Oh, that's nice . . . but what exactly is Sacher-Torte anyway?" Perhaps you're asking that question . . . if so, it's a good one.
I'd never even entertained the thought of making this classic dessert until about a month ago, so I wasn't at all familiar with its particulars myself until just recently. I began reading about this Viennese cake after having chosen it as the subject for a research paper and baking assignment in my cookery class. Now, having wallowed a bit in its history, its preparation process, and quite literally in its ingredients, I can understand the magical effect it apparently had on those aristocratic Austrians who first tasted it in 1832. I can see, unequivocally, that it is not just another pastry.
It's been called the world's most famous cake, and it certainly is one of the oldest and most enduring cakes that we know of. Besides having a rich history, which I'll elaborate on a bit in a moment, it's a delightfully adult dessert. Your children won't be clamoring for pieces of this treat, and that's going to be just fine with you since it will mean more for the grown-ups. The bittersweet chocolate in the delicate batter, beautifully echoed in the silky ganache poured over the top, won't bring kids running. It's not sweet enough for them, not colorful enough, not gooey or crunchy or chewy enough. But it's perfect for you.
Only a modest slice is needed. A slice that has allowed itself to be cut so perfectly . . . a slice that nestles on its porcelain plate in a subdued fashion, patiently awaiting the soft dollop, or piped curlicue, of unsweetened whipped cream that has traditionally accompanied it for over 175 years. It was, in fact, the Sacher-Torte's very simplicity that made it so popular to begin with, and what a curious beginning it had.
It seems astounding to think that a sixteen-year old boy created such a charming and elegant dessert, but that's just what happened. Franz Sacher was an apprentice chef in the kitchen of Prince Metternich, an Austrian State Chancellor, in Vienna. The Prince was known for his demanding nature, and on this particular day he lived up to his reputation, ordering that a brand new dessert be produced under an exceptionally short deadline. Sacher's mentoring chef was not present to take on the task, so the young man did the best he could with what he had on hand. The torte he created was elegantly bare of adornment, relatively speaking, and delicious in its pure simplicity.
That was the start of something big.
Even today, the Hotel Sacher, arguably one of the world's most luxurious and historic hotels, is the designated purveyor of the torte. They've got an elaborate website devoted almost entirely to the Sacher-Torte alone! They will cheerfully ship it to you, wherever you are. Their longtime Viennese competitor, as far as the torte goes, is called Demel's. They have their own version as well, which they will tell you is just slightly different from the Hotel Sacher's. Among the lucky individuals who've tasted both versions, some choose the Hotel's while others opt for Demel's. (In fact, if I may digress for a moment, for an interesting item on Demel's new cafe in NYC, you might want to read this recent item on Tish Boyle's blog. I think it was serendipity that made the timing of her post on Demel's match so well with my need to make a Sacher-torte, and coincidence that it was her recipe I'd already picked before I even knew she'd done a post on Demel's! Her blog, Sweet Dreams, is one of my favorites.)
So valued was the Sacher-Torte to Franz's ancestors, as well as to the Viennese public, that it became the object of a 20th-century court case that dragged on for years, having to do with rights of ownership, the originality of the recipe, and so on. Some say it's the only cake that's ever been the subject of litigation. I don't know if that's true, but what a cute claim to fame -- The Cake that Went to Court!
Pretty impressive history for a little cake, hmm? I thought so too.
So, in light of all that, I was kind of hyped up to give this recipe a test-drive. I pored over quite a few recipe versions, in cookbooks and on the web, in trying to decide which one to try out. It was Tish Boyle's recipe, from The Cake Book, that I settled upon. I was hard-pressed to choose between her version and Carole Walter's from the book Great Cakes. Both were very clear and detailed, to be sure, and that's a large part of what I needed. But since I know from experience that Tish's recipes are reliably delicious . . . and I don't say that lightly . . . I picked hers. (I'm talkin' DELICIOUS delicious, you know? Mmm hmm.)
Below, then, is a slightly reworded, and slightly reorganized, version of Tish's recipe, with my usual commentary thrown in. (I made the cake twice in the same day because my first one didn't turn out as I'd liked; the second one was great and my helpful hints reflect what I focused on in order to improve the results of that second cake, so I assure you they're not gratuitous remarks!)
It's a lovely dessert, it really is . . . one that would be nice to serve to guests who appreciate confections other than rainbow-colored ice cream, Rice Krispy Treats, and Nutter Butters (though I have nothing, per se, against those whimsical items . . . to each his own . . . as long as you make mine Sacher-torte).
(Adapted from Tish Boyle's The Cake Book. For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees; position a rack in the middle of oven. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9" springform pan. Line the bottom with a parchment paper circle; grease the paper.
For the cake:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate , chopped (use really good chocolate; don't skimp here, bakers!)
10 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened (not warm, but also not the least bit cold!)
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar (I think you'd better sift it!)
6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature (super important re the temp; no cold eggs!)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 cup superfine sugar (if I were you, I wouldn't try to substitute regular granulated sugar)
3/4 cup cake flour (I think you'd better sift this too!)
For the apricot filling:
1 cup apricot preserves
2 Tbsp. water
For the bittersweet chocolate-ganache glaze:
6 oz. of high quality bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1) Prepare the cake first
Put the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl placed over a pot of barely simmering water. Heat the chocolate, stirring frequently, until completely melted. Remove the bowl from the pot and set it aside to cool (I think you'd better not let it cool to anything more than warmish room- temperature--seriously--or you're headed for trouble).
In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until creamy, for about 1 minute. Add in the confectioners' sugar gradually, and beat on high speed until light, for about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the egg yolks in one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the melted chocolate and the vanilla extract; mix until blended.
In a separate, clean mixer bowl (it's always at this point in a cake recipe that I thank my lucky stars I have two KitchenAid mixers--one big and one smaller), using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the salt at medium speed until foamy. Add in the cream of tartar and beat at medium-high speed until the whites just begin to form soft peaks. While continuing to beat, add in the superfine sugar one tablespoon at a time, then beat on high speed until medium stiff peaks form.
Using a rubber spatula, fold half of the beaten egg whites gently into the chocolate mixture. Sift half of the flour over the batter and fold it in. Sift the remaining flour over that, and fold it in until it's almost but not completely blended. Scrape over the remaining egg whites and gently fold them in until blended. Scrape the batter into your prepared pan and smooth the top.
Bake for approximately 40 to 45 minutes (mine baked in just under 35 minutes, but that's to be expected; it's my hyperactive oven), until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake completely in the pan, on a wire rack (don't even loosen the springform until the whole thing is cool--don't cheat here or you might be sorry!).
2) Prepare the filling
In a small saucepan, combine the preserves and water; cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble; stir constantly! Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a bowl, pressing it through with a rubber spatula.
3) Prepare the chocolate-ganache glaze
In the bowl of a food processor, process the chocolate until finely ground. Leave it in the bowl.
In a small saucepan, bring the cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the ground chocolate to the pan. Stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the glaze is smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Transfer the glaze to a small bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it cool for about ten minutes; it needs to be a little warmish to pour over the cake, but not too much.
4) Assemble the cake
Run a thin knife around the edge of the cake pan to loosen it. Carefully remove the side of the pan. Invert the cake onto a cardboard cake round and gently remove the bottom of the pan, as well as the parchment circle. Using a serrated knife, or a cake leveler, cut the cake horizontally into 2 even layers. Handling it carefully so it doesn't break, set the top layer aside.
Using a pastry brush, spread one-third of the strained preserves over the bottom layer. Top with the remaining cake layer, and brush it, and the sides of the cake, with the remaining preserves. Refrigerate the cake, uncovered, while you make the chocolate glaze.
5) Glaze the cake
Put the chilled cake, still sitting on its cardboard cake round, on a wire rack set over a baking sheet.
Slowly pour the glaze onto the center (make sure it's the center!) of the cake. Use a small offset metal spatula to smooth the glaze over the top and sides of the cake, letting the excess glaze drip onto the baking sheet. (You won't have much time to do this before the glaze starts to cool, so work quickly and carefully and don't fuss with it. Just a few deliberate and gentle swipes over the top and along the sides should suffice. Trust me!)
If you like, pipe the name "Sacher" on the top. Or, if you're like me and you're hesitant to pipe it directly onto that perfectly smooth surface, make yourself a little chocolate medallion and pipe the word onto that. I took a couple tablespoons of dark chocolate that I'd melted, spread it to about the size of a large cookie on a piece of wax paper laying on a flat plate, and put that in the freezer for no more than five minutes. When it came out, I used a round scallop-edged cookie cutter to cut out a round "medallion" that I then used as the base for my writing. I wrote Sacher in cursive and put a little flourish under the word. The medallion is traditionally placed in an offset position, near the edge of the cake as pictured. That's how they do it at the Hotel Sacher at least (just check their website and you'll see what I mean). Be careful when placing the medallion on the cake, as the chocolate ganache stays soft for quite a while. Ever so delicately, set the medallion on it; don't try to push it in.
And voila! You have a splendid Sacher-torte . . . aren't you proud of yourself? I'll bet you can't wait to cut it. Take some pictures of it first, though, and don't forget to serve a little whipped cream next to each plated slice. Your fellow diners will thank you.
P.S. Oh, before I forget, I need to note that I left one component out of Tish's recipe, just in order to retain the more traditional nature of the dessert. I did not include a rum and sugar syrup that she brushes on her layers to add moisture. It sounds yummy, but I needed to stay closer to the original version. If I were to make this again, I think I might use the rum syrup, or maybe make a similar syrup with Kahlua, and then use raspberry preserves along with that on the cake instead of apricot preserves.
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