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Sachertorte, a sophisticated cake for the Austrian sybarite in you

The politics of food have long being explored by historians. Food speaks the language of power, opulence and manifests the culinary exchanges that have been the consequence of commerce, migrations, conquests and alliances.

Few European cities such as Vienna hold in its very same name all sorts of connections with iconic opera singers, painters, composers, writers, thinkers and of course very opulent aristocrats who for centuries financed and enjoyed Vienna’s thriving cultural life.

Only in Vienna politics, power and money can acquire sophisticated and edible manifestations, the quintessentially Austrian Sachertorte is just one of them. There’s also the Esterházy torte, Linzertorte the Punschkrapferl, and the very recent  Ritz-Carlton Torte.

They all have chocolate, at least two layers, almonds in some form and some have apricots or orange. They’re filled with butter cream or nougat and are topped either with a chocolate ganache or sugar icing.

But let’s get to the sweet core of this article: the Sachertorte.

Graf_Clemens_MetternichAs per usual, there’s controversy and bitter disputes around this creation. But all versions agreed that Prince Clemens Lothar Wensel Metternich, chancellor of Austria from 1816 to 1907 (pictured on the left) wanted to impress some guests and commissioned a special dinner to be made with a spectacular pièce de résistance for dessert.

And although we will never be sure if it was either the young Jewish patissier Franz Sacher the sole author of this most excellent dessert, often called the king of Viennese cakes, or if he should only be accountable for re interpreting Gartler-Hickmann’s cake that had been around in Vienna since the mid 1700’s.

Here’s Monsieur Sacher and his magnificent moustache.

Be as it may, the Sachertorte is as emblematic as Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and we shouldn’t need too many reasons to invest ourselves in a culinary time-travel quest to recreate a cake that has long delighted people, so go ahead and make any day Sachertorte day iven if it isn’t December the 5th.

The anatomy of desire.

The Sachertorte is a two tier chocolate sponge cake, filled and coated with apricot jam and covered with a dark and shiny chocolate ganache and has either “Sachertorte” or “Sacher” written in lighter milk chocolate ganache.

It is typically served with unsweetened whipped cream, accompanied with a strong cup of coffee.

Although the sponge is allegedly made with a thick batter of ground almonds, eggs, sugar, vanilla, butter and chocolate, there are some variations including a mix of wheat flour and ground almonds to lighten the structure.

The sponge is made the same way as a genoise which means that its preparation involves a bain-marie, meaning that the chocolate has to be melted in a bowl over boiling water, then the butter, vanilla, sugar and egg yolks are added.

Egg whites must be whisked separately and then incorporated to add air and lightness to a rather thick and rich mix.

The following recipe uses the latter version with a mix of wheat flour and ground almonds.

Here’s your ticket to embark on a gastronomic trip, you’ll only need:

  • 140g good qulity dark chocolate
  • 140g butter, softened
  • 115g/4oz sugar (I used splenda, you can use splenda or stevia)
  • ½ tsp vanilla exrtact
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 4 eggs. Separate yolks from whites
  • 85g ground almonds
  • 55g strong flour

 For the icing:

Sit a bowl over a medium pan with boiling water, put the chocolate in it and when it begins to melt add the butter and sugar, mix gently with a silicone spatula, after some minutes add the yolks and the vanilla extract, sieve the flour and add the ground almonds. Retire form the fire and continue mixing.  

 Pre heat the oven at a low heat, 180C will be fine.

 In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until forming soft peaks, incorporate them to the batter by mixing them with circular movements trying to keep as much volume of the beaten whites as possible.

 Pour on a greased and dusted cake tin (a medium average of 23cm will work fine) and bake for 40 minutes.

Once is done, remove and let cool completely.

Slice the cake to obtain two equally thick tiers and fill with apricot jam.

Then lightly coat both tiers with jam to help the icing sticking to the cake.

Again in a bain-marie melt the cream and dark chocolate for the ganache, when it’s completely melted and in a liquid but velvety stage retire and pour on the cake to cover the top and sides.

You can place the cake on a rack and have a mould below to catch the dripping ganache or be patient and careful and spoon-and-spread to cover it al. (I usually go for that option)

Let it sit while you prepare the second small amount of milk chocolate ganache, when the mix is ready pout in a piping bag and write either the “Sacher” or “Sachertorte” on the cake.

Let it set. Serve with coffee.

Some more facts:

Apricots had been long enjoyed in the Armenians and its introduction to Europe via Greece is believed to have taken place around the year 100BC by Alexander the Great. And like pomegranates, sweet varieties of apricots were first domesticated by the Persians and were commonly known as zard-ālū.

You might also be interested in the review of: “At the Kings Table. Royal Dining Through the Ages” .

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