Along the historic streets of Vienna, tucked between imperial-era buildings and modern boutiques, countless bakeries and cafés proudly display neat slices of Sachertorte. Since Austria’s “king of cakes” was invented nearly 200 years ago, Vienna’s pastry chefs have perfected the art of spreading apricot jam over layers of dark chocolate sponge cake to achieve a fine balance of bittersweet flavor.
Vienna’s beloved Sachertorte is no ordinary dessert. It takes days to make and an afternoon to savor. And it’s meant to be eaten when the torte is within a precise temperature range, from 60 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Certified Master Baker Dieter Schorner, who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America, the best way to produce a Sachertorte is to heat the jam to boiling and let it absorb into the cake overnight. At that point the cake is ready to receive the glossy sheet of chocolate that seals in the moisture and flavor. The glaze sets up so firmly that when you touch it, you don’t even leave a fingerprint.
Eating Sachertorte in Vienna is an unhurried ritual, as well. You’ll rarely see patrons talking on cell phones in a café. Hours drift by as customers, reading alone or chatting with friends, sip coffee and nibble on cake. Waiters, often dressed in pressed black-and-white uniforms, bear silver trays, delivering slices of torte, each with a light cloud of schlag (slightly sweetened whipped cream), and hot coffee. “Chocolate is everywhere now, a common thing,” says chef Schorner, “but if you go back 200 years, anybody who made something with chocolate created romance. Today we have nostalgia for that simple time. Sachertorte represents a way of life without Google or Twitter, when people sat next to each other and simply had a beautiful conversation over cake.”
The Viennese pride in Sachertorte stems from the dessert’s origins. Schorner calls Sachertorte “the first popular chocolate cake in the world.” It was created for Prince Metternich in 1832 by Franz Sacher, a 16-year-old pastry apprentice in the royal bakery. He was decades ahead of his time: The chocolate industry began developing in earnest only in the mid-1800s, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that chocolate cakes became commonplace. Sacher’s son Eduard, who served as an apprentice at the Demel pastry shop, refined his father’s recipe and took it with him when he opened the ornate Hotel Sacher in 1867.
Given the cake’s status as the culinary icon of Vienna, it’s not surprising that Sachertorte was the subject of a lengthy legal battle between Hotel Sacher and Demel. Both had legitimate connections to the Sacher family. In 1955, the Commercial Court ruled Hotel Sacher’s version closest to Franz’s pioneering recipe and granted the hotel the exclusive right to identify its cake as the “Original Sacher-Torte.”
Tasting an authentic Sachertorte therefore requires a visit to Vienna. Many locals still regard Hotel Sacher (Philharmonikerstrasse 4, 43/1-51-456-0) as the standard-bearer, and Demel (Kohlmarkt 14, 43/1-535-17170) serves its classic in a traditional formal setting. Other Viennese will tell you it’s best to enjoy Sachertorte in a homier atmosphere, such as that of Café Landtmann (Dr. Karl Lueger-Ring 4, 43/1- 24-100-100), a gathering spot for politicians and lawyers, or the quirky, bohemian Café Alt Wien (Bäckerstrasse 9, 43/1-512-52-22), frequented by artists and writers. If you can’t make it to Austria, you can easily make a rendition of Sachertorte in a few hours at home. No matter where you eat the torte, make sure it is accompanied by dollops of schlag to delicately moisten each bite. A
(SERVES 12 to 16)
Adapted from chef Dieter Schorner’s recipe.
12 tbsp unsalted butter, softened 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
8 eggs, separated
11⁄2 tsp vanilla extract
7 ounces dark chocolate, melted
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 1⁄8 cup cake flour, sifted
1 10-ounce jar apricot jam
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour a 10-inch springform pan.
2. In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, cream the softened butter and the confectioner’s sugar together until light and fluffy. Incorporate the egg yolks, one at a time. Add the vanilla extract.
3. Add the melted chocolate, taking care that it’s warm, not hot.
4. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites while gradually adding the sugar until medium peaks form.
5. Fold the egg-white mixture into the butter mixture. Then gently fold the cake flour into the new mixture.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed with a finger, and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.
7. Let the cake cool completely.
8. In a saucepan, heat the jam to the boiling point.
9. Slice the cooled cake in half, making two discs of equal size.
10. Working on top of a cooling rack set over a sheet pan, spread the hot jam over the bottom disc. Top with the second disc and cover the top and sides of the entire cake with the rest of the jam.
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp light corn syrup
10 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. In a saucepan, combine the cream and corn syrup. Bring to a simmer.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate. Do not stir.
3. Cover the pan and let it sit about 10 minutes.
4. Add the vanilla extract. Stir until smooth and glossy. Cool until lukewarm; this will thicken the glaze and make it easier to apply.
5. Spread the glaze over the top and sides of the cake.
6. Let the cake set for about 30 minutes.
7. Serve the torte cool, but not cold, with fresh, slightly sweetened whipped cream.
Photo by Michael Turek. This appeared in the May/June 2011 issue.