Black Forest Cake: a chocolate, cherry and cream extravaganza
Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte has never faded in popularity in its homeland, and for good reason. It's simply better in Germany. But here's a recipe that's as good as being there.
written and photographed by Melissa Kronenthal
I MOVED to Germany for love, not food, though admittedly there are times I curse the twist of fate that forced me to choose between the two.
It's not that German food is bad, it's just a little dull — and very heavy. Cream sauces and crumb coatings are worn like badges of honor, and if you think the ubiquitous sausage is an outdated cliché, you haven't been to a public festivity there, where the absence of a bratwurst van would probably cause a riot.
Salads are dripping with thick, sugary dressings, and cooked vegetables are considered naked without a slab of bacon or a dollop of sour cream. There is, however, one food-related perk of German life that almost makes up for the rest. It can be experienced daily throughout the country at around 3 p.m., and it goes by the name "Kaffeezeit" or "coffee time." Far more than just an excuse to put a fresh batch of grounds in the auto-drip, this time takes on the trappings of sacred ritual. For most people, in fact, the coffee is incidental. What really matters is a bite or two of something sweet — and for Germans, that usually means cake.
Austrians may be more famous for theirs, but the tradition north of the Alps is every bit as rich. The variety alone is mind-boggling: sheet cakes, loaf cakes, fruit cakes, cream cakes, cheesecakes, yeast cakes, nut cakes and streusel cakes. Then there are tortes, which are like cakes but fancier.
For all the country's cake temptations, though, one seems to exist in a popularity class by itself. That would be the classic chocolate, cherry and cream extravaganza called Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, known to us as Black Forest Cake.
I know what you're thinking. Black Forest Cake, so retro! Like crêpes suzette only gaudier. Well, as it turns out, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte has never faded in popularity in its homeland, and for good reason. It's simply better there. Whereas American versions are dense and heavy, the cherries usually a tepid sweet variety, the original is a study in delicacy, restraint and subtle contrasts.
For one, sour cherries are used instead of sweet, their bright acidity electrifying each bite. Then there's the cake itself, a barely sweet, light-as-air cocoa sponge whose thirsty crumb absorbs liquid without getting soggy. Kirschwasser, the Black Forest's signature cherry firewater, provides moisture and its unique almond-like flavor; a simple whipped-cream frosting gilds the edges.
What I love most about this cake, and what I love about nearly all German cakes, is how light they are. This may seem surprising for a country that revels in richness, but rest assured, the reason has nothing to do with restraint. In fact it's the opposite: Light cakes are simply more conducive to second helpings. And here, I confess, I'm on board with local eating habits 100 percent.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Serves 8 to 12
2/3 cup cake flour
1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 large eggs, room temperature, separated
3/4 cup sugar, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (approx. 24-ounce) jar sour (Morello) cherries in light syrup, drained, syrup reserved
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup mascarpone cheese, cold
2 cups heavy cream, cold
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 tablespoons kirschwasser, divided
1 ounce dark chocolate, shaved with a knife
* For an alcohol-free cake, substitute sour cherry juice for the kirschwasser.
To make the sponge: Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with a round of buttered parchment paper.
1. Sift the flour and cocoa together into a small bowl. In another bowl combine the milk, oil and vanilla. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and half the sugar together until thick and lemon-colored, about 7 minutes. Using clean beaters, in a separate bowl whip the egg whites, remaining sugar and salt until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture.
2. Sift half the flour mixture over the eggs and fold in until no dry patches remain. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture. Whisk a large spoonful of the batter into the milk mixture to lighten, then gently fold this back into the batter.
3. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake until a tester inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and remove from the pan. Cool completely, then split horizontally into two even layers.
To make the compote: Set aside 12 cherries and 2 tablespoons of the cherry syrup. Boil remaining syrup until reduced to 1/2 cup. Add the remaining cherries and sugar, and simmer gently 10 minutes more. Stir reserved syrup and cornstarch together until smooth, then stir into cherries. Bring back to a boil and cook, stirring, until thick. Cool completely.
To assemble the torte: Beat the sugar, mascarpone, cream and vanilla together until stiff. Place the bottom cake layer on a platter and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons kirschwasser. Spread the cherry compote evenly on top followed by about ¼ of the whipped cream. Place the second sponge layer on top, cut side up, and sprinkle with the remaining kirschwasser. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining cream. If desired, reserve about a cup for decoration, and using a pastry bag fitted with the star tip, pipe 12 rosettes around the cake's edge. Top each with a reserved cherry and sprinkle chocolate shavings in the center.
Chill at least two hours before serving.