Birthday bake #2: A cake fit for an Emperor

After the bright and breezy Sunken Cherry Cake, something altogether more grown-up and seductive – Altwiener Schokoladentorte.

Altwiener Schokoladenkuche

Altwiener Schokoladenkuche: note the chapter heading, top right: Big Cake-Nostalgia. That’s what this cake is all about. That and chocolate, apricot jam, hazelnuts, coconut and sherry.

Those lovely compound nouns need some unpacking. Schokoladentorte is really not that hard:

Schokoladentorte = Schokoladen Torte = Chocolate torte

Not a cake – a torte. That means barely any flour, and layers of tasty goodness in between and around the cake – sorry, I mean torte – layers. In some tortes these layers are buttery, creamy fillings. In this cake it’s apricot jam which goes unbelievably well with chocolate.

Altwiener is a bit harder to unpack, because it’s not about the individual words, it’s about a whole host of associations that go with the individual words. Let’s start with the basics, and then embellish:

Altwiener Alt + Wiener = Old Viennese

Old Viennese? Eh? An old man with bad teeth, little round glasses and bow tie? A hotdog that has been left to wrinkle at the back of the fridge?

Old cold sausage

No, no, no. It’s like this.

‘Old’ as in the good old days, times that have passed forever and are out of reach, but can just be glimpsed in the rear view mirror as you turn the bend, in the faded photos in a shoe box in the attic. The good old days when life was comfortable and secure. People, horses and dogs were more elegant, and had better manners. Houses and cars were beautiful and things were made of wood, stone and metal, not plastic. In spring the birds sang, in summer the sun shone, in autumn all the trees turned to bronze and gold, and the winter was frosty and blue…Vienna as in, well, Vienna. The capital of Austria, and once – in the good old days – capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which for a monarchy, and a nineteenth century empire, was not all bad – certainly an impressive number of different nationalities, languages and religions rubbed along reasonably well between the borders most of the time.

The Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Austro-Hungarian empire.

I have never been to Vienna and I was born long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was finished (at the end of the First World War) but I have read some Joseph Roth (try The Radetzky March), I have been to Budapest and Prague, and whether it’s accurate or not I have a powerful idea of what it might have been like. In my mind’s eye there are long avenues lined with trees and wide pavements. There are tall white palaces, hotels and apartment blocks. Parks with fountains, low hedges, gravel walks and flower beds. There might be a brass band.

A park like this.

A park like this.

There is certainly the Spanish Riding School where the riders and horses show off the elegance and good manners.

Ballotade

And there are cafes. Cafes with high ceilings, gilt mirrors, small marble tables, long banquettes, waiters in white aprons, overgrown pot plants and people talking and drinking coffee, having a brandy and talking, having a cigarette and talking, and certainly having cake. Or torte.

Officers sitting in a lovely garden eating cake. In the good old days.

Officers sitting in a lovely garden eating cake. In the good old days.

An Austrian lady sitting alone in her apartment, looking forward to meeting up with her friends at the cafe later and eating some cake.

An Austrian lady sitting alone in her apartment, looking forward to meeting up with her friends at the cafe later and eating some cake.

So those two medium-to-long words, Altwiener and Schokoladentorte, convey many images and ideas beyond their basic components. And so it is with the cake (or torte). Because – and don’t take my word for this bake it yourself – the flavours of this cake really do capture and convey what the name suggests. It’s a rather delicious form of time travel.

Cake the Second: “Altwiener Schokoladentorte”

[NB You need to let the cake stand overnight to dry a little before you fill and cover it so unfortunately this is not a cake you can bake on a whim.]

Ingredients for one 26cm diameter spring-form cake tin:
8 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon [top quality] vanilla essence
pinch of salt
180g caster sugar
8 egg whites
100g biscuit crumbs [I use Bonne Maman galettes which come wrapped in threes – you can crush them with a rolling pin before you take them out of the wrapper to avoid losing precious tasty crumbs]
100g grated dark chocolate
100g ground hazel nuts
butter for the tin

Filling and topping
2 shot glasses of sherry [+ a glass for the cook]
300g apricot jam [take any large bits out and stir until smooth]
100g grated dark chocolate
1 egg
200g icing sugar
60g creamed coconut
[the kind that comes in a block and looks far too much like soap for something you are going to eat]

Lightly grease the cake tin with butter. Preheat the oven to 180C [reduce to 170C for a fan oven].

Beat the egg yolks with the vanilla, salt and half the sugar until they are foaming.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form a stiff snow [in English we say peaks – I prefer snow]. Bit by bit sprinkle over the remaining sugar, and keep beating until it’s all mixed in. [Literally:] It should form a knife-firm ice-snow [i.e. it should be like icy snow, so stiff that you could stand a knife up in it].

Fold the ice-snow into the egg yolk mixture. Stir in the biscuit crumbs, grated chocolate and nuts. [Do this quickly but gently].

Pour the mixture into the cake tin, lightly smooth it, and bake it on the second shelf from the bottom for 30-40 minutes.

Place the torte base on a rack and leave to cool overnight.

Cut the cake into three layers. [I have only ever managed two.]

Sprinkle each layer with sherry. Spread jam on two of the layers, and place one on top of the other, with the third layer on top.

Melt the chocolate in a bain-marie, and leave it to cool a little. Stir in the egg and icing sugar. Melt the coconut and stir it into the chocolate drop by drop. It should become creamy. Spread the topping over the top and sides of the torte. With a wide knife raise the topping into a wave pattern on the top of the cake.

Let the topping set completely before cutting the cake.

[Eat from your best china, with coffee.]

Emperor Franz-Joseph in hunting clothes.

The Emperor Franz-Joseph dressed for hunting. After a long day in the forest he probably had a nice piece of chocolate cake to cheer himself up before dressing for dinner.

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The Twelfth Night Diet, or, How Baking Elisen Lebkuchen Could Kickstart Your Year

This is a Christmas recipe, but I make no apology for posting it today. Today is 6 January, or Twelfth Night so a) Christmas isn’t over yet, b) as it’s Twelfth Night I shall turn the world upside down and do as I please. The doing as I please part will include making a tenuous claim that baking these deeply delicious, nutty, fruity, gingery, chocolatey, and – yes – sugary biscuits could help you lose weight. So there.

Twelfth Night revels

This is what we should be doing, not sitting around worrying about work on Monday

You have almost certainly had Lebkuchen of one sort or another. The term encompasses a wide variety of gingery German Christmas biscuits. The Elisen Lebkuche is the Queen of Lebkuchen. Her capital is at Nürnberg (also spelt Nuremberg), so they are also known as Nürnberger Lebkuchen.

Nurnberg Nuremberg

The lovely city of Nurnberg. Please ignore the gibbetty things in the foreground.

While the good people of northern Europe have been baking spicy, gingery biscuits to celebrate the good times since they finally got the trade routes sorted in the middle ages, this particular variety of Lebkuchen was first sold in the early 1800s. I have seen many claims on the Internet that  Elisen Lebkuchen were named after a gingerbread maker’s beautiful daughter Elise and not one shred of substantiation but it’s a nice story, so let’s go along with it.

The distinguishing feature of these biscuits is they contain no flour, a lot of nuts, and generous quantities of mixed peel and my personal favourite, crystallised ginger. They are simultaneously chewy and melt-in-the-mouth gorgeous. They are so good and keep so well that I would like you to very seriously consider doubling the quantities below.

The ‘real’ biscuits from Nürnberg come in beautiful tins and boxes and have the magnificent gravitas that only a food that’s been made by a guild of incredibly serious bakers for hundreds of years can carry off. This recipe doesn’t offer you that kind of authenticity but it does present you with the opportunity to eat Lebkuchen any time of year. If you wanted to make them less Christmassy you could use more crystallized ginger and less mixed peel.

Lebkuchen UFO Nuremberg 1561

If you Google ‘nuremberg 1561’ you will find a number of websites claiming that this news sheet records a flight of UFOs passing over Nurnberg. Those aren’t UFOs you crazy people – they’re quite obviously Lebkuchen.

So here’s the diet part: After you’ve made the mixture you have to wait 24 hours to bake these little beauties. And after that you can’t eat them straightaway. In fact you have to wait another TEN DAYS. I hereby challenge you to go the whole eleven days without eating anything sugary. With Elisen Lebkuchen to look forward to at the end that should be easy. Says the Lady of Biscuit Misrule.

Elisen Lebkuchen (makes 30ish)

250g caster sugar
3 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla essence
100g chopped hazelnuts
160g ground almonds (ideally ground at home in the blender, so they are gritty rather than powdery)
25g walnuts, roughly chopped
1 tbsp. crystallised ginger, finely chopped (if you are a ginger fiend like me leave some lumps)
100g mixed peel, finely chopped (or whizzed but not pulverised in the blender)
½ tsp. cinnamon
⅓ tsp. each of ground cloves, coriander, allspice, nutmeg and cardamom
finely grated zest of ½ lemon and ½ orange
rice paper cut into 8cm circles (you will need about 30 – make 20 at first then see how many more you need)
1 apple
200g dark chocolate

Beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla essence until the eggs are foaming and all the sugar has completely dissolved. Then stir in the nuts, ginger, spices, mixed peel and grated orange and lemon zest.

spicy mix

Stir for just long enough to combine the ingredients. The mixture will look runny. That’s fine. You’ll see.

Cover the bowl and leave it in the fridge for 24 hours.

Next day preheat the oven to 200 C. Arrange some of your rice paper circles on a baking tray. You need to leave at least 2 cm between circles, so you won’t get many on a tray.

paper circles

These are 5 cm circles. They were too small. Go for 8 cm, maybe 12 cm.

After a day in the fridge the biscuit mix should be nice and firm – more like dough. Take a large pinch and roll it into a ball. It should be about 7 cm in diameter – so when you set it on a piece of rice paper there’s half a centimetre of paper left showing all the way round.

When you’ve filled a tray pop it in the oven. Leave the Lebkuchen in for 12-15 minutes until they are light brown. It’s very important not to overdo them – the middle needs to stay soft and sticky. Transfer to a wire rack to cool and load up another tray. Repeat till all your mix is used up.

baked

When the biscuits are room temperature take a large piece of greaseproof paper and line an airtight box or tin. Put the biscuits in and tuck the paper over so they’re loosely wrapped.

Now – weird but true – lay the peel of an apple on the paper. This helps keep the biscuits moist and will eventually make them smell like a very beautiful medieval orchard.

biscuits and peel

Seal up the tin, put the tin in the cupboard, close the cupboard and forget they are there for ten whole days.

Almost there.

To finish them off gently melt the chocolate and use it to coat the biscuits. Wait a bit longer for the chocolate to set.

Elisen Lebkuchen

And then devour.