Vienna’s coffee houses are places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill”. So reads the UNESCO description of these institutions. Time and space may satisfy a Viennese philosopher but for most, a wedge of cake complements caffeine far better, and none more so than sachertorte.
According to legend the cake dates back to 1832 when Prince von Metternich, Austria’s leading statesman, ordered dessert for an official dinner. The task fell to Franz Sacher, a 16-year-old Jewish apprentice. His solution was a chocolate cake – a flavour far less common then than now – and so the sachertorte was created.
It was his son, Eduard, who turned it into a national trademark; a chocolate sponge, laced with apricot jam, enveloped in a glassy chocolate icing, accompanied by a good dollop of schlag (whipped cream). He perfected his recipe while working at the Demel bakery before founding the Hotel Sacher in 1876. His ties to both establishments led to a legal battle – “the sweet seven years’ war”– over which could claim the right to use the word “original” in describing the cake. The differences were minute, the arguments fierce. The Demel sachertorte had only one layer of apricot jam, under the icing; the hotel’s had a layer of preserve in the middle, too. In the end the hotel won: their confections now bear a chocolate seal, and elevated price, to prove it.
For a cake that has provoked such bitter dispute, it is surprisingly austere. In the hands of a novice it can be dry, the whipped cream as much a necessity as an indulgence. But its charm lies in its simplicity and the restraint of its flavours.
Recipes abound, although none is licensed or official. The Sacher Cook Book probably comes close to the original. Start with chocolate, melted over simmering water. Cream together butter and sugar before beating in egg yolks. Ponder flavouring with vanilla or espresso, both of which enhance the chocolate flavour without detracting from it. Stir in the chocolate, then mix in the sieved flour. Whisk separated egg whites to peaks that are shiny but not dry. Consider adding sugar. Loosen the chocolate with a spoonful of egg whites before folding the two together. Bake your cake. The apricot jam should be sieved, to spread appropriately thinly. In this recipe the icing consists of chocolate, sugar and water. Others make the topping richer, using cream or butter to create a ganache rather than a purist’s glaze. Inscribe with the word “Sacher” and serve with whipped cream.•