Austrian Anecdotes: A Better Sachertorte

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You can make almost anything look Instagrammable with some angles, a cute plate, and filters!

Missing that dessert you had during your travels? Bake the vacay.

If you read recipe blogs, you’ll know that there are those blogposts that look so perfect and magazine-ready that you just have to sigh. How can someone with such impeccable skills possibly exist? you wonder, and how can they be so good at what they do? They make everything look so easy and you just know that if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to do everything perfectly too. And off you go, inspired, to recreate this creme de la creme of a recipe.

Well, all I can tell you is this is not going to be one of those posts.

If you cook or bake, you probably also know who Julia Child, master of American French cooking is. One of the reasons why her TV show was so appealing is that they didn’t edit out the messy bits. So if she dropped an egg, or if she broke a cake layer, her millions of viewers saw it. But far from being embarrassed, she insisted that “No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.” While she never did drop a cut of meat on the floor and dust it off, she certainly did flop, instead of flip, a potato pancake:

And she just plopped the potato back into the pan and reminded us that “You can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen. Who is going to see? But the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.”

Social media scrubs out much of that vulnerability today. Everything is perfectly posed and shot, with no mistakes or messes. Even if it took 73 angles and photos to get that shot, editing hides all the cracks and problems. A perfect life begins to be something we all think we should have, because social media tells us it’s possible.

When I decided I wanted to recreate Sachertorte at home, I fell into the trap of thinking that everything would be perfect. The original Sachertorte, as it turns out, is decidedly imperfect – while the presentation and experience of eating Sachertorte in the cafe of Hotel Sacher is impeccable, the actual cake itself is a bit dry and tough. Much as I still enjoyed checking off a line on my bucket list, it’s a cake crafted for another time in culinary history when shelf-stability, not flavor, was key.

Das Original Sachertorte
Das Original Sachertorte, with exquisite presentation…and not quite perfect taste!

So, I reasoned, I could improve on it. Given how famous this cake is (its history features a closely guarded secret recipe, a dazzling debut at the Viennese imperial court in 1832, and, as all truly great inventions must, litigation), I knew someone had to have found a way to make the cake a bit sweeter and more tender without losing its essence. And Baking Sense didn’t disappoint:

As we learned in the Science of Cake Batter Series, a cake batter has structure builders and tenderizers. Since the Sacher cake was a little dry, I needed to up the tenderizers and reduce the structure builders. Sugar is a tenderizer, so I increased the sugar from 3/4 cup in the original recipe to a full cup. I reduced the eggs (structure builder) from 9 to 8 and reduced the other structure builder (flour) from 1 1/4 cups to 1 cup.

Amazing.

The recipe didn’t look that long or hard to follow, so I happily told Dan to expect chocolate cake in a couple hours. It’s a pretty great thing to be able to say, I’ll tell you. Who doesn’t love chocolate cake?!

Six hours later, we had chocolate cake, cake truffles, and some pretty snazzy instagram photos. But oh, what a six hours it was!

A non-exhaustive list of all my “oops!” moments:

  • Couldn’t find cake flour at the nearest grocery and was too lazy to walk to the next one. Instead of substituting all-purpose + cornstarch as recommended by the internet, I jumped the gun and just did a direct all-purpose substitute. Oops.
  • Put the egg whites in too small of a bowl so I had to be very careful while whipping to soft peaks. Empress Sisi used to wash her hair in cognac and egg whites, but somehow I don’t think she would have done it via mixer and flying egg whites. Oops.
  • Decided to use an 8 inch cake pan instead of a 9 inch, but I didn’t account for increased height and my cake had a muffin top! Should have used two pans, oops.
  • Even worse, I misjudged the doneness of the cake and took it out about 20 minutes too early and didn’t realize until I looked at it an hour later and the middle had sunk and it was all gooey in the middle. I had to put it back in the oven for another 40 minutes or so, which made the edges a bit dry. In my defense, it did pass the toothpick test. Oooops.
  • I still haven’t gotten a baking rack so I ended up using a roasting rack to cool and frost the cake. I would not suggest this as the gaps are quite wide and the weight of the cake can make this an issue. Also, grill indents on cake? Oops!
  • My sugar solution was too hot when I combined it with the chocolate, and my chocolate icing seized and turned into a grainy ball of disaster! I ended up using a combination of corn syrup and heavy cream to smooth it out. Oops.
  • No icing spatula or bag. Used a bread knife and a teeny jar spatula, and a Ziploc with the tip cut off. Oops?
  • Also, my dishwasher broke in the middle of all of this. Not my oops, but eek nonetheless!

 

 

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One of the biggest lessons I learned while I was traveling solo in Austria is that even if things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. And in fact, it’s inevitable that things will go wrong, because that’s life. What matters is how you learn from and deal with it. And in my case, I ran late, took the bus the wrong way, and missed my train to Budapest. I was kicking myself awhile for that one, I can tell you that.

But you know what? It turned out okay. I took the next train in two hours and got to spend some time wandering around the train station and even helped another tourist out. In the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t a big deal at all.

Kitchen messes, as it turns out, are pretty similar. Most of these mistakes can be attributed to not following the directions precisely, or equipment/ingredient issues, and it’s also true that baking mistakes are harder to fix than cooking mistakes. But with a little ingenuity, a few shoulder shrugs, and a lot of determination, you, like Julia Child, can make it work. You can learn to do it by turning your dry cake scraps into cake truffles, and turning your seized icing into ganache. And you can make something that, while not quite the perfection you thought it would be, is still pretty dang delicious.

Look at this cake. It’s not perfect.

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It’s better.

Better Sachertorte

Recipe from Baking Sense
Prep Time: 1 hr
Cook Time: 30 min
Total Time: 1 hr, 30 min
(Presumably, this is if you follow the directions better than I did.)

Ingredients

Cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar, divided in half
8 large eggs, separated, room temperature
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp table salt
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate, melted

Assembly and Icing:
1 1/2 cups (18oz) apricot preserves
1/4 cup (2 oz) dark rum
8 oz semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup (4 oz) unsalted butter
2 Tbsp (1.4 oz) corn syrup

Baking the Cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F regular or 325°F convection
  2. Line the bottom of a 9 cake pan with parchment paper. Do not butter the pan.
  3. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  4. Cream the butter and 1/2 the granulated sugar until light and aerated.
  5. Add the egg yolks and vanilla, mix until combined.
  6. Mix in the sifted dry ingredients, don’t over mix.
  7. Whisk the chocolate into the batter.
  8. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks.
  9. Slowly add the remaining sugar and whip to stiff peaks.
  10. Fold the egg whites into the batter in 3rds, mixing just until there are no streaks of egg white visible.
  11. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the middle of the cake springs back when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 45-50 minutes.
  12. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan then turn out onto a cooling rack until completely cooled (see note).

Assembly

  1. Stir the rum into the apricot preserves.
  2. Using a serrated knife, trim the top of the cake so it’s flat.
  3. Split the cake into 2 layers.
  4. Spread 1/3 of the apricot mixture onto the bottom layer and place the top layer onto the cake.
  5. Warm the remaining apricot preserves in the microwave for 30 seconds. Strain the preserves into a clean bowl to remove the chunky bits of fruit.
  6. Ice the top and sides of the cake with the remaining apricot preserves.
  7. Place the cake onto a cooling rack set over a clean sheet pan .
  8. Allow the cake to air-dry for at least an hour.

Icing

  1. Microwave the the chocolate with the butter in 30 second increments until both are melted.
  2. Add the corn syrup to the chocolate/butter mixture.
  3. Pour the warm glaze over the cake, using a small spatula to fill in any gaps. Allow the glaze to set before moving to a serving platter.
  4. For the traditional design, pipe the word “Sacher” onto the cake using melted chocolate. You can use any extra glaze to pipe a border on the cake.
  5. Store and serve at room temperature.

Notes

  • The cake can be baked a day or two before assembly, or can be made several weeks ahead and frozen.
  • The assembled cake will improve for a day or two after being iced as the apricot preserves absorb into the cake.

Bed Weather Notes

  • I used this icing recipe instead of the one included, but as I mentioned, it sort of ended up being Franken-icing because I had to fix the seized chocolate. Either of these should be fine!
  • This is one recipe where whipped cream is absolutely indispensable – ideally, you should have whipped cream in every single bite. The original recipe doesn’t include directions, but whipping cream is really easy (and the one thing that I didn’t mess up): take 1/2 cup heavy cream, put it in a bowl, take your mixer, and whip it into oblivion. If you don’t have a mixer, you can use a whisk and make it a workout – my record is about 15 minutes. And if you don’t have either, just put the cream in a jar and shake it to death.
  • Baking Sense was not kidding about it tasting better with age. It was good the day of creation, but transcendent the day after.

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