By Gil Marks
American Cakes – Black Forest Cake History by Gil Marks +
Recipe from The History Kitchen
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Gil Marks before he passed away, along with another American Cakes post which will be published next month. Gil’s column American Cakes was a favorite with readers and he will be greatly missed. Read our tribute to Gil here.
“‘Just as well,’ Killinworth said as the waiter brought a silver platter heaped with tarts, meringues, eclairs and slices of obscenely rich Black Forest cake.”
—Murder in the Smithsonian by Margaret Truman (1985)
The central European Schwarzwälder kirschtorte, known as Black Forest cherry cake or Black Forest cake in America and Black Forest gateau in Britain, consists of layers of chocolate sponge cake moistened with a cherry brandy-flavored sugar syrup, then layered with whipped cream and sour cherries (Schattenmorellen). Austrians and Swiss prefer whipped cream for the filling, typically stabilized with gelatin or cornstarch, while some German versions tend to contain a heavier filling of buttercream (or a combination of buttercream and whipped cream) and reserve whipped cream only for the top and sides. The classic look is completed with a circle of cherries around the upper rim and chocolate shavings on the top and/or sides of the torte.
The cake is named for Schwarzwalder kirschwasser (a clear brandy distilled from sour cherries), a specialty of the Black Forest region (Der Schwarzwald) in the state of Baden-Württemberg of southwestern Germany. The torte may have grown out of a nineteenth century southern German practice of serving poached sour cherries with whipped cream accented with kirsch. Or it may have actually originated in Vienna or Switzerland and then spread throughout central Europe in the early twentieth century, becoming so popular in Switzerland that they consider it the national dessert. Kirsch is also made in neighboring Alsace and Switzerland, but the numerous distillers of Der Schwarzwald using locally-grown fruit have long produced brandies of unsurpassed quality. This means that the dish was not necessarily native to the Black Forest region, but rather contained the spirit associated with it. The chocolate cake also evokes the darkness of a forest.
The origin of Black Forest cake is a matter of contention. As the cake grew increasingly famous in the 1930s, its creation was attributed to several German pastry chefs, including Josef Keller of the Café Ahrend in Bad Godesberg in 1915 or 1927 (although no verifiable proofs of the cake from either of those times exist) and Erwin Hildenbrand of the Café Walz in Tübingen in 1930. The first known record of the term Schwarzwälder kirschtorte was in the German cookbook 250 Konditorei-Spezialitäten und wie sie entstehen by J.M. Erich Weber (Dresden, 1934). Within a few years, nearly every German bakery offered their version of Schwarzwälder kirschtorte and within a few decades it emerged as one of the most famous cakes in the world.
Black Forest cakes began appearing in the United States in the early 1960s. Unlike most other European tortes, Black Forest cake was widely adopted by Americans, who soon proffered it in bakeries and upscale restaurants and made versions at home. The recipe quickly moved from American cookbooks featuring German fare to generic works. Unlike “German chocolate cake,” which is an American innovation, Black Forest cake is the most popular chocolate cake from Germany (or Switzerland) in America. March 28 became Black Forest Cake Day.
The essence of the original Black Forest cake is the noticeable presence and kick of kirsch, but American reproductions all too frequently omit any alcohol. In addition, many Americans substitute a devil’s food cake or even a vanilla butter cake for the characteristic European sponge. Another frequent American modification is to use a cooked filling made from sweet cherries (sour cherries are much more common in Europe than America), which holds up better to a firm butter cake than whipped cream and produces a much sweeter and heavier treat. Some German Schwarzwälder kirschtorte feature a bottom layer of chocolate short pastry, which is practically unknown in America.
In pondering the widespread popularity of this treat, it occurred to me that most everyone loves chocolate covered cherries. This cake encapsulates that confection’s combination of chocolate, cherries, and cream. The white, red, and black colors are eye-catching and the flavors and textures varied, yet complementary. It is light, moist, and rich, but not too sweet. Black Forest cherry torte is an elegant cake, but not fussy or pretentious, perfect for fancy occasions or when you just want to indulge a bit.
Note from Tori: I am so intrigued by the background Gil has provided on Black Forest Cake. This cake happens to be a favorite of my family. Traditionally it is made with a chocolate genoise, which in my experience can be fussy and somewhat difficult– if you don’t get the texture of the batter just right, you’ll end up with a rubbery gummy mess. I’ve decided to share my family’s Black Forest Cake recipe with you, an admittedly “Americanized version” as Gil points out above, which uses a simple chocolate butter cake as a base, “drunken cherries” for filling and an updated version of whipped cream frosting borrowed from Food52. The frosting contains mascarpone cheese, which helps to make it shelf stable without imparting any additional flavor. It’s a much better option than whipped cream frosting, which tends to weep and deflate as it sits.
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‘Drunken’ Cherries in Soaking Liquid Ingredients
- 1 lb bottled or canned pitted sour cherries - Morello or Montmorency cherries, or poached and pitted fresh cherries
- 1/4 cup cherry juice or dry red wine or any combination
- 1/8 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup kirsch
Chocolate Cake Ingredients
- 1 cup butter
- 1 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup boiling water
Whipped-Cream Frosting Ingredients
- 3 cups heavy whipping cream
- 12 oz mascarpone cheese
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 4-6 tbsp sugar (more or less to taste)
- 8 to 12 glace cherries or drained maraschino cherries (optional)
- chocolate shavings (optional) for garnish
You will also need
- Small saucepan, mixing bowls, three 9-inch springform or other round cake pans, parchment or wax paper, stand or hand mixer, wire cooling rack, pastry brush, pastry bag with large star tip (optional)
- To prepare the cherries: In a small saucepan, stir the cherry juice and sugar over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Stop stirring, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute.
- Remove from the heat and pour over the cherries. Stir in the kirsch and let macerate at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for at least 4 hours. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F (325°F for a convection oven). Grease three 9-inch springform or other round cake pans, line with parchment paper or wax paper, grease again, and dust with flour.
- In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time.
- Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and salt. Alternately add the dry ingredients, the milk and vanilla into the butter and sugar mixture, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until just incorporated.
- Add the boiling water and beat for one minute. The mixture will look shiny, loose and well combined.
- Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans, tilting to level the surface. Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 20 minutes.
- Let cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then loosen the edges with a sharp knife and invert onto wire racks. Remove the paper, invert the cake, and let cool completely, at least 1 hour.
- To make the whipped cream: In the bowl of stand mixer, whip the cream to soft peaks. Add sugar and vanilla extract. Gently mix in mascarpone until well combined.
- To assemble: Place a cake layer on a serving platter. Generously brush or sprinkle with the cherry soaking liquid.
- Spread with one-fourth of the whipped cream.
- Then arrange half of the marinated cherries in the whipped cream.
- Sprinkle a second cake layer with about 1 tablespoon soaking liquid, carefully invert over the bottom layer, and sprinkle the top with about 1 tablespoon soaking liquid. Spread with one-third of the remaining whipped cream and arrange the remaining marinated cherries over top. Sprinkle the remaining cake layer with about 1 tablespoon soaking liquid, invert over the cake, and sprinkle the top with about 1 tablespoon soaking liquid. Frost the top of the cake with a thinner layer of whipped cream.
- Frost the sides of the cake.
- Spoon any remaining whipped cream into a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe rosettes around the top edge of the cake or drop dollops of the cream with a spoon.
- If using, top each rosette with a glace cherry. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the chocolate shavings, if desired. This cake is best served on the day it is assembled.