Buried in Pauline’s book of cake recipes lies the famous Zacherova Torta, more popularly known as the Sacher Torte, named after its inventor. As with each of Pauline’s cakes, I approached this recipe by first carefully researching its origins.
As best I can tell, the cake originated in 1832 in the Austrian Empire. Prince Klemens Metternich was hosting a dinner for some very important guests. He was a stuffy, sullen old man, worried that his empire was about to collapse, and so in preparation for this elaborate affair the Prince demanded of his pastry chef, “Let there be no shame on me tonight!” As soon as he stated this, his pastry chef, quaking in his boots, fell ill, and promptly placed his 16 year old apprentice, Franz Sacher, in charge. Franz apparently rose to the occasion and whipped up a cake that was a smashing success.
Franz went on to bake for several more decades, constantly revising the cake, baking first in Bratislava, and then in Budapest. His son Eduard joined him and he too continued to work on improving the cake, first at Demel bakery and eventually at his own hotel in Vienna, the Hotel Sacher. His cigar smoking wife, Anna, said to be quite the hotelier, worked hard to promote the cake, making it famous throughout Europe. But by 1930, Anna was dead (lung cancer?) and a few years later the hotel fell into bankruptcy and changed hands. Eduard went back to Demel and began to sell the Sacher Torte from there.
The exact ingredients and cake assembly instructions have never been published. We do know that Demel’s version of the chocolate cake contains two layers of cake, each spread with apricot jam and iced with a chocolate ganache; the hotel’s version has only one layer. In 1938 a lawsuit ensued between the two places that went on for decades over the rights to the cake and its name.
It was around the time of Anna’s demise, however, that the super secret Sacher Torte recipe fell into Pauline’s hands. I was so excited, believing that I alone held the recipe that had been under lock and key in a guarded Viennese vault (I imagine) for more than a century.
Further research turned up another variation of the cake, the Sacher Masoch Torte, made with red current jelly and a marzipan coating. This cake was named after Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, the 19th century writer of the Austro Hungarian Empire who penned Venus in Furs, a novel based on his real life affair with Baroness Fanny Pistor. They travelled to Venice by train in 1869, she in first class, he in 3rd , Leopold as her willing slave who asked only that she wear furs while treating him very badly. The term “masochist” was later coined after him. (A little more digging turned up the fact that his great, great niece is Marianne Faithful, of Rolling Stones fame. Cake research turns up the most interesting stories).
I then went to YouTube and proceeded to watch the BBC’s master chef, the imitable Mary Berry, expertly whip up her version of the Sacher Torte. Mary explained that the base was a Genovese cake, filled with melted chocolate, whipped egg whites, beaten yolks and ground almonds. Her cake looked chocolatey, rich and mouth wateringly delicious. Mary warned us that this cake was difficult to make, however.
Armed with this information, I finally turned to Pauline’s recipe, ready to whip up the ultra secret Sacher Torte, intrigued to learn the mysterious ingredients and, I confess, to one up Miss Mary Berry.
Hmmm. I scanned the recipe and saw that most of the ingredients were the same as Mary’s. Except, there was no chocolate. And Pauline’s recipe had the egg whites whipped with flour and sugar and baked, like an angel food cake. The egg yolks were not folded into the batter but instead were to be cooked with sugar into a custard on the stove, and then spread inside and on top of the cake. She instructed slivered almonds to be sprinkled on top.
This must have been a very early version of the Sacher Torte, I thought, or perhaps it’s yet another variation, perhaps named after a lily white, virginal Slovak cousin of Franz Sacher’s.
Puzzled, I soldiered on with Pauline’s version of the Sacher Torte. I was kind of bummed; all this research on the deliciously dense chocolate cake had me excited. An egg white cake, not so much.
I separated the eggs and proceeded to whip the egg whites into a frenzy (Pauline’s words). As I carefully slid in the sugar and flour however, the egg whites quickly deflated and became a wet mess. Undaunted, I poured it down the drain and pulled out a carton of egg whites from the fridge and started over. This time, the egg whites wouldn’t whip at all. Down the drain these six egg whites went, and again I tried with 6 more, this time being super careful to make sure the bowl and attachment were clean and dry. Whipped again; same result. By now, I was a bit flustered. My egg whites always whipped up easily; what was wrong with me? The entire carton of egg whites was empty, so I turned to my remaining whole eggs. I was determined the egg whites wouldn’t beat me, and I was going to make this cake come hell or high water. Finally, my FOURTH batch of egg whites whipped up nicely, and I folded in the remaining ingredients and baked the damn cake.
I turned next to the egg yolks. Pauline said simply to beat them with fine sugar on the stove until thick, and then to spread it between the cake layers and on top. I figured that egg yolks would curdle easily, so I stirred and stirred the egg yolks on a double boiler. Minutes ticked by, and the eggs just remained there, bright yellow and now frothy, but not thick. One custard recipe said to make sure the temperature didn’t rise about 80 degrees Celsius, and so when it reach that temperature I took it off the stove. Still not thick. I cooled it in the fridge. Still watery. I put it back on the stove and stirred for 10 more minutes. Marginally thicker. Back in the fridge for ½ hr. No change. This time I boldly put the bloody egg yolks directly on the burner and cranked it up high. Finally, after surging past 100 degrees Celsius, the yolks began to thicken and I had custard.
By now, I had been baking for 5 laborious hours, been through 2 dozen eggs and I really didn’t care how the cake turned out. Besides, it wasn’t chocolate, and it certainly wasn’t worth keeping a secret over. Mary won.
Pauline’s Zacherova Torta Recipe:
Mix together well 6 egg-whites with 15 dg (3/4 cup) of sugar, 2 spoonfuls of cream, 15 dg (1 ¼ cups) of flour into a frenzy and bake at 350 degrees F for 35 minutes. Cook 6 egg-yolks with 15 dg ( ¾ cup) of fine sugar, until it thickens; split it in the middle, fill it and also smear it on top, and then sprinkle it with almonds that were cut it into long strips.