When I told Thanh that I'd bake him any cake he wanted as his birthday present, I thought I was taking the easy way out. And then I got this email:
hey i know what cake i want for my bday present
i want a massive glorious black forest cake beautifully decorated and with kirsch and morello cherries
Eek! Well, I love a challenge almost as much as I love German cakes, and I quickly started looking up recipes and researching.
You know what I discovered? No-one makes Black Forest cake any more! Of the few recipes that I did find, most were deconstructed, modernised, adapted. I also found lots of random dessert recipes which somehow involved the choc-cherry combo. But I wanted a properly German, traditional Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Not a pared-down, simplified version, not a trifle, not a cherry-flavoured chocolate biscuit! This also begs the question - why would anyone want to pare down the magnificence of this cake?
Ultimately, I turned to my classic Dr Oetker Backen Macht Freude book, as it was pretty much the only Rezepte I could find for a klassische Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.
I was hoping to show y'all a cross-section of an actual piece of cake to show you what should be inside Black Forest cake, but unfortunately the cake got a little smooshed on the drive to Thanh's and the slices were super messy!
Instead, here's a little something I whipped up on a post-it note:
Ta-dah! There are 3 main areas to which I'd like to draw your attention. The traditional cake includes a shortcrust pastry base, sour cherries, and most importantly, the whipped cream must include kirsch! Without the requisite cherry liquor, the cake won't taste right, and any Germans eating the cake to will be bitterly disappointed.
Before Thanh's birthday, I was planning on doing a trial run of the cake, but in the general confusion of moving house I somehow got the dates mixed up. And so the actual day came and I just had to wing it. Uh-oh. I'll show you all the individual components (with a recipe!), apart from the actual cake part, because it didn't turn out too well. But more on that later.
I only managed to start baking at about 3:30pm... and the party was at 7pm that night! I should totally have started earlier; it would have saved me a lot of stress!
Sieve 125g plain flour with 10g cocoa and 1 tsp baking powder into a mixing bowl. Add 50g sugar, 1 pack vanilla-sugar, 1 tbs kirsch and 75g softened butter. Mix using a dough hook or paddle beater until combined.
Roll out to a 28cm circle, and place into a lined 28cm springform tin. I still don't have a rolling pin at the new place, so I simply tipped the mixture into the tin, and pressed it out to fit. Poke the dough all over with a fork, as below.
Bake at 200C for 15 minutes.
Make sure you check at 10 minutes! Because the dough is so thin, it burns quite easily. And in fact, I burnt the edges of first one I made, and had to rapidly whip up a second one. GRAR! Anyhow, here is the second, non-burnt pastry circle.
With the first pastry circle, I broke off the burnt parts, and ate the good parts as a snack. And let me tell you, it was delicious! A smoky chocolate flavour, a short and crumbly texture - wow. It's certainly the easiest pastry recipe I've ever made. I think it would be good as the base for a tart, or even with ice-cream.
Drain a 350g jar of sour cherries (reserving the juice). Mix 30g cornflour with 4 tbs of the juice, whisking to dissolve any lumps. Put the rest of the juice in a pot and bring to the boil. Take it off the heat and whisk in the cornflour mixture. Put the pot back on the heat, stirring until thick. It should look like this:
Add the cherries and set it aside to cool. Once it has cooled, add 25g sugar and about 3 tbs Kirsch.
Now, I don't know what went wrong with the chocolate sponge, because I followed the recipe exactly. But there was barely enough dough for the tin, and it ended up like a large flat pancake.
The recipe then said "cut the sponge in half" - hah!
By this stage it was about 5:30pm, and I did not have time to start researching other recipes. Instead, I made a double-quantity of the same sponge, which ended up being an appropriate size for 1 layer.
Because it didn't work, I won't publish the recipe. I will just suggest you use a light chocolate sponge - one of those feather-light sponges where all the volume comes from beating whole eggs with sugar for 10 minutes - and emphatically not a buttery and heavy Victoria sponge. Delicious though they may be, you really need something light here, against all the cream and chocolate.
Mix 1 pack powdered gelatine with 5 tbs cold water in a small pot. (Check your packet for instructions, as all gelatines vary in strength). Place on a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring until dissolved. Beat 750ml cream until almost stiff. Then, slowly pour in the lukewarm gelatine mixture, whipping all the while, until the mixture is stiff. Add 1-2 tbs kirsch, sieve in 40g icing sugar and 1 packet vanilla sugar and mix in gently.
A short note about the kirsch. As I previously mentioned, adding kirsch to the cream is absolutely essential for an authentic Black Forest cake. The kirsch I happen to have was a gift from the family in Germany. They have a massive cherry tree in the backyard, and each summer they take all that fruit and brew their own Kirschwasser. I know - OMG. They gave me a coke-bottle full of it to bring home with me from my 2007 trip to Germany. It's amazing, but it's too strong for me to drink by itself. To me, weakling that I am, it tastes like paint stripper. In the cake though, it is perfect. I did halve the quantities though, as I figured it would be stronger than store-bought kirsch.
Place your cherries on top of the base:
Cover with 1/3 of the whipped cream. Place one cake round on top, and cover with 1/2 of the remaining cream. Place the remaining cake round on top.
With the remaining cream, cover the top and sides of the whole cake.
My recipe says to whip a further 100ml of cream to pipe rosettes on top, but I still had some cream leftover.
Of course, you must use bright red maraschino cherries for decoration, and be generous with the chocolate flakes. I used Lindt dark hot chocolate flakes (it actually works out cheaper than Cadbury Flake bars, which was my original idea!)
Aah... doesn't it look pretty! When we finished assembling the cake, it was already 8 o'clock. And the party started at 7. D'OH! No time to refrigerate the cake and let it set properly. We just had to quickly get dressed and get down to the party!
Despite my most careful, cautious driving, the cake didn't look quite so pretty by the time it got to Thanh's house. Whilst it maintained most of its structural integrity, the cherries and cream started oozing out the sides and the cake layers slid a little bit. It was the most tense drive of my life! Sandra was holding the cake in its container, and we had the air-conditioning on to prevent the cream from melting any further. Good lord, it was cold! Big apologies to anyone who was stuck behind me, crawling down Springvale Road at 40 km/hr.
But in the end, both of us and the cake got there. We unpacked it on the table (behind Lingy's delicious macarons and beautiful, flower-filled croquembouche), and I got stuck into the suckling pig! Mmm... suckling pig.
Cutting it was difficult as well, as the cake pieces slid everywhere. It turned out to be a 5-person job, including liberal use of the Chinese waiter-two-spoon trick.
Ultimately it all got cut up and passed around and eaten. I tasted some, and even though the sponge itself was a little denser than I'd like, the overall cake tasted good, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew!
Apart from the sponge cake, all the elements of the recipe worked really well (especially that chocolate pastry - Mmm!). The sponge cake was the first recipe from Backen Macht Freude that hasn't turned out well. Next time I make a Black Forest cake, I'll experiment with a different chocolate sponge recipe.
However, the key learning I took from this experience is that when making a Black Forest cake, the most important ingredient is time. Time to make all the separate components, time to assemble it, time for the cream to set, and time for all the flavours to meld together. I would definitely recommend making it the night before, or at least starting early in the morning.
Next year Thanh, you are getting a gift voucher from Michel's!