Austria in 6 Cakes: Poppy Seeds are Popular

Pakistan is the world’s largest producer of poppy seeds, but the Austrians are no slouches, they produce about 1,000 metric tons, annually. The technical term for that is a whole lotta poppy seeds. Poppy seeds show up all over Austria baking – dusting the top of your bread rolls, sprinkled over butter smothered dumplings, and inside your cake.

Recently, the EU passed new menu labeling guidelines, allowing diners to understand if their choices contain dairy, nuts, wheat – most of the foods that set off the allergic and intolerant. The labeling guideline includes the current villain of choice, gluten.

This hasn’t been as bad as you’d think for the Austria cake landscape. Lots of cakes are made with a nut flour base. (If that’s your allergy, there’s always cheesecake.) And a good mohntorte – poppy seed cake – is made with ground poppy seeds. The basic mohntorte has no flour in it (except what the baker uses to dust the pan, and that’s optional) so it’s a friendly choice for those who have genuine gluten allergies. The cake has a surprisingly chocolaty flavor for something with no chocolate in it – maybe it’s all the eggs. Some classic recipes have as many as nine eggs in them, and some use just the yolk. Gluten may be out, but cholesterol is way in.

Mohntorte originates in the Waldviertel, which is also where much of Austria’s poppy seed crops are grown. It’s up at the top of Austria and borders the Czech Republic, a place where they’re also fond of using generous amounts of poppy seeds in their desserts.

Poppy seed get used as a filling in a number of other cakes and pastries, too. The seeds are ground with honey and boiled in milk, they make a sticky sweet paste used in rolled up coffee cakes and in Hamentaschen, a treat made for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

Poppy seed paste is also used in fachertorte, an over the top three layer folly of a cake. The lower layer is yellow cake boiled in honey and milk, the middle layer is poppy seed paste, the top layer is apples sautéed in butter and apple schnapps. The whole thing is wrapped in a brioche like crust. It’s the kind of cake you want to eat alone, in quiet place so you can lie down and have a smoke afterwards, but it’s also so nice to eat it in the over the top rotunda of Vienna’s Art History Museum. The setting is only outdone by what’s on your plate.

It’s probably best to visit the art galleries before you indulge, because after you have licked the very last crumbs of the back of your fork, the baroque paintings of ladies with dimpled thighs or fat cherubs or giant, heroic shield waving men will seem a bit pale compared to excess of your recently consumed cake.

It’s all about the order, art first, cake after, and aren’t they really the same thing?

Top image: Kunsthistoriches Museum, Interior, Vienna via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

Austria in 6 Cakes: What a Mess!

“So ein Schmarrn!” is a handy of Austrian German slang for “What a mess!” Schmarrn is also the name of dessert that’s not much more than a scrambled pancake. (Pancake is a kind of cake too, friends!) The Kaiserschmarrn got its “Kaiser” prefix because it was a favorite of Emperor Franz Josef – he of the fondness for Bundt cake.

A well made Kaiserschmarrn is dusted with powdered sugar and served warm with a side of current or apricot jam. Serving sizes are absurd and because of that, it’s often the dessert for dinner selection of choice. The trick to making a proper Kaiserschmarrn is lots of fluffy egg whites and plenty of butter in which to brown the pancake as you scramble it in the same pan in which you’ve baked it.

Kaiserschmarrn is made when you order; it’s not the kind of thing you select from a dessert case at the cafe. But it’s not hard to find, and in some of the more touristy neighborhoods in Vienna, you’ll see awnings and window signs touting Kaiserschmarrn as an offering. Don’t be fooled by that, any decent small town gasthaus will have Kaiserschmarrn on the menu. But plan ahead – either wrangle your companions in to sharing an order with you or go all in and have it for your meal. It’s going to be too much food, otherwise.

Salzburger Nockerln via Salzburg Tourism

Salzburger Nockerln via Salzburg Tourism

There’s a sort of cousin to the Kaiserschmarrn, the Salzburger Nockerln, which is a soufflé, also dusted with powdered sugar and served war, with jam. This is a more classic oven baked dessert-as-dinner alternative and this one is said to have been created by Salome Alt, the mistress of Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich Raitenau. Being an Archbishop did not prevent you from eating dessert or having a mistress with whom you had 15 children.

Salzburg’s Mirabell Palace was built for Salome Alt and the formal gardens here are very pretty, especially in the springtime when the flowers are in full bloom. There are several nice cafes right near the palace, including a Konditorei Furst, where you can get an amazing Mozartkugel, but if you want a classic room, cross the river and go to the Café Tomaselli in the Alter Markt (Old Market). The Tomaselli has been a café and bakery since 1705 and while yes, it’s pricy and in the tourist heart of Salzburg, it’s still populated by locals who come to read the newspaper and eat breakfast. It’s lovely in the summer when you can sit outside under the ornate balcony, but it’s also nice in winter, when you can cozy up inside with a warm dessert, a big cup of coffee, and whatever you’re reading.

Pro tip? Don’t wear black, the powdered sugar gets everywhere. So ein schmarren!

Top image: Kaiserschmarren by Kobako via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

Austria in 6 Cakes: The Sachertorte Saga

The Hotel Sacher is a grand old property in Vienna’s first district. The ground floor café has marble topped tables and red upholstery and the wait-staff are attired in black with white aprons. There’s a conservatory that faces the street and in the summer time, it’s transformed into open air seating. The neighborhood is amazing; the Hotel is right across the street from the Opera House. The Hotel opened in 1875 – Grace Kelly stayed here, as did John F. Kennedy and Rudolph Nureyev.

Slice of Sachertorte with whipped cream on the side.

The Original Sachertorte

The Hotel Sacher is a gorgeous slice of Viennese opulence and sure, if it’s your first trip to Vienna, you should head to the café for a Sachertorte, the property’s namesake cake. Odds are good you’ll share the salon with a busload of Japanese or German tourists, but whatever, the Sacher is a Vienna institution.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a litigious back-story behind the Sacher’s cake. Franz Sacher is said to have invented the cake while working as an apprentice in Prince Metternich’s Vienna palace. Like some sort of pastry prodigy, he saved the day when the head chef fell ill. He passed the secret of the Sachertorte on to his son, Eduard, who served as an apprentice at the Demel, one of Vienna’s top notch bakeries.

Pastry Case at Cafe Demel, Vienna

Pastry Case at Cafe Demel, Vienna

Then, things got messy. The Demel claims that Eduard sold the rights to the Sachertorte. The bickering started in 1938 when the Hotel Sacher had the nerve to sell the cake under the name “The Original Sachertorte.” No dice, said the Demel, we own the original version. The argument went on for decades, and finally, in the 1960s, the Demel and the Sacher settled. The Hotel Sacher gets to call their cake “The Original Sachertorte” while the Demel gets to top its cake with a chocolate seal bearing Eduard’s name.

The truth is that both places make a stellar, if somewhat pricy, Sachertorte. Like the Sacher, the Demel has lovely rooms in which to eat cake; there are fancy chandeliers and French windows and formally dressed wait staff and a glorious pastry case made of polished wood with brass trim. And the cake itself is an Austrian classic, a dense chocolate layer cake spread with apricot jam and wrapped in dark chocolate icing.

Leave it to the litigious bakers of Austrian history to decide which cake is the “original.” You should order Sachertorte as many times and in as many cafes as you like and decide for yourself which one is the best.

All images via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

Austria in 6 (or More) Cakes: The Pistachio Problem

For reasons that are hard to track down, the Mozart Kugel – Austria’s famous Mozart Ball chocolate – is filled with pistachio marzipan. Theory: Mozart made several journeys to Italy as a young man and while there, he became fond of pistachios which were commonly used in Italian desserts.


The pistachio has been in trade since biblical times; it was a highly valued crop. So it’s also possible that pistachio is more random choice that relies on the nut’s identity as a luxury item – we’ll use pistachio because it’s fancy! Mozart is fancy! So, Mozart equals pistachio!

Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s not just about chocolates, it’s also about cake. There are two front runners in the Mozart-something cakes race, the Mozarttorte and the Mozartbombe. Both include that recognizable pistachio green marzipan.

"Aida Vienna" by Original uploader was KF at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Closedmouth.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Aida Vienna” by KF via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

The Mozarttorte at Café Aida doesn’t go overboard with the pistachio marzipan, it’s used as a layering element between two slabs of rich chocolate cake, and the whole thing is wrapped in a mocha ganache-like icing.

Aida is a chain but an old one: It’s been in business since 1913. They have 30 locations in Vienna, easily spotted by their pink neon signs. It’s tempting to dismiss them for their prevalence, but that does an injustice to their baking. Aida’s coffee isn’t the best in Austria, but their cake is quality, franchise or no.

At the Café Schwarzenberg, the specialty is the Mozartbombe. The Mozartbombe is on a chocolate base, similar to that of a Sachertorte, and it’s got chocolate cake between layers of pistachio whipped cream. The cake is dome shaped and covered in bright green marzipan. It’s gorgeous until you get your fork into it and then, it’s a delicious mess.

"Cafe-schwarzenberg-innen-viennaphoto-at" by Andreas Poeschek, - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 at via Wikimedia Commons -

Cafe Schwarzenberg by Andreas Poeschek, via Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

The Café Schwarzenberg opened in 1861 and there’s just one. The room has lofty ceilings and dark wood furniture and a pastry case right by the front door that features not just the Mozartbombe, but a variety of other fancy cakes too. The cafe is popular with tourists, but that doesn’t seem to keep the locals away. As a result, there’s a real international vibe, what with all the different languages floating around.

Mozart himself you can find three blocks away – the Vienna Opera House is just up the road – and while it is possible to hear his work, he remains silent on the issue of pistachios.

Top image: Mozart torte at Cafe Aida by Pam Mandel

Austria in 6 Cakes: Gingerbread Translated, Twice

“Lebkuchen” gets translated from German as “gingerbread,” but that’s not quite right. The word “gingerbread” sets expectations for it being the kind of stuff you’d build a house out of, though that variety does get used in edible architecture.

There are also those ubiquitous gingerbread hearts, decorated in icing sugar with your sweetheart’s name and a swooping script that says “Ich liebe dich” — I love you —  or maybe just “Greetings from this twee Germanic town.”

The stuff used to deliver messages or act as culinary sheetrock is all fine and well. But more interesting is a cakey sort of cookie packed with honey and spices and baked on top of what’s essentially a communion wafer — in much earlier days, baking gingerbread was the provenance of nuns and they found that a communion wafer kept the cookies from sticking to the pan.

This style of “lebkuchen” is translated more literally as “honey cake.” A similar batter is baked into little brick shapes, layered with jam, iced with chocolate, and topped with candied fruit. That configuration comes layered with nougat, too — ground nuts and chocolate and butter in an icing-like paste — or it might be layered with marzipan. The round cookie is a more traditional, it’s typically got an icing sugar glaze, though they do come coated in chocolate with colored sprinkles on top. They may or may not have raisins in them, but they’re always very sweet.

Bad Aussee is a pretty riverside town, very traditional, surrounded by glacier capped mountains. On the main highway, there’s a barn of a place with a giant sign that says “Ausseer Lebzelterei.” (Aussee is the region, and a lebzelterei is a gingerbread factory.) This place makes gingerbread right on site. Some days, you can look through he picture window just inside the front door and see bakers hard at work.

Gingerbread Apartment by Pam Mandel

Gingerbread Apartment by Pam Mandel

This particular gingerbread factory was founded in 1892 by the Hungarian trained pastry chef Gustav Lewandovsky. Lewandovsky stocked the baked goods at the spa in town. Victorian and Edwardian era European spa culture must have been considerably more indulgent than the yoga and juice fast situations those seeking revitalization put themselves through today.

The salon that still bears Lewandowsky’s name is lovely but it’s more fun to see the old gingerbread molds and  vintage packaging on display at the roadside stop. It’s also cool to see the machinery that was used as mass production methods came into place, the giant enamel mixers, the stacked baking ovens, and to have so many kinds of gingerbread to choose from.

It’s a roadside attraction kind of place, but the snacks are thousands of times better than anything you’d get at the World’s Largest Frying Pan or The Second Biggest Head of Abraham Lincoln. The only downside is that you may eat all of your souvenirs before you get them back home.

Top image: Bad Aussee Townscape 6/52 by Johannes Ornter via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Austria in 6 Cakes: The Kaiser’s Favorite Guglhupf

The Austrian town of Bad Ischl hit the spa scene in the early 19th century, but it became the Next Big Destination when Kaiser Franz Josef started using the location as his summer retreat. When Vienna’s weather became too oppressive in the summer time, the Kaiser and all his hangers on would pull up stakes for the cooler alpine climes of Austria’s Salzkammergut. The Kaiser’s entourage included his companion, the actress Katharina Schratt.

It’s said there was a secret path between the Kaiser’s summer place and Villa Schratt, the country home the Kaiser purchased for his lady friend. It can’t have been so secret if morning Kaiser sightings made the phrase, “Oh, the Kaiser’s had his guglhupf!” part of the vernacular. It was also common knowledge that Ms. Schratt greeted the Kaiser’s regular visits with a freshly baked guglhupf, or bundt cake.

Picture of a "guglehupf" cake.

Classic Guglhupf  via Wikimedia

If, heaven forbid, Ms. Schratt’s guglhupf failed to rise, she would order one from the Konditorei-Kaffee Zauner. The bakery claims to still use the original recipe — it includes four eggs yolks and fresh yeast. None of that dried quick rise stuff for the Kaiser, no sir. The guglhupf has a few variations — there’s yellow cake marbled with chocolate, or chocolate only, or sometimes, there are additions like berries or raisins. Typically, the finished cake is dusted with powdered sugar, but it might be glazed with a chocolate ganache.

Until the Kaiser made the guglhupf popular with the 1%, the cake was considered a bit low rent since it requires no spendy ingredients. Compare it with the snobbier Sachertorte which needs fancy chocolate, double cream, and apricot jam. The humble guglhupf is yeast, butter, flour, eggs, and milk. You can fancy it up, but you don’t have to.

The Pastry Case at the Zauner

The Pastry Case at the Zauner by Pam Mandel

The Zauner’s Pfarrgasse salon is a fine place to enjoy a slice of guglhupf if you don’t happen to have a paramour doing your baking. The cafe has been in Bad Ischl since 1832, before the Kaiser made it cool. The setting reflects the formal style of the Kaiser’s time — there are chandeliers and potted palms and portraits of royalty on the walls and the staff wear immaculate white shirts, but it’s not a stuffy place. People in their hiking gear (or ski clothes in winter) mix with ladies in furs and older gents wearing traditional Austrian attire. Zauner has a second location on the river esplanade — that one’s been restored to the original 1940s decor.

Regardless of where you get yours and in what style, it’s not just a slice of cake. It’s part of a royal tradition involving a Kaiser, a confidante, and cake for breakfast. You know, simple country pleasures, Austrian style.

Top image: Kaiservilla at Bad Ischl via Wikimedia

And the Winner of Sound of Music Live Is…

Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg
Jasper180969 via Flickr

Last night’s live production of The Sound of Music on NBC got more flak than Maria did for being an unsolvable problem nun. The acting was bad, the costumes St. Pauli-esque and the mountains… gasp! They were fake!

But there was one winner in last night’s performance: the city of Salzburg, Austria. Home of the Von Trapps, setting of the original movie and now site of thousands of Edelweiss-blasting tour buses and gazebo-worshipping 16-going-on-17-year-olds, Salzburg enjoyed a flurry of love last night.Some viewers reminisced about past visits to the Austrian city (and the nearby lake district):

Many were eager to show off their inner Maria:

For some, it inspired new interest in traveling to Austria:

Others piped in from Salzburg, where the Sound of Music is apparently still a hot jam after almost 50 years:

There was also the inevitable “there’s more to do in Salzburg than the Sound of Music”:

And finally, more Sound of Music Live bashing — this time in defense of the real place:

So while Carrie Underwood and Vampire Bill may not be winning Emmys, it was a good night for the beautiful city of Salzburg. Which by the way does have more to offer than the Sound of Music, including a wonderful Christmas Market, which is open right now.