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 (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.

But.

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 - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aida_Vienna.JPG#/media/File:Aida_Vienna.JPG

“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, viennaphoto.at - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 at via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cafe-schwarzenberg-innen-viennaphoto-at.jpg#/media/File:Cafe-schwarzenberg-innen-viennaphoto-at.jpg

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

Discover Something New at Home this Holiday Season

Traveling “home” this holiday season? Don’t fall into your old routine. Your high school hangout may be an easy go-to, but if you don’t live there anymore there’s a good chance you’re missing out on some great new local spots. (Plus, be honest: you already know what all your classmates are up to from Facebook.)

AOL Travel turned to local writers to help you rediscover your hometown over the winter holidays. Each city guide features a great new restaurant to try while you’re in town, a cool neighborhood that wasn’t on the radar last year or a store where you can pick up a keepsake to bring your old home back to your new home. AOL Travel also will catch you up to speed on the hot topics of conversation in each city, so you’ll come back savvy enough to join the local sports banter or eat your holiday weight in Cronuts.

Click your city below to learn what’s new since the last time you went home:

Boston fans celebrate world series win

Chicago skyline

Detroit skyline

NYC skyline

Philadelphia City Hall

Portland Oregon signGolden Gate Bridge

St. Louis Arch

US Capitol


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Vineyard and Zipline Trends Collide at the Pinot Express

Vineyards and ziplines have long been used to attract tourist dollars for destinations that, well, could use a little help:

  • Regardless of the area’s suitability for growing grapes, plop down a vineyard or winery and travelers will come for a taste and buy a sympathy bottle (pro tip: go for the ice wine as it’s harder to mess up)
  • Ski resorts looking to attract off-season dollars or stale attractions looking to draw media coverage and visitors hook up a zipline

So really, the 1,800-foot Pinot Express zipline at Margarita Adventures, which debuted recently at the Santa Margarita Ranch in the Paso Robles wine country on California’s Central Coast, is the travel industry’s destiny.The zipline begins atop a mountainside forest, 125 feet above the ground, then sends swoops low over pinot noir vines. It’s the highest, longest and fastest of Margarita Adventures’s four ziplines. A zipline tour costs $99

“Tours conclude with an optional tasting at the affiliated Ancient Peaks Winery, which specializes in artisan wines grown on the ranch’s estate Margarita Vineyard. Tour guests receive 20 percent off wine purchases, and the tasting fee is waived with a purchase of one bottle or more,” according to the press release.

“You can taste wines from vines that you just zipped over,” said proprietor Karl Wittstrom said. “It’s a fitting reward for your adventure.”