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)