This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: sachertorte.
I bake quite rarely these days. I still enjoy it, but diet plans, the intense busy-ness of new horizons (they take a lot of work…), holidays and the quiet but now, I think, definitive, shrivelling to death of my book club, where I brought the odd treat, having peopled my baking schedule with significant pauses. At the same time, though, I’m rediscovering a new enjoyment for cooking, inspired by A Girl and Her Greens (it’s the perfect book to get stuck into in the spring and summer, when harvests become bountiful), Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an inspiration to eating locally and living as lightly as possible, even if the UK’s food supply system is markedly less toxic than that of the US), and vegetable delivery boxes, so it doesn’t feel so much like a loss as a shift away from a certain kind of eating.
For quite a long time, well past the time I knew the Sachertorte’s origin story in an Austrian hotel backwards, I mentally pronounced this classic chocolate cake’s name in the French style: Zache-tohrte. In fact, it’s closer to Zacker-torte, as I discovered when a friend casually mentioned this Viennesse dessert as a particular favourite.
Vienniese patisserie is so renowned for its beauty and intricacy, the heart of a coffeehouse culture that’s taken extremely seriously, that I’d always thought of a sachertorte as a very complex cake. Without casting my eyes over any recipes (oh, not I!), I had somehow gotten it into my head that sachertorte was a complicated, multi-layer fiddle, involving the slicing of sponges and requiring significant technical expertise to produce the glassy, shiny chocolate icing that tops the cake. The night before one of the last book club meetings held (an extremely well-attended meeting, ironically!), I was feeling mutinous at the prospect.
Well, some recipes doubtless are very complicated, but luckily, Mary Berry’s was not one of them. A single layer of fine-grained sponge of ground almonds and flour is brushed with warmed apricot glaze, after which nothing more complicated than a classic ganache is pooled over it, resulting in a singularly sticky, smooth confection with a hint of welcome sharpness from the apricot jam, which cuts through the richness of the glaze. The cake itself requires nothing more complicated than the separate beating of egg yolks and whites, not too much of a hardship with even the cheapest of electric whisks.
Piping out words with icing was equally something I imagined to be enormously and undelightfully tricky. I think I mention this every time I refer to baking but lord, do I abhor a fiddle. However, with a small enough piping bag and confidence, it was surprisingly easy to spell out the traditional ‘Sacher’ atop the cake. The key is to take a deep breath and just let go, writing smoothly and without hesitation; it’s the pauses that will cause the writing to go funny and jerky. My attempt was a little off-centre but the cursive script was, if anything, more readable than my ordinary handwriting.
Simple, delicious, and lovely to look at, this is a cake worth breaking a diet plan for with a sliver or two. Its deep, rich flavour is very satisfying.
From BBC Recipes, with a smidge of adaptation.
- 140g dark chocolate (Mary Berry herself says she uses 36%; I used 70% and liked the effect; any less dark and it might have been too sweet for me)
- 140g unsalted butter, softened
- 115g caster sugar
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- 5 eggs, separated
- 85g ground almonds
- 55g plain flour, sieved
For the topping and icing
- 6 tbsp apricot jam, sieved (if necessary: the one I bought was perfectly smooth)
- 140g plain chocolate
- 200ml double cream
- 25g milk chocolate
- Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease a deep 23cm round cake tin, then line the base with baking paper.
- Break the dark chocolate into pieces. Place in a heatproof bowl and set over a pan of gently simmering water to melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool slightly.
- Beat the butter in a bowl until very soft, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the cooled chocolate and vanilla extract and beat again. Add the egg yolks, then fold in the ground almonds and flour. The mixture will be quite thick at this stage.
- In a separate, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until they are stiff, but not dry (useful visual guide for the wary here, though note that the peaks won’t be as stiff, bright and glossy as with a meringue. Mary herself provides some clues in this video). Take about a third of the egg whites and stir briskly into the chocolate mixture; don’t worry about deflating it. The purpose of this step is to slacken the mixture so that you can add the stiff peaks without the thickness of the mixture collapsing them. Using a metal spoon, gently fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface. This is not a cake which will level itself so do take the time to make this step!
- Bake in the oven for about 45-50 minutes, by which time it should be well risen at the top and spring back when lightly pressed with a finger. Leave to cool in the tin for a few minutes, then turn out, peel off the paper and finish cooling on a wire rack.
- Once cool, you can start making the topping. Heat the apricot jam in a small pan and then brush evenly over the top and sides of the cold cake. Allow to set.
- For the icing, break the dark chocolate into pieces. Heat the cream until piping hot (I brought it gently to just under the boil, as I always do for ganache), remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate has melted, then cool till a coating consistency (if you are absolutely desperate you can put it in the fridge to set, but it will lose its glossiness, so try to avoid doing this). Then pour the icing on to the centre of the cake. Spread it gently over the top and down the sides using an offset spatula, and leave to set.
- For the ‘icing’ writing, break the milk chocolate into pieces then melt gently in a bowl set over a pan of hot water, as with the dark chocolate. Spoon into a small paper or plastic icing bag (or a sandwich bag, or whatever! The smaller the better for this tiny amount of chocolate), and snip off the corner carefully; the opening should be quite small. Pipe ‘Sacher’ across the top (see my tips above!) and leave to set.