Hailing from the southwestern corner of Germany just across the river from Alsace and bordering Switzerland, the region of Baden is known for having the best food in the country. And one dessert is outstanding as the characteristic dessert of the region: Black Forest Chocolate Cherry Cake.
The cherry is one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits. Named after the ancient Turkish town of Cerasus, cherries date back to 300 BC when they were described by the Greek botanist Theophrastus. The cherry tree was a favorite of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Around 70 AD Pliny wrote that the cherry tree was present in Italy, Germany, and France. During the mid-nineteenth century, a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty planted the first cherry orchard in northern Michigan, and it flourished. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling planted an orchard in Oregon, using nursery stock that he oxcarted from Iowa. His orchard became successful and grew into Lewelling Farms with a commercial production start of their sweet cherries during the 1870s and ’80s. This is where the Lambert cherry began. Their Bing cherry was named after one of Lewelling’s Chinese workmen.
Late spring marks the start of stone fruit season. (So-called because these fruits contain a single pit, or “stone.”) First come cherries and then apricots, followed by peaches, nectarines, plums, and all their various hybrids. One juicy bite and you’ll be hooked. Act quickly, though, for cherry season is short but sweet…about 3 1/2 weeks, to be exact.
Among the varieties of sweet cherries grown today, the most popular is the Bing, a large red cherry with purple-red flesh and a burgundy, almost black skin when fully ripe. Lambert is a smaller, heart-shaped version of the Bing, and is second in popularity. Other sweet, dark-skinned varieties include the Black Tartarian. Lighter varieties include the yellow rose-blushed Rainier and the Royal Ann, which is typically canned or made into maraschino cherries. Sour cherries grown in the United States include the Montmorency, Early Richmond, and English Morello. They are smaller and softer than sweet cherries, usually too tart to be eaten fresh. They are excellent as a filling in this cake.Jarred sour cherries are easier to find now (like at Trader Joe’s), but the canned sour pie cherries are on all supermarket shelves.
Here are some helpful cherry handling tips:
•Cherries should be shiny, plump, and firm.
•A green stem is an indicator of a just-picked cherry.
•Refrigerate cherries, unwashed, in an open plastic bag. It’s best to use them within several days of purchase.
•Cherries-on-the-stem tend to keep longer.
•Cherries contain vitamin C, and about 87 calories per cup.
•Cherry juice can stain your hands, so you may want to wear latex gloves—and an apron—while pitting them.
•A cherry-pitter is an inexpensive kitchen tool that makes the job a breeze. I love it. (It works a bit like a paper punch, forcing the pit out of the cherry.) Lacking one, just use the tip of a small, sharp knife.
A Black Forest Cake is a delicious styled combination of chocolate cake, Kirsch soaked Morello cherries, and loads of whipped cream. The cake is named not directly after the Black Forest (the Schwarzwald) mountain range in southwestern Germany, but rather from the specialty locally distilled liquor of that region made from tart cherries. Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. This is the ingredient, with its distinctive cherry pit flavor and alcoholic content, that gives the cake its flavor. True Black Forest cakes are decorated with whole fresh black cherries. The name, Schwarzwald, evokes darkness and mystery coming from the romantic German concept of Waldeinsamkeit or forest-loneliness.
The chocolate and cherry cake is in sophisticated culinary company, being a Viennese café-style pastry along with the famous kugelhof, apple kuchen, and Linzertorte. Originally using dry pumpernichel bread crumbs in place of the flour, the cake is liberally soaked in the kirschwasser, and layered with sweet or sour whole cherries, reflecting the fertile orchards of the area. When a friend travels to Europe and asks what they can bring back for you, ask for a bottle of this liquor. Finding the kirsch often too strong and the domestic brands disappointing, I like to use the lip-smacking-smooth Cherry Marnier for my soaking liquid; it is so viscous that you don’t have to make a sugar syrup.
The preserves were also too sweet, so I make a thick tart cherry sauce to spread between the layers. I like jarred or canned sour Morello cherries, but sweet Bings in their own juice can also be used. I make the chocolate garnish and cherry sauce the day before baking the cake layer so assembly will go as smooth as possible.
Black Forest Chocolate Cherry Cake
When asking many of my friends what their favorite winter layer cake is, I am always surprised when most of them emphatically reply “Black Forest Cake!” Never having made it myself and finding bakery versions much too sugary with canned cherry pie filling, my interest perked up when a friend told me of the best Black Forest Cake she ever had; it was from an old recipe printed in Bon Apétit magazine in the 1970s. I located it in a public library archives, and indeed, was not disappointed. Here my adaptation of the recipe for you to create in your kitchen: an extravagant celebration or birthday sweet.
Shaved Chocolate Garnish (See Tips)
- Two 1-pound cans water-packed sour pitted cherries
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons Cherry Marnier
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1/2 cup unblanched almonds
- 3/4 cup cake flour (SoftasSilk)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely grated
- Pinch of salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
The Whipped Creams
- 3 cups (1 1/2 pints) cold whipping cream
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
- 6 tablespoons Cherry Marnier
The day before you plan to assemble and serve the cake, prepare the Shaved Chocolate Garnish. Also prepare the Cherry Filling. Drain the cherries, reserving 1 cup of liquid. Drain the cherries on layers of paper towels. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and cornstarch. Using a whisk, add the cherry liquid. Over medium heat, stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook 5 minutes, until thickened. Stir in the liqueur and the extract. Pour into a bowl, add the cherries and stir. Cool, cover, and refrigerate.
The Cake: Preheat oven to 325º. Line and grease a 9-by-3-inch round cake pan or springform pan. Combine the almonds and the flour in a food processor; grind to a fine flour and set aside. Beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks. Add the 3 tablespoons of sugar and beat on high until firm. Scrape into a side bowl and set aside. In the same mixing bowl without washing it, cream the butter and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar until fluffy; add the egg yolks and extracts. Beat until smooth. Stir in the grated chocolate. Add the almond-flour and baking powder. Add a few spoonfuls of the egg whites and stir to lighten the batter. Fold in the whites until well blended. Scrape into the prepared pan and level the top. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and cool upright on a rack.
The Whipped Creams: Place 1 cup of the cream, 2 tablespoons of the powdered sugar, and vanilla in a bowl. Beat with the whisk attachment of an electric mixer until the mixture holds firm peaks. Scrape from the bowl into another small bowl, cover, and refrigerate; this will be your filling. Without washing the bowl, place the remaining 2 cups of cream, the cocoa, and the powdered sugar into the bowl. Stir with a whisk and refrigerate 20 minutes. Divide the cake into 3 layers (see Tips). Beat the cocoa cream until firm peaks are formed; this will be the frosting. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble.
Assembly: Cut 4 strips of aluminum foil and line a serving plate or 9-inch cardboard round. Place the first layer cut side up; the foil strips will hang over all the way around. Moisten with a few tablespoons of liqueur. Spread with half of the cherry filling, leaving a 1/2 inch border all around. Using an offset metal spatula, spread with half of the whipped cream. Cover with the second cake layer and repeat. Top with the last cake layer, cut side down. Brush the top with the rest of the liqueur. Cover the top and sides of the cake with the cocoa whipped cream, reserving 3/4 cup for decorating. Use a large star tip and pastry bag as desired. Remove the foil strips by slowly pulling out sideways; your cake plate will be clean.
I decorate the cake in 3 different ways: one is to make 8 rosettes of cocoa whipped cream around the edge and top with chocolate covered cherries with their stems attached, form a scalloped border and fill the center with the chocolate shavings, or just pile on the chocolate shavings. Simple is best. Refrigerate the cake for 4 to 6 hours before serving; refrigerate leftover cake up to 2 days. Serves 8.
Shaved Chocolate Garnish
Big chunks of chocolate make for the most dramatic shavings. Working over a piece of waxed paper, hold the block of chocolate in your left hand and, using a vegetable peeler, pull the peeler towards yourself against the side of the chocolate block. The chocolate will come off in different size curls. Slide the paper onto a baking sheet and set in the refrigerator or freezer until needed.
How to Split Cake Layers
Chill the cake for 45 minutes in the freezer for the easier slicing. Hold a ruler upright and mark 1/3 and 2/3 up the side of the round layer. Insert two rows of toothpicks at 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock; this will mark where to cut so that the slice will be even. Using a long serrated bread knife, hold the blade at 3 o’clock and using a gentle back and forth sawing motion pull horizontally through the top layer. You will hold your hand flat on top, rotating the cake while cutting; the cake turns, the knife stays in the same postion. If you have a turntable or a lazy Susan, it will make this easier. The toothpicks are the guide; with practice you won’t need the toothpicks. Carefully remove the first layer and place it on a piece of waxed paper before cutting the next layer.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2017
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.