05 August 2015

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte - A Birthday Cake!

We recently celebrated a very special family day, my father's birthday! With my parents, my sister and her two little kids, and my brother all in town (first time us siblings have been together in over a year and a half!), we had a great day. There's nothing like being together with the important people in your life that makes a celebration special.

As always, my present to the birthday child is to bake them a cake of their choice. This year, my father--a transplant to the California coast from Germany--requested a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, that is, in English, "Black Forest Cherry Cake." It's a towering, intimidating creation, usually with at least three layers of chocolate-flavored cake, juicy sour cherries, and more fluffy fresh whipped cream than you would ever imagine. The last time I made one was way back in the time of Ancient History, and as I searched for photo inspiration online this time around, I was excited by the potential of something great. Yet at the same time, I shuddered at how easy it would be to fail in the assembly, ending up with a sloppy pile of whipped cream garnished with messy swaths of chocolate shavings and cherries so unnaturally bright red that I suspected they might be radioactive.

So, while I chose a seriously legit recipe (taken from a well-loved and well-used copy of the Bayerisches Kochbuch) and the flavors are all there, I decided to keep the finish minimal, going for a more natural and rustic look. I love how it turned out, and importantly, so did my father!

Delicately chocolatey and with a pleasing nutty fragrance, the cake layers are enriched with the addition of grated semisweet chocolate and ground almonds. Then there are the juicy cherries and spikes of kirschwasser, keeping the cake tender and giving fun bursts of flavor. And the whipped cream, also enhanced with kirschwasser, marries the layers and flavors of the torte in the exquisite way only possible of the German Sahnetorten.

Yes, there is a lot of whipped cream, but then, with all the family in town, we've got lots of help to polish it off! Though the recipe is certainly a labor of love (I've added some of my personal tips to help avoid trouble spots along the way), the staggering cake is a wonderful treat--definitely worth it for someone as special as my father. We enjoyed it together for a late-afternoon birthday Kaffeetrinken, and I hope you have a chance to enjoy it sometime soon too!

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte
Serves 12-16
Translated and adapted from the German Bayerishes Kochbuch

For the cake: (prepare the day before)
125 g butter, room temperature
125 g granulated sugar
6 egg yolks, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract

125 g finely grated semisweet chocolate (halbbittere Schokolade)
125 g finely grated almonds or almond meal

125 g all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

6 egg whites, room temperature
Pinch of salt

Prepare a 24 - 26 cm (9.5 - 10.5 inch) springform pan by lining the base with parchment paper, then lightly greasing and dusting the base and sides with flour. Set aside.

In the bowl of a large stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the butter until light and fluffy. Slowly add the sugar and beat until well incorporated and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, 2 at a time and beating well in between each addition, scraping the bottom of the bowl as needed; then add the vanilla extract. Beat well until the creamed mixture is very light and fluffy. Remove the whisk attachment from the stand mixer and fit with the paddle attachment.

In a separate bowl, stir together the grated chocolate and almond meal, then add to the creamed mixture in 3 separate additions, gently beating to incorporate evenly, and scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed.

At this point, set the oven to preheat at 170-180 C (340-350 F).

In a separate bowl (can use the same bowl previously used for the chocolate and almonds), sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In another bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, using an electric hand mixer.

Add the flour to the batter in 3 separate additions, gently beating with the paddle attachment to incorporate evenly, and scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Remove the bowl from the stand mixer, and, using a spatula, gently fold in the stiff egg whites in 3 separate additions.

Immediately transfer the batter to the prepared springform pan and bake for 40-60 minutes, depending on the size of the pan, until toothpick inserted comes out clean of batter (there may be some melted chocolate on the toothpick).

After baking, let the cake cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, then remove from the pan and invert onto a cooling rack, removing the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake. Let cool completely. If making the day before, wrap well in plastic wrap and store at room temperature overnight.

For the assembly:

The fruit (prepare the day before)
2 1/2 - 700 g jars of sour cherries in juice (I used Trader Joe's Morello cherries, which are 700 g with juice and 340 g drained)

The cake flavoring (prepare the day-of)
6 Tbs. sour cherry juice (reserved from the jars of cherries)
2 Tbs. kirschwasser

The whipped cream filling (prepare the day-of)
3/4 liter fresh heavy whipping cream, well-chilled
3 1/2 tsp. gelatin powder
5 Tbs. cool water
50 g superfine sugar (or powdered sugar)
2 Tbs. kirschwasser

The night before assembly, drain the cherries well of all juice (reserving the juice for another use) and set them to chill in the refrigerator.

The day of, set a large metal bowl and the whisk attachments of an electric beater to chill in the freezer. The whipping cream may be measured out and chilled in the freezer too, to get it extra cold.

Split the cake into 3 layers. (Toothpicks around the perimeter as cutting guides, and a noose of sewing thread, are my tricks to getting even layers with a minimum of crumbs!) Place the bottom layer on your cake plate.

Mix 6 tablespoons of the reserved cherry juice with 2 tablespoons kirschwasser and set aside.

In a small bowl, mix together the gelatin powder and cool water, and let sit 5-10 minutes to soften. (Avoid letting the gelatin dry out from sitting too long--you want it to be loose and stir-able when you add it to the whipped cream. While the gelatin softens, this is a good time to measure out the sugar.)

Whip the cream until very soft peaks just start forming, then whip in the softened gelatin and beat thoroughly. Just before stiff peaks form, add the sugar and the kirschwasser and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

Brush or spoon 1/2 of the cherry juice-kirschwasser onto the base layer, then spread about 1/6 of the whipped cream over (a thin metal spatula works well for this job). Completely cover the base with a single layer of drained, chilled cherries tightly-spaced, then spread another 1/6 of the whipped cream over. Place the 2nd cake layer on top and repeat with the cherry juice-kirschwasser, whipped cream, cherries, and whipped cream.

Add the last cake layer, then top with the remaining whipped cream, swirling decoratively and creating a slight depression at the center with a fluffy rim. Arrange the remaining drained cherries over the center of the whipped cream. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving, to let the whipped cream set and to let the flavors of the layers meld.