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Discovering the true meaning of Black Forest cake in the German region itself

Black Forest Cake in Germany was granted legally protected status in 2013. It must use the gateau’s original ingredients, including kirsch, a brandy made from fermented sour cherries from the region.
Published Jul. 24, 2017

The first time I had a taste of the Black Forest, it wasn't by way of cake.

While doing some research for a trip I was taking to the region in Germany, I stumbled across a recipe for Black Forest iced tea — black tea pressed with cocoa powder and cinnamon, finished with black cherry juice and cream. I thought it would make a kitschy addition to a brunch spread I was putting together.

Now, thinking back to that day in January, I cringe a little bit.

Not because the tea was bad. But I know now that it was not a sufficient representation of the renowned chocolate-and-cherry combination.

Fast-forward to June. As part of a small study abroad group hosted through the University of South Florida, I was winding through densely forested, lush green Black Forest hills to the Hotel Traube Tonbach, an 18th century historic hotel in Baiersbronn.

The city is home to just under 16,000 people, but its reputation for culinary excellence has made it a destination for people from all over the world. Four of the five restaurants at the hotel — Schwarzwaldstube, Bauernstube, Blockhutte and Kohlerstube — were in the 2017 Michelin Guide (a guide book acclaimed in the dining world), Schwarzwaldstube receiving three out of four stars.

The hotel, with its richly decorated dining rooms and historically dressed employees, is also home to a cooking school, where those of us on the trip would learn how to make Black Forest Cake the traditional way.

Before the trip, I had only a slight familiarity with the ubiquitous German staple, recognizing the term "Black Forest" as any combination of dark chocolate and sour cherries. Desserts including layered mousses, icebox cakes, sundaes and even iced tea that took on the moniker paid adequate homage, in my mind, to the combination's German roots.

It was in the Black Forest itself that I learned, among many things, that I was wrong.

Like Champagne, Parmesan, Cornish pasties and Muenster, the Black Forest Cake, which is thought in some circles to have been created in its modern form by patissier Josef Keller in 1915, is legally protected. It was granted protected status in 2013 by the European Commission when it decided that any dessert taking the name had to use the gateau's original ingredients, including kirsch, a brandy made from the fermented sour cherries that grow in the region. (This is where the cake gets its original name, Schwarzwalder kirschtorte, or kirsch cake.)

The commission found that, with the cake's surge of popularity in the '70s, it was frequently debased due to misinterpretations of the recipe; often, the brandy was left out. The name kirschtorte was eventually replaced altogether by Black Forest Cake.

Shortcuts for the cake, which you can find in bakeries more often than not, come up, well, short. Sometimes bakers leave out the brandy, or substitute it with a cheaper cherry liqueur. After my trip, I found one back in the States that was made with cherry pie filling rather than sour cherries, making it almost sickeningly sweet.

A Black Forest Cake made the right way is, even with its many layers, surprisingly light. Airy mousse is sandwiched between springy chocolate sponge cake, and the whole cake is frosted with soft whipped cream. It's not overbearingly sweet, but the alcohol packs a punch. It's perfect for dessert, as it's served at the hotel, or for a late-afternoon snack with coffee.

It takes a while to make the cake yourself. Even though we had several hours dedicated to the cooking class, our instructor, Philippa, who makes all of the cakes for the hotel and its restaurants, prepped cherries, sponge and sable, a cookielike dough that forms the crunchy base of the cake, ahead of time.

In a small but cozy industrial kitchen overlooking the hills, 10 of us crowded around a butcher block counter as she showed us, step by step, how to make thickened sour cherries and cherry brandy mousse, how to assemble the cake and how to decorate it, which included shaving dark chocolate off a large block.

We left the back door open, hoping to catch a bit of the crisp mountain air. Tinged with the scent of cherries and chocolate, it wafted through the room as each of us took turns spreading cherries and mousse and soaking sponge cake with kirsch. We piped rosettes of cream and dropped glazed cherries in a ring around the top, finishing things off with our mound of chocolate shavings.

We practiced on two cakes: one to eat alongside a fresh cup of black coffee, and one to be served in the dining room later that night.

There's nothing quite like eating a slice of that cake while watching a misty rain fall over fir tree-covered hilltops. The hotel says Black Forest Cake tastes best right there among the forest, but, if it's made the right way, you can feel a little of that satisfaction wherever you are.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at carlynncrosby@yahoo.com.

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