An Austro-Hungarian Torte is the edible equivalent of a Mozart symphony combined with the frivolity of a Strauss waltz. Just as the finest conductors find levels of sophistication in the simplest tunes, master bakers create masterpieces of flavor and beauty from Torten. For it is not enough for a Torte to just taste good — it must be impressively gorgeous as well. Some of these classics became legends.
In common American usage, a torte means a cake that is made from crumbs or ground nuts instead of flour. In the Austro-Hungarian kitchen, many Torten still use these ingredients, but they aren’t a requirement, and even a cake with flour can be called a Torte. The word Torte comes from the Italian torta, which means “fine cake” and first appeared in print in 1418. (Torta could have derived from the Latin tortum, which can mean “bread” or to “twist.”) The first Torten were savory, and filled with meat, fish, herbs, or vegetables. To this day, a French tourte is always made from meat—and is usually a covered pastry—and even though there are savory tartes, most are sweet.
Originally, Torten often used ground nuts in their batters because they were abundant and less expensive than flour, and stale crumbs were put to use because nothing edible was wasted. Sugar was an extremely costly rarity (twenty pounds of sugar cost the equivalent of one of today’s automobiles), and the secret of how to process it from cane was held tight by the Arabs. Honey was used as a sweetener, making cakes that were on the heavy side. In fact, the dough was so heavy it was often pressed into decorative wooden molds, a technique that is still used in some gingerbread recipes.
As the milling of flour improved, and as sugar became more available to the middle classes, cakes became lighter and more delicate. Master bakers strove to take their culinary art to higher levels, and Torten became more and more baroque, reflecting the lavish, full-blown visual art of the period. One cookbook from 1719 already included ninety-six recipes for Torten. When the technique of extracting sugar from beets was finally perfected in 1802, making sugar even less expensive, bakers were inspired to create more and more Torten to keep up with the demand.
From then on, the Austro-Hungarian citizenry would no sooner give up their Torten than their Kaffee. Torten are traditionally named for their main ingredients (as in Nußtorte, or Walnut Torte), for their inventor (Sachertorte or Dobostorte being two famous examples), or in honor of a place or event (Panamatorte or Malakofftorte). Bakers and their public know the components of each of these cakes by heart. There is no need to explain to them that a Panamatorte has chocolate and almond flavors. Even if the eater knows nothing about Austrian military history or the Battle of Malakoff, he or she is sure that a Malakofftorte will be made from ladyfingers (or some other light cake) with a creamy filling. It will never contain chocolate, even if the baker is dying to stretch his or her imagination.
At a Kaffeehaus, cream-filled Torten are usually displayed in a refrigerated dessert case, where the desserts don’t have to be covered. (The cut surfaces are protected from drying by small pieces of clear plastic pressed against them.) In your home refrigerator, use a plastic cake dome to cover the cake, which will keep out unwanted flavors from other foods in the refrigerator and won’t touch and mar the surface of glazed cakes. You’ll be surprised at the shelf life of these fancy cakes. They’ll last at least a couple of days, if everyone who opens the refrigerator has the willpower of a saint.