The largest cafes serve, hot or cold, comforting spoon desserts. We would call them all puddings, but there are subtle differences.
Koch are usually based on bread crumbs, stale bread, ground nuts, or some other flour substitute, bound with an egg custard.
They are so characteristic of the Viennese kitchen that they are sometimes called
Wiener Koch. The Auflauf is related to the dessert soufflé, made light with separated eggs. The English word pudding is used in Vienna to describe warm, unmolded desserts like the steamed chocolate Mohr im Hemd (“Moor in a Shirt”) or the walnut Nuβlpudding.
Also in this chapter are other soft desserts that defy categorization but are nonetheless best when eaten with a spoon, bite by creamy bite. I have not included one of the pillars of the coffeehouse, ice cream. While the very best Konditorein make their own, most cafés buy the ice creams and sorbets from outside vendors and turn them into the kind of desserts that are familiar wherever you live. This is not to say they’re not good, but an ice cream sundae is an ice cream sundae whether you’re in Vienna, Austria, or Vienna, Virginia.
Sipping a cup of coffee in a Kaffeehaus is more than just a way to get caffeine into your system (for that you can stand up in an espresso bar, of which there are plenty). From the first sip, you’ll notice that the coffee tastes richer and fuller than an American cup of Joe, and no matter where you go, the quality is consistent and high.
To find out what makes Viennese coffee uniquely delicious, I asked the coffee experts at Julius Meinl. The Meinl name is well known throughout Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic as a supermarket chain (including a spectacular new gourmet market on the Graben in Vienna), but they started out as a small coffee importer. The flavor of their Vienna roast coffee is the standard to which all Vienna roasts aspire. Herr Meinl opened his first store in 1862. At that time, coffee beans were sold green and were roasted at home, a time-consuming and exacting chore. Meinl decided to offer freshly roasted coffee beans to his customers, and that convenience turned his few stores into an empire.
Ever since the Turks brought coffee to Austria, the Viennese have preferred to mellow coffee’s bitterness with milk or cream. To allow for this, the coffee beans are roasted to a point at which the flavor will blend well with the customer’s dairy product of choice. The roasting temperature is one component, as Vienna roast is just a shade lighter than espresso. But the length of the roasting time is even more important: Vienna-roasted coffee beans lose only eighteen percent of their weight, whereas beans roasted to the espresso stage lose twenty percent. The result: rich roasted flavor without espresso’s burnt edge. While the exact blend of beans remains a secret, the Meinl people did tell me that Guatemalan beans have the correct flavor for Vienna roast, while the Brazilian beans are favored for Italian espresso.
To further my Viennese coffee education, I spoke with Gert Gerersdorfer, the longtime owner of Café Dommayer, one of the most traditional of cafés in this city where history lives on in every cup of melange. Along with the special roast, Herr Gerersdorfer feels that the clear Viennese water from the mountain springs of the Rax, Hochschwab, and Schneeberg (“snow mountain”) also contribute to the special flavor.
But when I took my first sip of Dommayer’s coffee, I immediately sensed there was something more. Herr Gerersdorfer explained that his café’s blend of coffee was flavored with minuscule amounts of
Feigenkaffee (“fig coffee”) and Malzkaffee (“malt coffee”). During Austria’s battle-scarred history, good coffee beans were often not to be had. To stretch what coffee was available, or to substitute for it altogether, ground dried figs or roasted malt were used to such an extent that the Viennese actually acquired a taste for the substitutes. The majority of people who like their coffee this way are probably older coffeehouse customers, and they can truly say that Dommayer’s brew tastes just like they used to make it in the old days.
On my way home from Dommayer, I stopped in at the neighborhood Julius Meinl and picked up some Feigenkaffee and Malzkaffee. At a friend’s house, we added a bit of each to our pot of Vienna roast coffee and evaluated the results. The figs did add a bit of sweetness, and the malt increased the creamy head on the coffee. They may not have actually improved a good thing, but we could discern a difference. Will I be carrying bags of dried figs and malt back on my next trip to add to my stateside morning coffee? Probably not. Like sipping Provençal wine in the South of France, the ephemeral pleasures of a Viennese melange are probably best savored at the source.