In my post about The Great British Menu I mentioned that some seconds into the research I realised that many, and famous, had already beaten a path to that particular door.
One such was a chef called Heston Blumenthal. I should perhaps explain that I lead a busy life and I don’t watch television – I’ve never seen Downton Abbey, Big Brother… ‘Strictly’… or anything else really except for boxed sets of detective series. And, although I’d heard the name, I knew nothing about Heston Blumenthal, except that he’d turned my local petrol station cafe into a bubbling laboratory for obscure culinary experiments.
I soon discovered that he’d covered two of the three courses of the Menu in his book In Search of Total Perfection so naturally I bought the book and dutifully perused it. And my eye, of course, was drawn to his take on the Black Forest Gâteau – he’d written a whole chapter on that.
Adventures in emulating – or not – Blumenthal’s Black Forest Gâteau
Well, in truth, not too dutifully. It soon became clear that the total price Blumenthal was willing to pay was not one which I could match. By taking out a mortgage I could manage the cost in terms of money; but I couldn’t do the time. So I skipped blithely over the paragraphs of complex techniques.
And that is not just because I’m busy – even the most deliciously and fortunately idle would struggle, I imagine, to allocate the recommended (I accept not full-time) month for making this cake – it’s also a matter of priorities. My compromise was to work along the two-day lines of the dedicated investigative journalist, Christopher Hirst, whose account of attempting to emulate Blumenthal’s recommendations for constructing (and I use that word advisedly) a Black Forest gateau – aka Schwarzwälderkirschtorte – is one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve enjoyed for ages. See Man Versus Gâteau.
Reducing the time…not by mere minutes… but by hours
I was immediately able, for example, to reduce the time for this recipe by not just minutes, but hours. Hirst sets off in search of Blumenthal’s requisite ‘wood-effect painting tool’ for fashioning the madeleine biscuit base. Necessity is the mother etc and the idea of replacing this layer with a wooden chopping board fair flashed into the grey matter as a stroke of genius.
In fact, following the same inspired line of thinking, I quickly decided I could dispense with two more of Blumenthal’s six layers. Reading the instructions for the aerated chocolate layer, which involved a vacuum-sealed storage bag with a one-way valve and a vacuum cleaner, I quickly determined that this layer was definitely de trop. Since I didn’t deem the distinction between aerated chocolate and chocolate mousse as being too significant I deleted that as well. I reasoned that enough ‘frothy’ texture could be derived from the whipped cream filling.
The importance of quality ingredients
There the compromises had to stop. ‘Garbage in, garbage out’ I philosophised, I might get away with cutting corners timewise, but there is no substitute for quality. I couldn’t track down the mail order facility of the Blumenthal-distillery-visited Franz Fies kirsch, but I found an excellent alternative in Fassbind, a brand I’d got to know from when I used to regularly spend time in Luzern, in Switzerland. On trusty Amazon I tracked down both the Amadei Porcelana chocolate (most expensive in the world) and the Amarena Fabbri sour cherries. These made all the difference – of all Blumenthal’s specified ingredients this is the one I would stick with over all the others, and they come in a very pretty jar which is perfect for paint brushes. In the early stages of my research I made a version with ordinary Opies cherries in syrup and it just didn’t compare – wholly inferior. Blumenthal suggests Green & Black’s Organic cocoa for the sponge, but I take my courage into both hands and brazenly contradict Blumenthal, opining that the Dutch makes are better: I use Van Houten. And I really mean courage because in the process of all this I came to consider Blumenthal the most serious, daring, and dedicated chef to emerge so far this century.
Back with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and in an investigative journalistic spirit worthy of Hirst, I followed the Blumenthal recommendation of putting some Kirsch into an aerosol and spraying it around just prior to serving this magnificent cake and I am disappointed to report that no one really noticed, next time I will spray more vigorously. However, what is essential is to pass around the laced cherry syrup in a jug and encourage liberal pouring (no mamby pamby drizzling).
Blumenthal journeyed to the 250 year old Café König in Baden-Baden in the Black Forest to savour an authentic Schwarzwälderkirschtorte. And many others have also been drawn to the town and the area, as much for the spa as for the cafés. In the nineteenth century it was a magnet for artists and musicians. Berlioz’ opera Béatrice et Bénédict was composed for the opening of the Thearer der Stadt of Baden-Baden, and Johannes Brahms wrote some of his greatest music there (see video clip below). Dostoyevsky was also inspired by the Baden-Baden facilities. He wrote The Gambler there after losing all his money at the casino in the Kurhaus.
So, without further ado, here is the perfect Black Forest Gâteau without the tears.
Recipe for Black Forest Gâteau
For about 20 people! And you pretty much need a sword to cut it as well as large plates…
For the sponge:
- 360g/2½ cups/13 oz self-raising flour (or the same amount of plain flour with two tsp baking powder)
- 450g/2 cups golden caster sugar
- 120g/4 oz dutch cocoa powder (Van Houten for preference)
- 125g/4 oz/half a brick of butter
- 300 ml/1¼ cups sour cream (using sour cream together with cream of tartar which is one of the ingredients of baking powder results in a very light and moist sponge)
- 2 eggs
- 200ml/a miserly cup of boiling water
- Pinch of salt
For the kirsch cream:
- 2 tbsp kirsch
- 500g/17.5 oz mascarpone
- 6 tbsp icing sugar
- 240ml/1 cup double cream
For the chocolate ganache (what I used to call ‘icing’):
- 100g/3.5 oz bar Amadei Porcelana (Hirst uses Valrhona)
- 20g unsalted butter, diced
- 95 ml/⅓ cup plus one tbsp whipping cream
- Pinch of salt
- Heston uses also 1 tsp of glucose syrup, but I wasn’t as lucky as Hirst, who ‘managed to get the last phial of liquid glucose from Boots’ in my reconstruction. Blumenthal uses the glucose because it helps to keep the icing soft and moist. You can use an ‘invert’ syrup instead – clear honey or golden syrup – which is what I did.
- 1 jar apricot conserve (Bonne Maman is fine)
- Fresh red fruit – cherries obviously, raspberries, blueberries etc to decorate
- Wooden board on which to serve
- Kirsch to mix with the cherry syrup – this is DEFINITELY NOT an optional extra. In Germany there is even a law which prevents the sale of Schwarzwälderkirschtorte unless it contains kirsch
- 1 600g jar amarena fabbri cherries
To make the laced-with-kirsch syrup:
- Drain off the cherries, keeping the syrup.
- Soak the cherries in kirsch.
- Mix the remaining syrup in proportions of about one-third kirsch to two-thirds syrup, but taste carefully
To make the sponge:
- Take the eggs, the sour cream and the butter out of the fridge
- Heat the oven to 180ºC (use the bottom right aga oven)
- Sift the flour, cocoa, and salt into a big mixing bowl, stir together
- Add the rest of the ingredients, and stir
- Divide equally between three, greased, non-stick cake tins of the same diameter
- Bake for a maximum 25 minutes
- Take out of the oven, and when they have cooled sufficiently to be able to be taken out of their tins without breaking, invert them over a wire rack and leave.
To make the kirsch cream:
- Mix all the ingredients together, then whip lightly until it will just hold its shape
- To make the chocolate ganache:
- Heat the cream gently
- Separately, in a bain marie, break the chocolate into pieces and melt gently
- Add the warmed cream and mix in
- Stir in the butter, the liquid glucose or honey
- Put layer one firmly on the wooden base, flatten it off with a bread knife if necessary.
- Spread over a very thin layer of apricot conserve
- Spread over half the kirsch cream
- Spread over half the soaked bitter cherries
- Place over the next cake
- Repeat as above
- Place over next cake
- Pour over the icing
- Decorate with the fresh fruit
- Put your feet up and pour yourself a drink!