Cake and coffee in the afternoon — the essential fourth meal of the day for many Germans and Austrians — was a standard in our house on Sunday afternoons, when my parents invited their friends, many of them Jews from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or Czechoslavakia. The cake and coffee ritual evoked a kind of elegant life, when people had time to converse at leisure, drink from fine china, and consume whipped cream, nuts, and chocolate on a regular basis.
My father remembered all this because he was already 28 when he left Germany. His father had been a music and theater critic in Mannheim, and my father often accompanied him to performances and late dinners with the artists, meeting stars like dancer Anna Pavlova, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and renowned theatrical director Max Reinhart. Though my father’s family was not well off, they led a cultured life — until they were ripped away from it all. But the fine pastries, the cakes and tortes served as a reminder of those elegant times.
Our next door neighbors in Chicago, Henry and Margaret Newman, were also Jewish and had come from Vienna. Henry had been in two concentration camps, and somehow Margaret had managed to get him out. Whereas my family had brought no material possessions to speak of from the old country — only recipes — the Newmans had been wealthy in Austria and were able to bring their china and silver settings and even furniture to America with them. They became very good friends with our family, and Mrs. Newman, as we children always called her, quickly established a reputation for her desserts, especially the fine cakes she seemed to make for every occasion. She’d make a Kugelhopf — a buttery yeast cake with raisins baked in a fluted ring mold — to eat after breaking the Yom Kippur fast every year, and serve it with generous dollops of whipped cream. My mother was horrified that she’d serve such rich food after a fast, and indeed Mrs. Newman sometimes became ill after eating it — but she claimed it was worth the suffering.
For coffee parties and other gatherings, Mrs. Newman made a rich chocolate Sacher torte layered with raspberry filling, or a cake of layered wafers, or an apple strudel, again served with whipped cream. But the cake I remember most from her kitchen was a wonderfully light Viennese Chocolate Almond Torte, a flourless cake held together by a delicate bond of ground almonds, sweet chocolate, and beaten eggs. Sometimes she split it open horizontally and filled it with red currant jelly. Sometimes she made a white or a chocolate icing, and decorated it with whole almonds. Most often, she served it in a classic Viennese way: with billowing clouds of lightly-sweetened whipped cream on top.
Mrs. Newman generously passed the recipe to my mother, who approved of the cake because, in truth, it contained no butter or cream, and was therefore not so rich as to offend my mother’s more moderate sensibilities. My mother eschewed the whipped cream, of course, instead serving it with a simple dusting of powdered sugar, and Mrs. Newman taught her to lay a paper doily on the top of the cake before she sifted the sugar over it, so as to make a lacy design.
My mother lost the recipe for the torte, or perhaps gave her only copy to me, for I have a tattered index card with the recipe and serving suggestions typed on it, and I’ve been making the cake for more years than I can remember.
Margaret Newman has since passed away, but whenever I make this torte, I think of her in her 1950s kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, melting chocolate and brewing strong coffee, beating egg whites and grinding almonds — smelling the torte baking in her oven, and remembering better days.
I’ve always made this cake for the Passover Seder feast, as it’s a time when we can’t use any flour. But this year, I had to adapt, as Steve is allergic to almonds. On Epicurious I found a chocolate-walnut torte that was very similar (Hungarian, the recipe said) and I tried combining the best of the two recipes for this year’s seder. It turned out to be the best one I’d made yet! I’m sure you could use almonds or hazelnuts in place of the walnuts, if you so desire.
Chocolate Nut Torte
- 3/4 cup sugar
- ½ cup strong coffee
- 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut in small pieces, or good quality chocolate chips
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 6 ounces shelled walnuts (about 2 cups)
- 3 tablespoons matzoh meal
- Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment or wax paper.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- In a medium saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and 1/2 cup coffee and bring to a boil, stirring constantly over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.
- Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer in a large bowl until light and thickened, about 4 minutes. Grind the walnuts with the remaining sugar and the matzoh meal, using a food processor if you have one (or a nut grinder, in batches). Stir the walnut-matzo meal mixture into the egg yolks. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and combine thoroughly.
- Using clean beaters, beat the egg whites in another bowl, gradually adding the ¼ cup of sugar after the egg whites become foamy, until they hold stiff peaks. Gradually fold the whites into the chocolate-walnut mixture, incorporating them gently but thoroughly so that no whites are visible.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until and almost set but still a little gooey in the center. It is ready when a wooden toothpick inserted an inch from the edge comes out clean.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let cool on a rack. When completely cool, release the springform. You can try inverting it onto a platter so you can peel off the parchment paper, or leave as is and take off the parchment paper after you cut each slice. If desired, lightly dust with Passover or other confectioners sugar or top with lightly sweetened whipped cream. Serve the torte at room temperature.