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The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

The magical kitschiness of Black Forest gateau

The magical kitschiness of Black Forest gateau
Illustration by Natasha Lawson
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Kitsch is something of my stock-in-trade. And it doesn’t get more kitsch than Black Forest gateau. Pots of cream, pints of cherry schnapps, a storm of chocolate shavings and some very baroque decoration: it ticks all my old-school boxes.

Of course, we are very familiar with the Black Forest gateau’s – BFG to its friends – punchy flavours. Chocolate, cherry, cream. What a trio! Now so classic that we barely give it a second thought. But where did this particular combination of ingredients first come from? I like the (unsubstantiated)theory that it harks back to a traditional costume worn by women in the Black Forest: dark chocolate for their black dresses, cream for their blouses, cherries for the red pompoms on their hats. But then I’m a sentimental soul.

Actually it may be that these better-known components play second fiddle to the kirsch. It is a strong, clear spirit distilled from the region’s morello cherries – and it plays an important role in the cake, painted onto the sponge and folded through the cream. It’s often assumed that the cake is named after the Schwarzwald, Germany’s wild and beautiful Black Forest region, known for its abundant cherry trees. But it may in fact be named after Schwarzwälder Kirschwasser, the ‘cherry water’ itself. Either way, a strong hit of schnapps is non-negotiable for a proper BFG.

Over the years, the cake has diversified: you’ll find the distinctive flavour combination in any number of puddings – from ice creams to cheesecakes, brownies to pavlovas – more often than you’ll encounter the cake itself. But while I’ll never turn my nose up at the remixes, I want to make the case for the original.

The magic of a Black Forest gateau is its balance, which is only achieved by staying close to the original recipe. For all its saccharine looks, BFG is not actually a terribly sweet cake: the sponge is slightly bitter with cocoa, the cream barely sweetened and the cherries spiked with schnapps, more liquor than liqueur. It is a decadent cake, yes, but not an overly intense or cloying one.

According to the original German, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte is not even a cake, but a torte. Now, this may sound like hairsplitting semantics, but stay with me. A torte is made up of several thin layers of sponge, each interleaved with fresh, whipped cream. Cream cakes have fallen out of fashion these days, with their poor shelf life and even poorer portability. We tend toward sturdier, sweeter buttercreamed bakes. But the barely sweetened cream gives Black Forest gateau its flavour and texture.

Traditionally, a chocolate genoise is used: a light lean sponge that, once baked, is almost dry. Some modern renditions of the cake plump for a richer, softer sponge, more like a brownie. But that rather defeats the point of that sponge, which is to absorb as much booze as is physically possible. The genoise is ideal for this. Softened by the cream, sodden with strong booze and rippled with kirsch-drunk black cherries, it is almost closer to a trifle than a sponge. As the cake sits, the different layers muddle together, transforming into something greater than the sum of its parts.

There are many places and many dishes where restraint pays off in cooking. A Black Forest gateau, I submit, is not one of them. Don’t try to make it chic. Don’t try to tone it down. I mask my BFG entirely in whipped cream, and then build upwards from there. The result is like a 1980s wedding dress: bright white, billowing, over-the-top. Embrace the kitsch – and the kirsch.

Serves 10 Bakes 30 mins, plus cooling

For the sponge

55g butter 6 eggs

½ tsp fine salt

150g light brown sugar

90g plain flour

60g cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

For the decoration

350g black cherries in kirsch

4 tbsp kirsch

750ml double cream

3 tbsp caster sugar

75g dark chocolate

10 fresh cherries

  1. Preheat oven to 180°C. Line the base of two 20cm cake tins with greaseproof.
  2. Melt the butter in a small pan and let it briefly bubble up until it begins to darken slightly and smell nutty. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Whisk eggs and light brown sugar together for five minutes until very thick and pale. Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt together, and then gently fold into the egg mixture in three batches. Fold in the melted butter.
  4. Divide mixture between the two tins and bake for 30 minutes, then leave to cool. Remove the baking paper from the sponges and cut both horizontally. You now have four layers of sponge.
  5. Whisk together the cream, kirsch and caster sugar until the cream forms soft peaks. Drain the cherries and chop in half, reserving the kirsch syrup.
  6. Place one layer of sponge on a large plate. Paint it generously with the cherry kirsch syrup, then spoon a layer of whipped cream on top and spread it gently to the edges of the sponge. Sprinkle a third of the soaked cherries on the cream, and place a second layer of sponge on top. Repeat for two more layers. Paint the underside of the final layer of sponge with the syrup and lay it on top. Smooth whipped cream on top and around the sides of the cake to completely coat it.
  7. Grate the dark chocolate and sprinkle it over the top and sides of the cake, pressing gently to help it adhere.
  8. Put the rest of the whipped cream in a piping bag with a large star nozzle. Pipe ten swirls around the top of the cake. Place a fresh cherry on each, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

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