Celebrity Dining: A Sweet Slice of Jewish History

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Celebrity Dining: A Sweet Slice of Jewish History

Celebrity Dining:

At Demel, one of Vienna’s most famous imperial confectioners, behind a glass-fronted case and displayed upon a silver platter is a cake with a Jewish story waiting to be told: Faechertorte.

This proud and rather substantial creation, whose name (meaning “fan cake”) derives from its many layers of apples and poppy seeds, walnuts and plum jam, has been baked and sold at this former purveyor to the Habsburg royal family since at least the turn of the 20th century. The keepers of Demel’s secrets actually do not know how it came into their repertoire. Its history, though, is one of empire and migration, spanning central Europe, starting and ending in the Austrian capital, with the Jewish kitchen very much at its core.

But before we get to that, perhaps best to learn first how Faechertorte is made.

I stepped into Demel’s kitchens recently with their production manager, Alexander Jusits. In order to make one cake, first a circle of all-butter pie dough, rolled out to a thickness of about a fifth of an inch, is placed at the bottom of a ring mold, which itself sits on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. A long strip of crust is then unfurled and wrapped around the inside of the baking form, creating the shell that will hold the frankly enormous quantities of filling.

First up: one and a half pounds of poppy seeds, which are cooked with milk and sugar to form an incredibly thick and somewhat difficult-to-spread paste. The walnut filling—also one and a half pounds of it—comes next and is much wetter, more pliable, and flavored with honey. Two pounds of apples, which have been sliced and cooked for around 45 minutes with sugar and cinnamon such that they are tender but still hold their shape, form the third layer, and atop that, Jusits carefully pipes two concentric circles of powidl: a dark, rich plum jam, Czech in origin, made from sugar and zwetschgen, a central European variety of plum similar to Italian prune plums.

To finish the Faechertorte, a second and slightly larger round of pie dough is pressed down onto the ring mold, trimming its excess. This cropped circle sits atop the cake, with the powidl forming a kind of barrier between the pastry and the fillings beneath. Once crimped with a fork and pierced to allow the steam to escape, the Faechertorte is baked for one and a half hours and allowed to cool completely before being somewhat forcefully removed from its ring mold. Finally, as the Austrians say, it is angezuckert: liberally coated with a layer of powdered sugar.

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In her 1964 book, Die Jüdische Kuche, Salcia Landmann traces the origins of Faechertorte not to another cake but to strudel, a dish born in Vienna but one that, in the 18th century, became popular throughout the Habsburg Empire. Their “crown lands” encompassed a swathe of territory including Bohemia and Moravia, Galicia and Bukovina, and with it, their Jewish communities. In the hands of Polish Jews, likely those residing in Silesia, Vienna’s strudel became fluden, whose filling consists of breadcrumbs mixed with honey or molasses, walnuts, raisins, dried figs and dates, finely sliced apples, and lemon and orange zest.

Though Kajta Sindemann, author of 2009’s Mazzesinsel Kochbuch of Viennese Jewish recipes, writes that the dish is most commonly associated with Sukkot, Landmann claims fluden was often baked by Eastern European Jews around Purim and, on account of its relatively exotic ingredients and culinary influences, was known also as Balkan strudel. Indeed, more contemporary sources also describe fluden as a “special-occasion cake” linked not only to Purim but also wedding celebrations.

Flódni, a variation on fluden, was later developed in Hungary. It was here that the cake changed from being a rolled strudel to something layered and baked in a round cake tin or other high-sided pan. Its layers—poppy seed, walnuts, powidl, and apples—mirror that of the Faechertorte, but unlike the Viennese torte, the component parts of the Hungarian flódni are separated by layers of pie crust made using chicken fat (according to Landmann) and rolled out to a thickness of around a tenth of an inch. (Another note from Landmann: Flódni is best served with Turkish coffee or a glass of schnapps, as coffee with milk does not go with what she calls this “Oriental cake.”)

Flódni itself has undergone something of a revival in Budapest thanks to the celebrity baker Rachel Raj and signs advertising it as a specifically Jewish cake are easily spotted through the city’s Jewish quarter. “Do you know how many people take home flódni for Christmas?” Raj told Tablet in 2015—a sign of its popularity with Jews and non-Jews alike. In Vienna, the only place to sell flódni is Café Eskeles, the restaurant in the lobby of the city’s excellent Jewish museum on Dorotheergasse, run by Vojtech and Eleonora Goldstein, the latter of whom bakes the cakes herself in-house.

Though Landmann’s recipe for flódni suggests using honey or molasses to bind the poppy seeds or walnuts together, Eleonora uses sugar, which puts the flavors of the various ingredients at the forefront—just one of the reasons why her flódni is, as an aside, even considering the fierce competition in Vienna, one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten. As for its meaning and importance, though its component parts such as poppy seeds and powidl are very much associated with Purim by way of hamantaschen, Goldstein does not regard it as being bound to a specific day in the Jewish calendar.

When flódni became Faechertorte is a question without a definitive answer, but by the early 20th century it had something of a place in the Viennese Jewish kitchen as well as Demel’s repertoire. The Vienna-based food blogger Nino Loss-Weiss, who first wrote of the link between Faechertorte and flódni, discovered a 2003 interview in the archives of the Centropa historical institute, describing a scene from someone’s prewar Viennese childhood of a huge meal, eaten after Yom Kippur, of goose followed by Faechertorte. The cake is also mentioned in the short stories of Friedrich Torberg, whose 1975 work, Die Tante Jolesch, collects and presents some humorous and touching anecdotes of life in interwar Vienna, Prague, and other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The connection that binds Vienna’s Jews to Demel’s Faechertorte is a historical if not a contemporary one, Loss-Weiss told me—those who enjoyed the cake either at home or in Vienna’s coffeehouses in the years before WWII having been, in Loss-Weiss’ words, “chased and murdered.” When I reached him by email, Loss-Weiss also said that, in part because Demel itself does not really know how Faechertorte ended up in its coterie of cakes, its Jewish heritage is not widely known or appreciated in Vienna today. It is to Demel’s credit though, he concluded, that the shop keeps Faechertorte on its menu.

In Demel’s dining room, described by the British food writer Nigel Slater as a “magical place”—for those with a sweet tooth, there is “no better place in the world,” he told the Austrian daily Der Standard—of course I had to try a piece of this storied and well-traveled cake. The Faechertorte’s layers, far from competing, in fact complement one another, with the sweet and lightly spiced apples playing off against the heavier and more astringent poppy seeds, which in turn are cut by the rich walnuts and buttery crust. No wonder Slater said that Faechertorte would be a part of his last meal on Earth.

Such is the time and expense required to make Faechertorte (as I discovered) that today Demel is the only place in Vienna where this magnificent creation can still be found. They make eight of these towering tortes every two to three days: far fewer than the 20 or 30 Sachertorte they turn out every day, but Faechertorte has been a staple for a hundred years and is never off the menu. Indeed, were it not for Demel, this slice of imperial Austrian and Jewish culinary history would have disappeared off people’s plates a long time ago.

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Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.

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