What: The Original Sachertorte, a rich cake made from Belgian and German chocolate interlaced with apricot filling and served with unsweetened whipped cream, made in its original form at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna. Here’s a picture I took of one today.
Why: In the United States, we call a piece of cake melted down, osso buco-style, to the rich essence of pure chocolate a “decadence” or a “death by chocolate.” In Austria, they call it “cake.” There is no point in making it, the Austrians think, unless it reduces you to moaning as you eat it. Probably half the world’s best cakes are made in Austria, but the unrivaled king of all it surveys is the sachertorte. The dessert is a triumph of working class knowhow in extremis. In 1832, Austria’s Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich demanded that his chef make him a special dessert for important guests. The chef had taken ill, so his 16-year-old assistant, Franz Sacher, came up with this recipe on the spot. The Prince’s guests were delighted with Franz’s torte, and when Franz’s son Eduard completed his chef’s training, he perfected the recipe that stands seventeen decades later. Eduard established the Hotel Sacher, possibly the only hotel whose identity was formed around a dessert. The torte itself was the subject of a vicious lawsuit last century, so that now there are two versions of the recipe—the Original at the Hotel Sacher, and Demel’s Sacher Torte, whose recipe is held by Sacher’s heirs—competing for Austria’s top culinary attraction.
Impact: The Hotel Sacher, and its signature dish, remain among Vienna’s most popular tourist attractions. Over 350,000 cakes are sold per year. It owns a day of the year, as December 5th in Austria is National Sachertorte Day. If it is possible to make Belgians weep with jealousy over a chocolate creation, the sachertorte does it.
Personal Connection: My father and I stopped at the Hotel Sacher for sachertorte on our way to Sarajevo today. This was his first visit to Vienna, but it was my second visit to the hotel. My first was in 1990 with future Pulitzer-winning journalist Lisa Grace Lednicer. Now, we are both chatty people, Lisa and me. Over dessert that day, we said nothing. The sachertorte spoke for both of us.
Other Contenders: the Thin Mint, America’s greatest contribution to the cookie landscape, available every February from eight-year-old sash-bedecked street peddlers; Chinese egg tarts, brought in by cart at the end of a dim sum feast; the red velvet cupcake, the one great use for beets; gulab jamun, an Indian donut hole drenched in honey for hours; hurmašice, a Bosnian walnut pastry drowned in syrup; apple pie, which is as American as America.