Chef Column: Black Forest cake, with a cherry on top

North Fork Chef John Ross' Black Forest cake
Black Forest cake.

The stream that bubbles below,
Like an incessant lyric,
A monk’s chant in a monastery.
The cherry tree hangs

With bloom on its sagging boughs.
Ah, to look at trees in all their splendour,
In this Black Forest idyll.
The blue Schwarzwald range
Makes poetry out of the dying Sun.

excerpt from “Schwarzwaldlyrik” by Satis Shroff

The world-famous combination of chocolate cake, whipped cream, cherries and kirschwasser known in the United States as Black Forest cake is not named for the Black Forest specifically, but for the liqueur of that region known as Schwarzwalder Kirsch. Without this liqueur in the recipe, German statutory law does not permit the use of the name Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte. It is the perfect dessert in which to indulge yourself and loved ones during this sometimes bleak time of year.

On a recent trip to visit my daughter in Bockenheim, Germany, I attended a birthday party and, according to custom, many cakes were served. But a beautiful Black Forest cake struck me as both decadent and delicious. (If you invest in unwanted calories, they should be good ones.) This cake was made by Hildegard Bahrdt, a longtime employee of the Schloss Janson Winery and a serious amateur cake baker. She was kind enough to share with me her recipe given to her by her mother. My adaptation includes American measurements and easy-to-find ingredients.

The elements of this cake include the base (knetteigboden); the sponge cake (biskuitboden); the filling (fullung); the stabilized whipping cream (schlagsahne) and the chocolate garnish (schokolade geraspelt). A 10-inch springform pan and a mixer are required equipment.

Whisk 2/3 cup flour, 1 tablespoon cocoa, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 cup sugar in a bowl. Stir in 1 egg white (unbeaten) and 3 tablespoons cold butter cut into small pieces. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender as you would do with a pie crust. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead briefly to form a ball. Flatten the ball of dough and wrap in plastic film. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with no-stick spray. Roll out the chilled dough on a lightly floured surface and place on the bottom of the pan. Bake for 12 minutes and remove. When slightly cool, remove the sides from the springform pan and slide the knetteigboden onto a cake plate. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of Kirschwasser (cherry brandy).

(sour cherry filling)
Strain one 14.5-ounce can of sour pitted cherries into a bowl, saving the juice. Place 1/2 cup of the juice in a saucepan and dissolve 1 tablespoon cornstarch in 1 tablespoon cold water. Stir the cornstarch mixture into the juice and bring to a boil. When thickened, remove from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon kirschwasser. Add the cherries back to the sauce and refrigerate.

(sponge cake)
Combine 2/3 cup flour, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, 1 teaspoon cocoa and 1/2 teaspoon baking powder in a bowl and stir with a whisk. With an electric mixer beat 4 egg yolks with 1/4 cup hot water and 1/3 cup sugar at high speed until volume doubles, about 5 minutes. Separately, beat 4 egg whites until soft peaks form. Add 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract at low speed. Fold together the yolks and whites in a large bowl and gently fold in the dry ingredients. Spray the springform pan with no-stick and place the cake batter in the bottom. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes and remove.

(stabilized whipped cream)
Place 3 cups heavy cream in a chilled bowl along with 2 .35-ounce packages of whipped cream stabilizer (omit this if serving the cake right away). Whip the cream at high speed until the soft peak stage and add 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. When stiff, remove and set aside.

To assemble the cake, place the cake plate with the knetteigboden on it in front of you. Spread 1/2 cup cherry jam on this base. Cut the sponge cake in half horizontally and place one half on top of the jam-covered base. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon kirschwasser. Remove 16 cherries from the filling mixture and set aside.

Add about 2 cups of the whipped cream to the remaining filling and fold together. Spread this on the cake layer and cover with the other half of the cake. Sprinkle another tablespoon of kirschwasser on this layer and coat with whipped cream. Cover the sides and top and smooth it all out with a spatula.

Place the remaining cream in a pastry bag with a star tube and pipe 16 stars on top of the cake. Place a cherry on each star. Using a vegetable peeler, make chocolate shavings with one bar of German chocolate (or other chocolate). Shave the chocolate onto a piece of wax paper and refrigerate briefly before placing around the sides of the cake. Sprinkle a few more shavings on top and serve.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected].