While Vienna’s grand architecture was most certainly impressive, the real highlight of the city may well be the desserts. Tucked in amongst the intricate cathedrals, stone sculptures, and historic buildings are innumerable charming patisseries, showcasing dozens and dozens of beautiful, hand-crafted cakes and pastries.
Before embarking on the trip, I’d stumbled across some information about the Sacher-Torte, perhaps the city’s most famous confection, and immediately added it to my list of European must-haves (there is always room for cake atop one’s life list). However, after reading further about Vienna’s reputation as one of the greatest dessert cities in the world, I contemplated, ‘why on Earth would I stop at the Sacher-Torte?!’ As you have all probably learned from this blog, for me chocolate cake ranks right up there with cute wildlife and the Muppets. Thus, our trip to Vienna quickly transformed into ‘The Ultimate Cake Tour.’
For the next three and a half days, as we wandered the streets of the sprawling metro, we stopped at a handful of small cafes, sampling as many treats as our wallets and stomachs would allow. By the end, we’d tried fourteen desserts from five different pastry shops (we ended up making a return trip to Café Central, as they may have had the most enticing display case). The only confection that is not pictured below is the apple strudel from Café Sacher. Stephan demonstrated a blatant disregard for the rule that each dessert must be photographed before consumption, as he shoveled the sugar-dusted pastry into his face before I could even say Sacher-Torte. Apparently I’m not the only one who was a tad overenthusiastic about my treats. Anyway, without further ado, I present the amazingness that is Vienna’s pastry scene:
Vienna’s most celebrated confection, the Sacher-Torte has an intriguing, 184-year history. In 1832, a sixteen-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, created the chocolate cake when his mentor at the court of Prince Metternich suddenly fell ill. The young Sacher unexpectedly had to conceive an exclusive dessert for a host of noble guests, and ended up with a masterpiece as his namesake (branding desserts with their creator’s name was tradition). His creation consisted of two layers of dense, chocolate cake, filled with a thin layer of apricot jam, and topped with a rich, chocolate ganache.
His son, Eduard, later followed in his culinary footsteps, and eventually began crafting a slightly different version of the cake during his time at the Demel [bakery]. Concurrently, Eduard was also serving the dessert at Hotel Sacher, a luxury hotel that he founded in 1876. Perhaps not surprisingly, this resulted in a dispute for the rights to claim the Sacher-Torte as “original” that heated up in the first half of the 20th century, with a seven-year legal contest ensuing during the 1950s. Ultimately, ownership of the ‘Original’ Sacher-Torte was granted to Hotel Sacher, while Demel was to use the name ‘Eduard-Sacher-Torte’ for its adaptation of the cake’s ingredients and construction.
Today, the Original Sacher-Torte is still handmade, using a recipe that is carefully guarded in a tightly-locked safe, and by following a series of 34 steps that have been carefully adhered to for the better part of two centuries. There is even a designated ‘egg-cracking’ individual who manually separates the whites and yolks… all day, every day (supposedly a second person assists during the demanding Christmas season).
Many of Vienna’s posh hotels now offer some type of unique, proprietary cake, and the upscale Hotel Imperial is no exception. The legend of the hotel’s distinctive Imperial Torte claims that the cake was created by a young kitchen apprentice in 1873, who was hoping to impress Emperor Franz Josef at the hotel’s grand opening, which coincided with Vienna’s World’s Fair exposition. Supposedly, Austria’s royalty was so delighted with the confection, he requested a second piece, leaving the city’s master chefs befuddled by the young man’s feat.
This grand café in Vienna’s inner city is steeped in history and has been serving “Centralists” (regular visitors) since 1876. The popular coffee house has served a number of prominent artists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians – including Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Marshal Tito, all of whom coincidentally resided in Vienna in 1913.
Started in 1786 and selected as a supplier to the Royal Court by the late 1800s, the historic patisserie stands, appropriately, near the courtyard of the Inner City’s imperial Hofburg Palace.
K. & K. Hofzuckerbacker L. Heiner:
Opened in 1840, the small bakery is tucked behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and also boasts the title (K. & K.) as a purveyor to the Royal Court.
- Was there a clear winner in either the café or the dessert category? I don’t really think so. Each little piece of sugary delight was special in its own right (as well as freakin’ delicious), and each café had a warm and welcoming ambiance.
- The original Sacher-Torte was amazing! After browsing people’s reviews online, which, as you’d imagine, ranged from totally awesome to a total disappointment, I tried to temper my expectations a bit. While everyone’s tastes will certainly vary, I (we both) thought the historic cake was just delicious, and found the café to be utterly charming and the wait staff delightfully friendly – the whole Sacher experience was pretty much everything I’d imagined.
- There really is no Sacher-Torte quite like the original. We experimentally sampled a replication at Konditorei L. Heiner and, while pretty tasty, found that it nowhere near compared to the archetype. Whatever secret four-chocolate blend is used for the ganache, that proprietary recipe is a winner.
For anyone planning on traveling to the city, I highly recommend adding a Viennese cake tour to the bucket list. After all, nothing says happiness like an endless array of desserts!