On the Bavarian side of my family, as far back as I can remember, birthdays were celebrated with Sacher Torte, a silky chocolate cake topped with a thin film of apricot jam and a chocolate glaze. The first thing I did when I went to Vienna was to take my daughter Daniela for a real Sacher Torte with schlag (whipped cream).
I was surprised to learn recently that—according to Encyclopedia of Jewish Food author Gil Marks, as well as other sources—Franz Sacher was a Jewish pastry maker in Vienna. He was an apprentice to the chef of Prince Wenzel von Metternich, the father of modern diplomacy, in 1832. The prince asked his chef to create a special dessert for several important guests. Because the head chef was ill, it was up to an apprentice, 16-year-old Sacher, to come up with something different. According to legend, the prince said, “Let there be no shame on me tonight!” Although the dessert delighted the guests, its fame came later, probably because his son Eduard, who first apprenticed at Demel Pastry, later opened the Sacher Hotel in 1876, serving his father’s creation.
My recipe is based on one my grandmother passed down. I use a thick layer of apricot jam that I make myself from fruit leathers rather than from fresh apricots; the dried fruit gives it more flavor. I also add more chocolate and substitute potato starch instead of flour for three reasons: It makes a finer textured cake, is gluten-free, and is perfect for Passover!
The question remains: Did my relatives know that Franz Sacher was reportedly Jewish or did they, like the rest of the population, make the simple yet justly celebrated Sacher Torte just because it was delicious?
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.