The dryness issue, revisited

As expected, Gerhard’s comments on Sacher torte elicited a large number of responses, most of which broke down into two camps, those who believed his argument that Sacher torte is supposed to be dry, as exemplifed by reader Chana…

Interesting are Gerhard’s comments on the intentional “dryness” of a Sacher torte. So maybe the piece I had at the Neue Gallerie [in New York] actually was the “real deal.” The problem was not the cake, but the expectations of my American palate.

…and those who didn’t, as in the case of reader Fiona.

If I thought, per Gerhard, that baked goods were supposed to be dry, I would have accumulated many fewer pounds. Hmmph.

I share that skepticism, for I don’t think the Sacher torte is intentionally dry. I think that given a choice, the folks in the pastry kitchens at the Sacher hotel would make their torte a little richer — not a lot, just a bit — to give it a hint more moisture, softness of crumb and more pronounced taste (for fat carries flavor). Why do I think that? Firstly, because not all classic Viennese pastries are dry, which means dryness is not a cultural imperative. Secondly because, as I mentioned, just about every version of the recipe I’ve seen — American or Continental — has attempted to enrich or moisten the Sacher torte in some way. How? With the addition of more jam, cake syrup or a more decadent glaze. I believe the Sacher hotel has fiddled as much as they can on the dryness front, but ultimately could not do anything about it, though over the years they have added more chocolate the outside to try to compensate.

But wait, Joe, these Austrain pastry chefs are geniuses, you might say. They could make the Sacher torte richer if they really wanted to. In point of fact I believe not, for an egg is an egg the world over. A leavening foam made from egg can only lift so much — and fat, my friends, is heavy stuff. Any enrichment in the Sacher torte cake itself would come at a measurable cost to its height. Plus, it would constitute a heresy against the original formula. They burn pastry chefs for that in Austria.

No, I think the facts of the Sacher torte are these: that a marvelous and decadent (for its time) torte was created once upon a time by (probably) young Franz Sacher; that it was always regarded as slightly dry by Viennese pastry lovers, and; that being nevertheless mostly marvelous, an etiquette grew up around it, one that made outside elements like whipped cream and coffee an essential part of the overall Sacher torte-eating experience. In that sense the Sacher torte is not a stand-alone pastry in the way we think of a piece of, say, Opera Cake (though many would argue that coffee is a critical part of that experience too).

True Sacher torte die-hards (like my good friend Gerhard) would of course never want to admit that the Sacher torte is deficient in any way, hence the “it’s-not-a-bug-it’s-a-feature” argument he advanced over the holidays. And perhaps “deficient” really is too strong a word. The Sacher torte is an historic achievement of the classic Viennese pastry arts, one that can be, with the proper mindset and adherence to certain protocols, enjoyed to the full some 200 years after its creation. That’s a big deal. So who really cares if it’s dry?

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