It was a blustery February morning, and I had returned to Pasticceria Penso, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries, to inquire about some local dessert recipes. Several days prior, I had peeked in the shop, but it had quickly grown too busy for me to disturb the clerk, Silvana, with my questions. This time, perhaps the weather had deterred the crowds, for I was greeted graciously by Rosanna, the matriarch of the family. She offered me a freshly baked napoletana (puff pastry filled with pastry cream) and whisked me behind the counter and into the kitchen, where her husband (and the bakery’s owner), Italo Stoppar, and his two sons, Antonello and Lorenzo, had just pulled a couple dozen chocolate cakes out of the oven.
Italo explained that they were making torta Sacher (called sachertorte in German). Like dobostorte, kugelhupf, and apple strudel, sachertorte is one of the fancy Viennese desserts to find its way into Friuli, by way of the region’s Austrian heritage. The cake was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, cook and pastry chef for the Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. In 1876, the chef’s son Eduard founded Vienna’s elegant Hotel Sacher and has ensured that the family recipe be kept a guarded secret.
When the cakes had cooled sufficiently, Italo proceeded to slice them into two layers and trim off the rough edges. A huge bucket caught all the chocolate trimmings, and it was all I could do to keep myself from sneaking a handful. The next step was to douse the cakes with Maraschino liqueur (a trick that I later found not only gave the cake extra flavor but kept it nice and moist) and slather on the apricot jam. Finally, Antonello assembled the layers and glazed the cakes with a rich chocolate ganache, while Italo decorated the sides with chocolate sprinkles and piped the word “Sacher” on top. I was in chocolate heaven!
Before I said good-bye, the Stoppars lavished me with all sorts of treats: a whole presnitz (dried fruit and nut puff pastry spiral), pinza (sweet, round, brioche-like loaf), a slice of torta Sacher, and a promise to send me all the recipes that I had requested. Here is their version of torta Sacher:
1/3 cup hazelnuts, skinned and toasted (see toasting instructions below)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
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1/4 cup Maraschino liqueur
2/3 cup apricot jam
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4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
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Chocolate sprinkles (optional)
Toasting the Hazelnuts:
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/3 cup hazelnuts and 1 tablespoon baking soda; cook for 5 minutes. Remove the hazelnuts and place in a colander under cold running water; rub off and discard the skins. Transfer the skinned hazelnuts to a baking dish; toast until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool completely before using.
For the cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Finely grind the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor.
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, adding the vanilla extract with the last yolk; beat the mixture until thick and pale in color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, cocoa powder, and ground hazelnuts. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites.
Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch round cake pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool 15 minutes before removing from the pan; cool completely before glazing.
For the glaze:
Slice the cake in half horizontally; shave a thin slice off the top layer to create a smooth surface. (Any air pockets may be filled in with the shaved-off pieces of cake.) Brush the Maraschino liqueur over the top and sides of both cake layers; repeat with the apricot jam. Stack the two cake layers on a wire rack.
For the ganache:
Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the sides of the cake with sprinkles, if desired. Using a large spatula, transfer the cake to a serving plate; refrigerate until the ganache has set.