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Baked Insanity or How I Lost My Mind at a Semmering Roadside Café

The Fachertorte (translated it means “Fan Cake”) is a triple layer decadence wrapped in something between brioche and shortbread. The lower layer is hazelnuts, butter, cake crumbs, and whole milk. The next layer is poppy seeds, honey, more cake crumbs, butter, and whole milk. Topping all this is a layer of sliced apples tossed with cinnamon and raisins. A single slice of Fachertorte contains enough calories to fuel a transatlantic flight but that did not deter me from finishing the entire portion while sitting in the café of Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches (Art History) Museum.
I wrote to the museum. “I have fallen hopelessly in love with your cake. Could you please tell me how to make it?” The response – with recipe - came from a regal bakery of the former Austrian Empire. I read it several times because I didn’t believe I should simmer ground up pound cake in butter and whole milk.
A skilled baking friend and I undertook the replication of the Fachertorte in my Seattle kitchen. She prepared the pastry and I went shopping for the rest. I suppose in Empire days, leftover cake was everywhere around the palace and the Imperial baker had to figure what to do with it. I had no such stockpiles and bought store made cake.
We had modest success. I was impatient and wouldn’t wait for the cake to cool. When I cut it, filling ran out on counter. That didn’t stop us from lumping great servings of our peasant copy on pasta plates and eating it in the garden. After the cake set overnight, it was a better facsimile of the original, but it just wasn’t the same.
For years, the Fachertorte retained its mythic proportions holding up on subsequent tries. However, an unexpected contender edged out the Fachertorte for the Baked Obsession Award.
Rosenberger is a chain of roadside restaurants in Austria. They’re buffet style. You pick up a tray, browse the soup and salad bar, stop at the grill, and you know what? The food is fresh, hot, and tastes homemade. And it’s cheap - a decent Austrian style meal for two costs under 20 dollars.
We stopped at the Rosenberger in Semmering on another trip to Vienna. I pictured the Fachertorte waiting in the marble rotunda of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, but I was hungry and wanted coffee. Next to the coffee bar was the pastry that caused me to my affections for the Fachertorte: The Kurbiskern Ecke.
This triangular delight has an odd greenish color imparted to it by the natural oil in pumpkin seeds. The pastry layer was that mystery between brioche and shortbread, punctuated with ground pumpkin seeds, The triangle of buttery, flaky, crispy pastry was topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. The “Ecke” tasted as if it had been soaked in honey and orange water. It was nutty and sweet and amazing – an Austrian baklava. I swooned.
I questioned the lass at the register. “What IS it?! Where is it from?! I MUST KNOW OR I WILL GO MAD WITH DESIRE!!!!” She responded in that friendly but spare Austrian manner. “It’s a secret recipe.” I beat my fists on the floor and wept. It did not help. Quietly, I plotted my return to the Rosenberger on Semmering.
Off we went to Vienna. The café at the Kunsthistoriches Museum was out of Fachertorte by the time I arrived at the cool glass of the pastry case, but I just shrugged. No matter, soon we would stop at the Rosenberger again and I would again unlock the delights of the Kurbiskern Ecke.
I was not disappointed. I bought three pieces. Again I questioned the barrista. “It’s a local lady down in Gloggnitz that makes them,” she said. “Typical Styrian pastry, with the pumpkin seeds and all. No bakery; she makes them in her kitchen. No, I don’t know who she is. It’s a secret recipe, you know.”
I am obsessed. I walk the streets of Gloggnitz at all hours, tearing at my clothing and confronting strangers. “The Kurbiskern Ecke baker! The Kurbiskern Ecke baker! I must know who she is! I must find her!” Sometimes they lock me away for a few days and I forget the Rosenberger, forget the pumpkin seed baklava, and ask for a slice of Fachertorte. They let me go. When my wits return, I remember my quest. I find my way to Gloggnitz with a jam jar full of change. I enter the phone booth just across the street from the post office. I open the phone book to the page I was on when I was last there – I have marked it very carefully - and I start calling. “Hello, are you the Kurbiskern Ecke lady?” I ask. I will not be deterred.

Pam Mandel, Contest, 01/10/2008