Recipe: Traditional-ish Black Forest Cake

My sister’s birthday is in February, and her request this year was for a Black Forest cake.  I was happy to oblige, but ran into a few problems with finding a recipe that would be something close to the Black Forest cakes we remembered from childhood.  Most of the ones I was able to find online called for boxed cake mix, canned cherry pie filling, and (gag!) Cool Whip topping instead of real whipped cream.  In other cases there were debates over what makes a “traditional” Black Forest cake — what sort of cake to use, whether or not to put kirsch (cherry brandy) in the whipped cream for flavoring, whether to use jam for the filling or a more gooey, pie-filling-like substance … it was all a little overwhelming.  Finally I gave up the search and just emailed my mom, to ask if she had a good recipe.  She got back to me with two: one from a book of traditional Ontario immigrant recipes, and another from a family friend who spent some time living in Germany.  I combined the best elements of both, and came up with something that I was very happy with.

My sister approved, too, as you can see.

Making the Cake

For the cake portion, I used the recipe from mom’s book of traditional recipes.  It’s a chocolate sponge cake, which I felt would better hold up to being soaked with cherry brandy.  It’s not as moist as some other cakes, but if you apply the brandy properly (read: use lots!) that’s really not an issue at all.  The ingredients are as follows:

  • 4 eggs, separated (the recipe calls for small, but I used medium because my grocery store doesn’t carry small)
  • 4 tbsp warm water
  • 2/3 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp cocoa
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and prepare an 8-inch springform pan or two 8-inch round pans (if using round pans, I suggest lining them with parchment paper to make it easier to lift the cake out afterwards).

Separate the eggs so that the whites are in one mixing bowl, and the yolks are in another.  To the yolks, add the warm water, and whisk until foamy.  Add the 2/3rds cup sugar, vanilla and almond extracts, cinnamon, and salt.  Whisk together for a couple of minutes, until everything is thoroughly combined and there are lots of little bubbles in the mix.

Using an electric mixer or whisk that is clean and free of any oil (this is important!), whip the egg whites until they are foamy.  Sprinkle in the 2tsp of sugar, and continue to beat the eggs until stiff peaks form.  Remember: the fluffier you can get the eggs to be, the fluffier the finished cake will be!

Gently fold the egg whites into the yolk mix, then sift the flour, cornstarch, cocoa, and baking powder over top and fold in.  Mix very gently until the mixture is just barely blended together — overmixing will pop all those little bubbles you worked so hard to make in the eggs.

Pour the batter into the pan(s), and bake for 30 minutes (slightly less if using two pans — they’ll cook faster if they’re thinner).  A toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.

Once the cake has cooled down a little bit, you can slice it in half (or into 3 layers, if you’re feeling adventurous).  A piece of unwaxed dental floss works well for cutting — just saw it back and forth and work your way patiently through the cake.  Once the cake is cut into layers, you can add the cherry brandy — sprinkle it on a little bit at a time, until the cake is fully saturated.

Let the cake sit and cool down completely while you prepare the cherry filling and whipped cream.

Making the Cherry Filling

Since it’s February, I had to buy frozen sour cherries — fresh just aren’t available right now.  Frozen are preferable over canned, since they don’t have anything added to them, but if canned are all you can get, then just work with what’s available.  In a pinch you can resort to pre-made canned cherry pie filling, but homemade always tastes better.

This is the same filling that I use for making cherry pies, but I only made a half-sized batch, as you don’t really need a whole pie’s worth of filling for this cake.  Double this recipe if you want to make a pie with it.

  • 2 cups sour cherries, pitted and drained (reserve 1/2 cup of the liquid)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/6 cup flour
  • dash of salt
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp almond extract

In a saucepan, combine the 1/2 cup of cherry juice with the sugar, flour and salt.  Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.  Continuing to stir, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter and almond extract, and then add the cherries.

Cool this mixture down completely before using it on your cake, or it will melt the whipped cream.

Making the Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is easy stuff to make from scratch, and I always prefer the homemade stuff to the stuff that comes in a can.  When making a black forest cake, you ALWAYS want to do your whipped cream from scratch, because a) you can add cherry brandy to the whipped cream for flavour, and b) you can add a pinch of gelatin or cream of tartar to stiffen the cream and stop it from gooshing out between the cake layers.

Combine a cup of whipping cream with a teaspoon of sugar, a splash of cherry brandy, and a pinch of unflavored gelatin or cream of tartar.  Whisk or beat with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form.

Putting it All Together

Once the cake and cherry pie filling have cooled completely, you can assemble your black forest cake.  You can use either two or three layers of cake — three looks fancier, but otherwise it makes little difference.

With two layers, you’ll want to put both cherry pie filling AND whipped cream between the layers.  With three, you’ve got an option: you can either put cherries in one of the spaces and whipped cream in the other, or use a combination in both.  You might need to make a bit of extra whipped cream, if you choose the latter, but avoid the temptation to overfill: you want this to taste like cake, not like whipped cream with occasional bits of cake in it.

Once your layers are stacked up, coat the entire cake in the remaining whipped cream.  Shave two squares of semi-sweet chocolate using a cheese grater, and pat these chocolate shavings onto the sides and top of the cake, leaving a ring of white around the top edge.  Place maraschino cherries around the top edge (I like to use one per slice).  Store the cake (covered) in the fridge until serving, so that the whipped cream won’t get droopy.

And enjoy!  Black forest cake is a little bit labour-intensive to make, but it’s definitely worth the work.  Nom-nom-nom.  Delicious.

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