You Remember the Mistakes

Natasha 5 LowRes

Credit: David Baddley

Often when I’m cooking, I think “other people might want to know this,” with “this” ranging from the fact that you can destroy the holding power of a starch by mixing it too much (the subject of a forthcoming post) or the fact that I’ve been tweaking one particular cake recipe since I received it at the age of eighteen.

As a freshman at the University of Virginia, I took an upper level German language class, because, although we spoke German at home, I hadn’t learned the grammar. I took a class with Elisabeth Hölscher Day, a native German lecturer who was the second wife of a dashing English professor, Douglas Day (biographer of Malcolm Lowry and critic of Robert Graves). Pretty and polished, Elizabeth had neat brown hair grazing her shoulders. She wore timeless clothes, not the tie-dye and bell bottoms popular in 1974. One of her teaching methods was asking students to determine their own course grades. Spurred by misguided modesty and the notion that she would override it, I told her I deserved a B. Grading might be the subject of another post…

Anyway, that cake: Elisabeth invited the class for dinner to her mid-century modern house in the countryside outside Charlottesville. The main course was ground beef chili, not spicy, with grated cheddar cheese and sour cream. On the low Danish modern sideboard sat two cakes. A Black Forest torte that was, I later learned, from the Time Life Cooking of Germany book, and the other…a walnut sponge cake, filled with coffee cream and raspberries, coated with chocolate. Elisabeth told me she got the recipe from a friend whose father was a baker. She wrote the recipe on a lined yellow legal sheet that I kept for many years, until I typed it into a computer file.

Over the years, I gradually subbed out ingredients like Crisco and all-purpose flour for cream and chestnut flour. In the early seventies, the only raspberries available out of season at the supermarket were frozen with sugar in a cardboard package sealed with metal ends. You pried open one of those ends with a can opener. The frozen raspberries were runny and broken up, but the syrup added sweetness. When fresh raspberries started being available most of the year, I used them, and the cake lasted  in the refrigerator, but I missed the unctuous syrupy sweet layer. If I want the cake to have that layer now, I drizzle raspberry liqueur or syrup on top of fresh fruit—it intensifies the flavor and color of the raspberries.

The amazing thing about this cake is that none of the ingredients dominate. A side note about walnuts: have you ever eaten a walnut fresh from the tree, so fresh that skin peels off easily? The resulting sweetness has a very different character from the often stale nuts we buy. I had a hard time naming this cake. Honoring its roots, and because it contains no leavening, we can call it a torte. Although the internet is replete with walnut torte recipes, there’s nothing like this one. Yes, it’s walnut but… the coffee is subtle (and if you use Dandy Blend, it’s not existent), the acid fruitiness of the berries is tempered by the creamy crumbs. The chocolate is just a tease, not overwhelming. In what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire, elaborate cakes like this are rarely served after dinner; instead people eat a slice at a Konditorei (from candire, to candy fruit), a cafe that serves sweets, in the late afternoon. Yes, in the U.S. have coffee shops, but not many bake their own delicious cakes and offer elegant table service. Elisabeth was breaking custom by serving torten after dinner, but I can see why she might want to. How else would people know one of the best things about the Austro-Hungarian empire? For my next post, in a few days, I will have baked the cake.

Elisabeth Hölscher Day and Doug Day divorced shortly after I graduated from college. I cannot find Elisabeth (or her son Patrick Day) to thank her for this recipe (and the lesson in false modesty), but I welcome any leads, and of course, any comments.