Long before Ben & Jerry created the ice cream flavor Cherry Garcia®, a combination of cherry ice cream, cherries and small chocolate chips, German bakers, and then bakers throughout the world, were making Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, better known in the US as Black Forest Cake. The German name comes from the Schwarzwälde or Black Forest, an area of dense forest, beautiful highlands, and a popular tourist area for visitors to Germany. Cherry trees are said to proliferate in the Black Forest and it may be or was in the past something of a tradition for newly married couples in the region to plant a cherry tree.
Black Forest Cake was most likely not invented by Nazis, as is the common rumor. Chef Josef Keller claims to have invented the recipe in 1915, but it’s known the recipe didn’t first appear in print until the early 1930s. There is suggestion that this cake may have been made as far back as the 16th century.
It is important to note that the German version of the cake is slightly different than American versions. In the earliest printed recipe versions of the cake, sour pitted cherries are used between layers of chocolate gateau, often a light sponge cake. The layers may receive a soaking of cherry brandy or kirsch (cherry liqueur). The cake is covered with sweet whipped cream, which may also be added to each layer, and it often gets a finishing touch of shaved chocolate on the sides and on the top. Sometimes chocolate cake crumbs are used on the sides instead.
American versions of Black Forest Cake tend to omit kirsch, making the cake appropriate to all. A few tourist accounts of people visiting Germany mention that when liqueur is added, it makes the cake quite heady, and you can end up feeling like you’ve indulged in more than dessert if you eat a couple of pieces. Others object to the calorie content, which may vary in recipes. Yet it’s quite obvious that whipped cream, chocolate cake, and cherries don’t exactly make a diet dish.
Putting calories aside for a moment, it should be stated that many people are fans of the Black Forest Cake, and we all need a treat now and then. In recipes for the cake, there are some notable disputes. For instance, some recipes suggest using cherry pie filling to get a more sour cherry taste, while other recipes suggest maraschino cherries for the layers. Unless you like your cake very sweet, using cherry pie filling, or pitting your own cherries and soaking them in sugar and a bit of lemon juice for a few hours to allow them to macerate, tends to produce a superior Black Forest Cake.
Similarly, you’ll find some differences as to the number of layers. You can make this cake as a simple two-layer round cake. Alternately, you can bake two layers, and then slice each layer in half to have three layers with cherry filling. Each layer should be spread fairly thin, and using whip cream below the layer of cherries can help the Black Forest Cake from becoming soggy.
A number of bakeries make Black Forest Cake throughout the year, and you may find it featured in February around Washington’s Birthday or President’s Day. The reference to cherries may be a mention of the oft-told story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree.