Three Terrific Hungarian Tortes

A year ago this fall we embarked on a long-term project to put together one of the best selections of Hungarian baked goods in the country.  Three trips to Hungary, a whole lot of testing, baking, tasting, talking, and teaching later, and we’re well on our way.  While we still have decades of studying to do, the Zingerman’s Bakehouse has already put together a wide range of amazingly delicious—and beautiful—sweet and savory pastries, all true to Hungarian tradition.  While all are impressively excellent, I’ve got a terrific trio of tortes in mind for the holidays. They’re so beautiful, so special, and so exceptional that they’re pretty sure to take any holiday gathering up a couple notches.

If you want to take your friends and family for a cruise up the Danube, by all means do it!  But if the group tour won’t fit into this year’s budget and/or schedule, just stop by the Zingerman’s Bakehouse (or Zingerman’s Deli) and pick up one of these three amazing offerings.  All are delicious, and all have won kudos from the Hungarian community here in Washtenaw County.

If you haven’t yet tried the Rigó Jansci (“ree-go yon-chee”), check it out. This recent addition to the Zingerman’s Bakehouse repertoire is really, really good.  It’s a beautiful rectangular torte, covered in a thick coating of dark chocolate ganache, with its name—Rigó Jansci—written in script across the top. The basic story of the cake is well known in Hungarian pastry circles.  It’s named for a Hungarian-born, Roma violinist who fell in love with an heiress named Clara Ward, who happened to be married to someone else at the time.  But, wired for passion and adventure, she chose Rigó and romance over her husband and a more proper life as a well-mannered princess.  The “invention” of the cake came shortly thereafter, when a baker designed it in her honor.

Steve and Jane Voss, who are of Hungarian descent and have visited the home country many times, were raving about how good it is. Steve told me that it was, “Good enough to be served at Gerbeaud,” referring to the world-famous, 150-year old café in Budapest’s central square.  It really is delicious.  Two layers of tender, delicate chocolate sponge cake, sandwiched around a generous layer of chocolate rum whipped cream, topped off with a very thin layer of apricot jam, and finished with a thick dark chocolate ganache. Elegance and romance are the key words, I think. The layers swirl; you swoon.  Imagine a set of gypsy violinists taking their music towards an exhilarating crescendo.   Serve it at room temperature with a cup of the Ethiopian coffee from Zingerman’s Coffee Company and you’re guaranteed to have a good day.

Created in 1884, it was named after its inventor, Jozef Dobos, one of the best known pastry chefs in Europe.  He had a famous shop in Budapest and the torta was a classic there. But Dobos took things further.  Long before UPS, FedEx or DHL, he built wooden boxes in which he shipped his delicious seven layered torte to fans all over the Continent.  Sometimes known in the US as “7-Layer Cake” the Dobos Torta is made from thin layers of very light vanilla cake, sandwiched around a chocolate buttercream.  More chocolate buttercream coats the sides of the torte, which is then topped with a thin layer of slightly chewy, delicious caramel.  It’s amazingly delicious.  At the Zingerman’s Bakehouse we make the buttercream with Valrhona chocolate and a touch of espresso, and at least half a dozen Hungarians have stopped me to say that the Bakehouse Dobos is so good it could easily be served in a café in Central Budapest!

Named for Paul III Anton, Prince Esterházy who lived in the late 18th – early 19th centuries.  He was reputed to be the richest man in Europe who was not a king!  His cake follows in those financial footsteps, exceptionally rich, very elegant and far more luxurious than any cake the average 18th century Hungarian would have eaten.  Fortunately, times have changed.  And while it’s not inexpensive, given all the work and great ingredients that go into it, the Esterházy torta at the Zingerman’s Bakehouse is pretty reasonably priced.   Layers of toasted walnut cake filled with a magnificent mixture of vanilla bean pastry cream, fresh whipped cream and more toasted walnut, decorated with vanilla and dark chocolate poured fondant in a distinctive design used specifically for Esterházy cakes.  Beautiful, delicate, delicious.