Culture: Food by Nicola Miller
Food writer Nicola Miller takes a trip down memory lane when she enjoyed an Austrian adventure
A long time ago during a New Year lull and unbeknown to my parents, I ran off to Vienna with an Unsuitable Man, using part of a newly-arrived student grant cheque to fund student Interrail tickets for us both. After many hours on many, many trains, we disembarked at Südbahnhof and made our way to the Danube where the banks were glazed with ice and I, shivering in a thin cloth coat, watched Viennese women, sleek as seals in fur and wool, walk briskly past. They were, no doubt, on their way to one of the many coffee houses that the city is deservedly famous for.
Although they originated in the 17th century, it took until 2011 for Vienna’s coffee houses to be put on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill”, where locals linger, debate, read newspapers, eat and people-watch. Nobody does this as intensely and with such commitment as the Austrians do. I can’t recall the name of the place we ended up at, but we were seated at a table topped with marble where we drank tall glasses of fiaker, handily depth-charged with rum and topped off by mounds of whipped cream to ward off the cold and ate slices of poppy seed pie. We watched as elaborate displays of pastries and cakes were continually replenished: gugelhupfs majestic enough to crown the Emperor Francis Joseph (he was rather keen on them); Sacher tortes as glossy and smooth as a millpond; the chocolate-spattered rehruecken, which gets its name from the deer backs it is said to resemble, and my own particular favourite, the hazelnut-filled nusstorte. These delights issued forth from the kitchen in the basement of the building and as they were arranged on the countertops, staff used little brushes to sweep away stray crumbs.
Since that one trip, I have never returned to Austria but as luck might have it, I get to relive the glory of the nusstorte through a close friend of mine, Jutta, who is Austrian and a former resident of Saltzburg where, as she gravely informs me, nusstorte is just as popular as it is in Vienna. “All Austrians love a cake!” I can measure our years of friendship in nusstortes baked and devoured at summer parties in their garden and in the depths of winter, on New Year’s Eve, where we gathered around the table to tell fortunes using the Bleigießen she brings home from Austria.
This recipe for nusstorte is essentially Jutta’s and she, in turn, received it from a childhood friend back in Austria who obtained it from the mother-in-law of someone else. These are the kinds of recipes I love the best. Jutta tells me there are two main ways to flavour this cake – with cranberry jam covered in a chocolate icing, or option two (which I have adapted here) where the cake is topped with clouds of whipped cream. It’s a remarkably easy cake to make and looks particularly festive with its snowy topping, with or without the addition of plastic reindeers.
I have spiked the cream with Frangelico, an Italian liqueur, as its chocolate-hazelnut taste suits this nusstorte perfectly. Considering that relationships between Italy and the former Austria-Hungary have been rather fraught in the past, I am hoping that my decision is not a politically insensitive one. However, the best rapprochements are the result of food alliances anyway, and this Italian-inflected nusstorte is a fine coming together of two wonderful countries.
For the cake:
Butter for greasing
5 egg yolks
210g caster sugar
140g finely chopped hazelnuts
Juice of half a lemon
5 egg whites
4 tbsp breadcrumbs
For the topping:
400ml double cream
3 capfuls of Frangelico
2 tbsp icing sugar
Dark chocolate curls
Extra ground hazelnuts for decoration
Preheat your oven to 175oC/350oF then grease a 23cm springform pan with butter before lining the base with a parchment paper circle. Separate the eggs into yolks and whites.
Place egg yolks in a large bowl and add the sugar. Beat this well until you have a pale and creamy mixture. Now add the lemon juice and nuts and fold until mixed. Beat the egg whites until they are at the stiff peak stage then carefully fold them into the sugar mixture. Once the whites are incorporated, stir in the breadcrumbs. Pour the mixture into your tin and bake for 30 mins. Keep an eye on it; ovens vary!
When it’s cooked (use a cake tester to check the middle is done) remove the nusstorte from the oven and leave to cool then turn out onto a plate.
While the nusstorte is cooling, whip the cream until it’s fairly stiff: you need it to have a decent amount of body so it doesn’t collapse when the liqueur is added. When it’s whipped, gently fold in the icing sugar then add the Frangelico and fold this in too. Taste and adjust for sweetness and add more liqueur if you prefer.
Mound or pipe the cream onto the top of the nusstorte and decorate how you wish. I used grated dark chocolate (you can use a knife to make curls) and extra ground hazelnuts. Some berries would be nice too.