Monday, December 6, 2010

Dobos torte

Or, as my new Hungarian acquaintance calls it, Dobosh torta. The name alone is lovely and exotic, summoning up faint Gypsy melodies and the scent of black coffee topped with whipped cream.

If that's the image that comes to mind your mind too, you're getting pretty close to the culture from which it sprang over a hundred years ago in Budapest. 

This particular Dobos torte is made up of layers and layers of a lighter-than-air cake sandwiched with dark, barely sweet buttercream, more of the delectable frosting covering the tops and sides, and finally a top adorned with wedges of cake coated with caramel and arranged into a pinwheel.

Lots of arguments abound about whether this cake is named after a drum (dobos in Hungarian, in which case the top should be flat) or after its creator (Jozsef Dobos), whether the caramel layer sits up or lies down, whether nuts are involved, whether it's dark or milk chocolate, how many layers there's supposed to be, and so forth. No one can agree on much of anything. 

I mean, Wolfgang Puck has almond paste in his cake layers, and the formidable dessert maven Maida Heatter said that she doesn't put the caramel layer on top, so who's to say what is the echt torte? So I just winged it. Everybody agreed it was lotsa layers of white cake, lotsa chocolate buttercream, and almost a complete consensus on including the caramel, so that's what I went for.

In case you're wondering, no, this isn't exactly your typical Chinese dessert. If you ask why it's here at all, well, there's a couple of reasons. First, I've wanted to make and taste a Dobos torte for years and didn't have any particular reason to bake one until some friends invited us over for goulash. I volunteered to make dessert, and what, I ask you, goes better with goulash than a Dobos torte?
Twelve layers! Of chocolate buttercream!

Second, hundreds of years ago, once the Khans had conquered China, they turned their attentions and their horses west and set out for Europe. It is said that they made it as far as Hungary before heading back home, and that their blood still runs through the folks out there. That's the reason why, when the Hungarians rose up against the Soviets back in the 1960's, Chinese papers sported headlines like, "Support Our Hungarian Brothers!"

What this is, though, is just a roundabout way of explaining the reason for a Dobos torte making an appearance on this blog. And now that I've both made and tasted one, I have to say that other than the fact that I now and again do go off topic around here, there's really no reason why an excuse should be necessary. This cake is downright delicious. And beautiful. And only faintly sweet. And deeply chocolatey. And a showstopper. And, believe it or not, actually quite easy, just not something you can throw together in a hour. In fact, you probably should spread the steps out over a leisurely couple of days so that you can enjoy yourself.

The recipe that I followed for the most part came from Mrs. Heatter's terrific Book of Great Desserts. And thank goodness for her, since the Dobos torte seems to have gone so seriously out of fashion -- ah, the Austrio-Hungarian Empire seems like only yesterday -- that hers was one of the very few cookbooks I could find that even tackled it. Online recipes were of little help. In fact, much of the reaction to the Dobos recipes on blogs and cooking websites were distinctly disparaging and discouraging. 

You won't find that here. 

For Mrs. Heatter's words gave me hope. As I read through her recipe, I could see a few places that might end up giving me a bit of trouble, and once I thought about them long enough and hard enough, I realized that there was a great way not only to make the sides perfectly smooth, but even a secret to turning the threat of cracked caramel into a minor matter.  
Luscious caramel adorns the top
Yes, I could see how this cake could actually end up being both beautiful and comparatively easy. My competitive nature got all excited too when Mrs. Heatter threw down a bit of a challenge: she said that this recipe would yield seven layers, but that she always tried for many more. So I picked up that gauntlet and aimed for twelve layers! 

With all that extra cake, though, I knew that lots more frosting would be called for, so I doubled her frosting ingredients, used 85% dark Valrhona chocolate instead of milk chocolate to cut down on the sweetness and amp up the chocolate punch, and threw caution and calories to the wind by making the caramel top that she said she didn't like but which everyone one else insisted was traditional. 

It turns out that this topping is what literally gets this remarkable cake a standing ovation, because until you cut into it, there's nothing that even suggests that you have a dozen layers hiding inside... it just looks like your normal, everyday chocolate cake. That caramel provides a definite wow factor.

So here is a step-by-step guide to making your very own Dobos torte. Read it through a couple of times before you start so that you know exactly what you'll be doing and what you need to prepare. Just be sure you have lots of hot coffee ready once it's done and a bevy of chocoholics standing by to appreciate your efforts!

Dobos torte 
Dobosh torta
Serves 8 to 12

Spray nonstick oil or a few tablespoons of butter
Extra flour for dusting
10 large organic egg yolks at room temperature
1 pound (3 1/2 cups) confectioner's sugar
3/4 cup sifted organic regular flour
7 large organic egg whites at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt
Extra confectioners sugar as needed

1 pound 85% Valrhona (or other good brand) chocolate
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted organic butter at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large organic egg yolks, room temperature
1/4 cup confectioners sugar, measured then sifted
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Caramel top and decorations:
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
8 to 12 toasted hazelnuts or almonds (depending upon how many slices you want)
About 1/4 cup reserved frosting
Smooth out the batter into a circle
1. To make a cake with 12 or so layers (including the top caramel layer), tear off 4 sheets of parchment paper at least 10 inches wide. Select a plate or pie pan that's a little over 9 inches in diameter and, for later on, select another plate that's slightly smaller than 9 inches in diameter. (I used a pie pan that was about 9 1/4 inches in diameter and a salad plate that was 8 3/4 inches.) Place the larger plate or pan on a piece of parchment paper and trace out a heavy circle on it in pencil so that you can easily see it from the other side; repeat with the rest of the paper so that you have 4 circles on 4 pieces of paper. Turn the pieces of paper over so that the pencil marks are on the bottom, and then grease the inside of each circle before dusting it with flour. Have two baking sheets, an offset spatula, extra sheets of parchment paper, and as many cake racks ready as you possibly can.

2. Heat the oven to 450 degrees F and place two racks in the middle of the oven, one above the other. Beat the 10 egg yolks in a stand mixer with a paddle attachment until they are light and pale. Reduce the speed and add the sugar in a few increments, then increase the speed and beat for about 5 minutes until the yolks and sugar are very thick. Reduce the speed again and gradually add the flour and salt, and beat about 5 minutes more until the mixture is almost thick, scraping the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Stir in the lemon juice and use the spatula (and your fingers on the paddle) to scrape off all of the batter into another large bowl. Clean and dry the mixer bowl thoroughly, and swap out the paddle for a whisk attachment.

3. Beat the 7 egg whites with the salt until they are stiff but not dry. Stir a few spoonfuls of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture to lighten it a bit, fold in a few more spoonfuls to lighten in some more, and then gently fold in the rest. 
Trimming the layers

4. Use the spatula to place about two scoops of the batter on one of the floured circles, and then use your offset spatula to gently smooth out the batter so that it covers the circle fully. Make sure that the edges are as thick as the center, and fill in any holes with more batter as needed. (After doing a circle or two, you'll know exactly how much batter is needed for each layer, and after that this step will go very fast. Just be especially sure that the edges aren't too thin, as they'll burn.) Once two circles are done, scoot a baking sheet under each one of them and bake the layers for about 5 to 7 minutes, rotating them about halfway through; the layers will be dotted with golden brown and slightly risen when done. Don't overcook the cake layers, or they'll quickly burn, but also be sure to cook them enough, or you'll have a hard time removing them from the paper.

Nicely stacked up by the cookbook
5. Remove a cooked cake layer from the oven and immediately flip it over onto a cake rack before flipping it back over onto another cake rack; this way the layers won't stick to the racks. Repeat this with the rest of the batter, scraping the paper clean as needed before re-greasing and re-flouring. As your cake racks fill up, start stacking the cooled layers by sprinkling some confectioners sugar on top of each one, placing a small sheet of parchment paper on top, and then another layer of cake, and so on. 

6. When all the layers have been cooked and cooled, you can then trim them. Place that slightly smaller plate on top of a layer and trim around the edge with a small paring knife. If you want to stop at this point, stack the layers up again with sheets of paper between them, cover with a clean plastic bag, and refrigerate for a day or two, or freeze.

7. Next we turn to the chocolate buttercream, which can also be made ahead of time and refrigerated for a few days; just let it come to room temperature or warm it very gently in a double boiler or microwave (and I mean lowest power for just 20 seconds or so, stir, zap at lowest power again, stir, and so on until it's smooth and spreadable).
Melt the chocolate, stirring often, at low heat in a microwave or in a double boiler. Remove from heat, stir it until completely smooth, and then let it cool to room temperature while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Lacquering the top layer

8. Cream the butter with a stand mixer and a paddle attachment, beat in the egg yolks and vanilla, and finally add the sugar and cooled chocolate. (If the chocolate is warm, it will melt the butter, so be sure it's at room temperature.) Beat the frosting until it is very smooth, and scrape off the paddle with your fingers.

9. Before you frost the cake, place four strips of parchment paper around the edge of your cake plate to keep it clean, and then lay the first layer of cake in the center of the plate. Select the prettiest layer and reserve it for the caramel layer. 

Tracing the pattern
10. Spread a thin layer of the buttercream on the cake (it should be about the same thickness as the cake), place another layer on top, and repeat until all the cake has been stacked up and frosted. Reserve about 1/4 cup of the frosting for decorations, and use as much of the rest as you want to frost the top and sides of the cake. (Leftovers are great on hot, crispy toast.) Smooth out the frosting so it has a nice, clean finish. Refrigerate the cake without covering it until the frosting hardens, and cover it with plastic wrap.

11. Figure out how many slices of cake you want and then cut the reserved layer into that number of equal wedges. For example, if you want 8 big slices, cut the layer into 8 even wedges. Spray a cake rack with nonstick oil and place it on top of a piece of parchment paper for easy cleanup. Arrange the wedges on the rack so that they don't touch each other and the tips hang over an empty space on the rack; that way they don't stick to it later on and break. Butter a heatproof spatula and have it ready.

Dot the edge with nuts
12. Put the sugar in a light-colored saucepan or skillet and dampen the sugar evenly with the water. Heat the sugar over medium-high heat until it boils, cover it for about 20 seconds so that the steam washes down any sugar crystals, and the heat the sugar, stirring as necessary, until it turns into a honey-brown caramel. Pour the caramel over the slices and use the buttered spatula to spread it evenly. Gently push the wedges as they cool so that they don't stick to the rack. If any of the corners do crack in spite of your best efforts, just heat up some of the leftover caramel with a bit of water and glue them back together. Allow the caramel to completely cool and harden on the wedges before you start decorating the cake.

13. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and use a long knife to mark a line right down the middle, and then make a small mark in the very center so that you can easily line up the wedges. Take one of your wedges and place it next to the line, smack up against the edge of the cake and with the pointed edge on the center dot, as shown to the right. Use your knife to lightly mark the other edge of the wedge and then continue the line over to the other side of the cake. Repeat this until the top of the cake is marked with spoked lines. 

Aerial view
14. Now, take that 1/4 cup of reserved frosting and warm it just enough so that it is spreadable. Put a small mound (1/2 teaspoon or so) of the frosting about 1 inch inside of a triangle and place a nut on top of the mound; this will provide firm support for the wedges until the frosting cools. Top each nut with another 1/2 teaspoon or so of the frosting. 

15. Figure out which direction you want your wedges to go. (I went counter-clockwise.) Spread some of the frosting on one long edge of a wedge and set it down on one of the spokes that you drew on the cake, and then rest the under side of the wedge on a frosted nut. The cold cake will harden the frosting "glue" quickly, so don't fuss with it too long. Repeat this with the rest of the wedges until you are done. 

16. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate. About an hour before you serve the cake, remove it from the refrigerator. Cut the cake with a sharp, heavy knife, serve with the aforementioned hot coffee, and bask in this torte's chocolatey goodness, as well as the applause. Really. I got a standing O at the dinner!


  1. I've been making dobos torte for years and love your instructions for making the procedure easier! I was taught to make the layers by turning the cake pans upside down and spreading the batter on top, baking and then scraping the slightly cooled rounds off with a spatula. The caramel wedges (my favorite part) were nerve wracking because I poured the caramel over the layer, then had to wait for the exact perfect moment to cut into wedges...Ackkk! Your nut prop idea - why didn't I think of that? Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Susan! I'm afraid that I can't take all the credit for the nut props and for making the caramel layer a lot easier... I spent so much time cruising the 'net looking at Dobos recipes that I'm sure I picked up ideas much in the same way that my black pants pick up pet fur. Let me know how this recipe works for you.

  3. In your research, did you run across any recipes that baked the layers on upside-down pans like I do? One thing I do to make cutting the caramel into wedges is to have a supply of knives ready by my gas burner so I can keep them real hot in order to not shatter the caramel. It's such a lovely cake; I'm glad you posted this - no one I know even knows about it, let alone bakes it. I will try your method for Christmas

  4. Thank you so much! Yes, I did see some recipes that called for upside-down pans and heated knives. I knew for sure that I would mess them up if I did them that way, which is why I went with the circles and putting the caramel on the cut wedges. Please do let me know how your cakes turn out!