Cake, for some, has always been a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing — once you’ve had a few church basement birthday, anniversary, or graduation party sheet cakes, the dessert seems a bit less enticing and a bit more blah. There is one cake, however, that never fails to impress.
At the house of a Serbian family friend, one cake seems always to be present for special occasions. The cake, called a dobosh torte (drum torte), is the stuff of dreams — countless layers of wafer-thin vanilla cake piled high with chocolate mousse in between, all topped with a hard, transparent caramel “glass.” The crunch of the caramel combined with the smooth filling and chewy cake comprise an elegant array of textures, while the layers provide a nicely distributed contrast between rich chocolate and light vanilla. Despite many requests for the recipe, we’ve been told it’s “too much work — have bubba [the grandmother, who produced the glorious cake] make it for you!”
So begins a quest for the perfect cake. Numerous recipes exist on the Internet, all loosely based on Hungarian Jozsef Dobos’ original recipe. Our attempt drew from two such recipes: the first, from About.com’s Eastern European Food section, relies on a pound and a half of butter as its main ingredient. The second, from Food & Wine magazine, was a bit more egg-heavy and added lemon zest to the cake batter. The first tasted a bit drier and had a mouthfeel which seemed, if baked long enough, to tend toward biscotti; the Food & Wine recipe was spongy, if a bit overly eggy, and produced a lighter-textured cake. We settled on the butter-laden recipe; the slightly tougher, drier texture stood up well to the smooth mousse.
We then tested two methods for creating the layers: baking each über-thin layer separately, or creating a thicker cake layer which would be sliced thinly when cool. A non-stick springform pan (if you don’t have one and want one on the cheap, Target carries them for around $10) made the job foolproof; we also tested both non-stick cake pans and disposable aluminum cake pans. Though individual layers were incredibly easy to produce without fail, they yielded the tougher crust created when raw batter is exposed directly to heat. Sliced layers were a bit more tender, and the time-saver of baking several layers all at once was a serious perk. However, the slicing option carries with it a caveat — slice one crooked, and you run the risk of a lopsided cake. Try to fix it, and you get a crumbly mess.
The buttercream, in essence, is a no-brainer: a pound of butter, lots of high-quality chocolate, and several egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. This one’s far, far easier with an electric mixer — using a simple hand-crank mixer, the egg whites will not whip in any reasonable amount of time once they’ve been heated and nearly saturated with sugar (trust us — we tried it). If you don’t have access to an electric mixer, add the sugar to the melted chocolate while it’s still hot so it can dissolve — then whip the raw egg whites separately and fold them into the chocolate-butter-sugar mixture. The frosting will still be light, you’ll still get an arm workout, and you will still have the desire to cook again someday.
The caramel glass is the final tricky step. If you’ve made crème caramel before, it’s the same process: Swirl some sugar and water in a pan, wipe the sides with a damp cloth to remove crystallized sugar (which destroys the clear, glass-like effect you’re shooting for), and pour. Parchment paper, laid liberally around the cake layer you’re topping with caramel, minimizes the mess that spilled, hard-as-glass caramel can create. The parchment paper doubles functionally as a moveable surface: Drizzle the caramel onto the cake, then tilt the parchment and cake to distribute the caramel without leaving unsightly spatula-shaped imprints from manual caramel-spreading.
It’s clear that this cake is no picnic to make: It’s one which requires a special sort of zen to avoid frustration or lost motivation. However, when you finally get it right, the satisfaction is worth it — after all, how many bakeries in the Twin Cities offer this kind of layered cake?
½ lb unsalted butter, softened
1 c granulated sugar
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ c all-purpose flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar.
3. Add the eggs, then the flour and vanilla. Beat until smooth.
4. Pour the mixture into two 9-inch cake pans (greased if they’re not non-stick).
5. Bake for around 10-12 minutes until golden on the edges and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
6. Invert onto a cooling rack.
7. When cool, slice each cake horizontally into three layers of equal thickness. Set aside.
8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 lb unsalted butter, softened
5 egg whites
1 c granulated sugar
8. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or microwave on 50% heat, stirring periodically. Set aside.
9. Whip the butter in a mixer for several minutes until smooth.
10. Place egg whites and sugar in a double boiler over medium heat. Whisk until warm.
11. Whip egg white / sugar mixture until glossy, stiff peaks form.
12. Mix butter and chocolate until smooth, then fold in the egg whites. Refrigerate.
⅔ c sugar
⅓ c water
13. Set one layer of cake on a counter / table covered in parchment.
14. Heat the sugar and water over medium-high heat, swirling the pan to mix.
15. Wipe any crystallized sugar from the sides of the pan with a damp cloth.
16. Continue to swirl until the mixture turns golden brown.
17. Immediately pour the caramel onto the layer of cake. Working quickly, tilt until caramel is as evenly distributed as possible.
18. Quickly score the top of the cake into 16 slices — don’t cut all the way through.
19. Trim any excess caramel from the edges of the cake.
Place one layer of cake on a plate, top with frosting. Repeat until final layer — place the caramel-coated layer on top. Spread remaining buttercream around the perimeter of the cake. Refrigerate, then serve!