Drum Beat to Budapest

Can a person be in love with a cake?  I think I am in love with the Dobos Torte – a rich, seven-layer stack of brandy-drizzled almond cake filled with chocolate buttercream and topped with distinctive caramel wedges.

Dobos Torte (or “Dobos Torta”) and I have a long relationship. I have made it for my birthday many times, but let’s not count.  I taught a version of it at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts which was, to me, perfection.  After a few recipe adjustments to accommodate my personal taste (more lemon, more brandy = more flavor), I like the perfection even more.

dobos torteFor years, I discussed this cake with students, standing next to them as they cooked caramel, soaked each cake layer with brandy simple syrup and carefully applied the icing that was sometimes too loose, sometimes too stiff, and sometimes just exactly right. students at stoveI taught them about the Hungarian creator named Jozeph Dobos and explained that the cake’s origins are mysterious – who named it named after Jozeph? An empress, as rumor has it? Or is it called Dobos because it resembles a drum (the Hungarian word for drum is “dob”).  Did Joseph name the cake after himself AND a drum?  These mysteries haunt me, as do the cravings for this cake every spring as my June birthday plans evolve. It is not an easy cake to make.  It requires special equipment, skill with a spatula for all those layers, and some patience with the buttercream to achieve the right texture.  Each year I ask myself, will I be near a kitchen that will allow me the hours of work involved in making such a masterpiece?  No.  Not this year.  I will be prowling the streets of Budapest for the first time, stalking cake shops, happily turning over my fate to the hands of Dobostorta professionals.

budapest map

I picture the cakes I will meet lined up in the windows, some as caramel-crowned cylinders of chocolate and almonds I know so well, and maybe others with foreign accents I can’t yet imagine.  Will they have hazelnuts, raspberries or other natural wonders?  Will their chocolate perfume be the same?  How will I ask for their secrets in Hungarian? I’ll need a special app to crack the code of this cake. Travelers, fellow gypsies, you recognize this as the drumbeat of travel anticipation – we love it, we dance to it, we find ways to create it when our every day lives grow dull or too full of quiet routine.  Today, my heart beats for the Dobos. This is the recipe I know and adore, and I will report on whether the true Hungarian cakes, nestled in their homeland, can compare with my beloved.


For the Cake:

2 ounces almond paste

10 ounces butter

6 ounces powdered sugar (sifted)

8 egg yolks

1 teaspoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon lemon juice

6 ounces bread flour (sifted)

8 egg whites

6 ounces powdered sugar

1 cup almond slices (finely chopped)

You need a few pieces of special equipment for this cake – sorry but it is true.  You need a full sheet pan and a 6 inch cake ring (which is different from a cake pan).  Visit Sur La Table (www.surlatable.com) or Surfas (www.surfasonline.com) and they will hook you up.

Put the almond paste in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Turn the mixer to medium and allow the almond paste to soften (about 1 minute).  Add the butter and the sugar.  Add the egg yolks one at a time, then the lemon zest and then the lemon juice.  Add 1/2 the bread flour and continue mixing until blended.  Then add the other half of bread flour and mix until blended.  Remove this cake batter mixture from the mixer and scoop it into a medium bowl and set aside.  Rinse out the mixer bowl, dry it carefully, return it to the mixer and add the egg whites.  Switch to the whisk attachment.  Whip the egg whites for about a minute, then add the powdered sugar slowly, sprinkling it in in small batches.  Continue mixing until the egg whites reach medium peak.  Using a large spatula or spoon, fold the egg white mixture into the cake batter in three batches.  Fold until all ingredients are incorporated.  Spread the batter onto a full sheet pan lined with parchment paper.  Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes, until light golden brown.  Remove the pan from the oven and allow it to cool.  Once cool, use the 6″ cake ring to punch out 8 cake layers.  You can stack them on a plate with parchment paper between each layer – then they will be ready to soak with Brandy Simple Syrup and layer up with Chocolate Buttercream Icing.

For the Brandy Simple Syrup:

6 ounces water

6 ounces sugar

2 oz brandy (Grand Marnier is a good choice)

1 pinch salt

Place all ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and allow to cool.

For the Chocolate Buttercream:

6 egg yolks

10 ounces dark chocolate

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup corn syrup

1 pound butter, cubed

1 pinch salt

Set the butter out to come to room temperature as you prepare the recipe. Prepare the egg yolks (you can keep the egg whites for another use, such as meringue) and put them in the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with the whisk attachment and set aside.  Place the chocolate over a double boiler on very low heat and allow it to melt slowly.  Once it is melted, remove from the heat and set aside.  Place the sugar, water and corn syrup together in a medium sauce pan, stir them together, then turn the heat to medium.  Allow the mixture to boil until it reaches soft ball stage (235 degrees f) – a full, rapid boil of bubbles.  Remove it from the heat and pour a very small splash (about 1/4 cup) into the egg yolks and turn the mixer on to low speed.  Repeat this process 2 more times, then increase the mixer speed to medium.  Slowly pour the rest of the sugar mixture into the yolks.  Turn the mixer up to high speed and allow it to the mixture to whip until it becomes pale in color and fluffy in texture (about 6-8 minutes).  Stop the mixer, add the melted chocolate and salt, and continue mixing until it is thoroughly blended.  Allow the mixer to continue on low speed, and toss the butter cubes 2 at a time until they are all incorporated.  The buttercream should be fluffy and smooth.

For the Caramel Wedges:

8 ounces sugar

3 ounces water

1 tablespoon corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter.

Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until the color starts to darken (about 8 minutes).  When it becomes honey colored, turn off the heat and allow to cool for 6 minutes.  Then pour over the cake layer and allow to set for another 2 minutes.  Using a large chef knife coated in butter, score the caramel-coated cake layer into 10 pieces.  Set them aside and allow the caramel to harden on each wedge.

To Assemble:

Take the first layer of cake and set it on a decorating turntable or a serving plate.  Brush it with Brandy Simply Syrup.  Scoop 3 tablespoons of Chocolate Buttercream and use an offset spatula to smooth it evenly over the cake layer.  The icing layer should match (identically!) the height of the cake layer.  They will each be between 1/4″ and 1/2″ – it is important to keep them as consititent as possible.  Repeat this process until 7 layers are complete.   Ice the cake with a final layer of chocolate buttercream and chill.  After the cake has chilled in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes, pipe 10 rosettes onto the top with the remaining buttercream, and tuck a caramel wedge on top of each rosette.

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