Browsing in the gift shop of Vienna’s famed Cafe Sacher, I resist the cookbooks, magnets, robes, and teddy bears. But I can never resist buying an Original Sacher-Torte, a dense but delectable chocolate cake made with a thin layer of apricot jam and a rich chocolate glaze, to take home with me.
The cake is even mentioned in my professional bio, where I talk about studying in Vienna in college. That’s true love.
Whenever I’m in Vienna, I head to Cafe Sacher, order a slice of Original Sacher-Torte mit schlag (with a generous dollop of unsweetened whipped cream) and a cup of coffee.
Then the ritual begins: sips of coffee in between bites of cake, trying not to let too many crumbs fall. In the process, I’m not just indulging in my favorite dessert on the planet; I’m transported back to that carefree time I spent in the city as an undergrad.
The cake was invented in 1832 by 16-year-old Franz Sacher. Years later, at the height of the Habsburg Empire, the beautiful, but lonely, Empress Sisi regularly had the cake sent to her. And today, 1,000 cakes are sold daily in four locations across Austria. (Two people are employed just to crack all the eggs — 11,000 each day!)
There are other versions — one could say imitations — of the famous torte, of course, including with Cafe Demel, Sacher’s main rival in Vienna. I’ve sampled many, but, for me, Cafe Sacher’s version always wins.
The cake isn’t for everyone. Some of my friends who have been moved to try the Sacher-Torte themselves after hearing my rapturous reviews, only to return with complaints of dry cake. But that has been a small minority. My obsession remains.
Cafe Sacher is attached to the family-owned Hotel Sacher, a transportive place that looks out over Hofburg Palace and the Vienna State Opera. I have yet to stay overnight but love that I can sit in the plush red-velvet lobby, the Blue Bar, or the cafe and still feel a part of it.
Wolfgang Buchmann, Hotel Sacher’s charismatic chief concierge, says the cake owes its success to its secret recipe, which is locked away in a safe. “The ingredients are high-quality, but simple,” he says. But he warns against pairing the cake with a coffee that could overwhelm its flavor. “It should not be too strong,” he says. “I prefer to drink a [Wiener] Melange with it.”
After a tête-à-tête with an Original Sacher-Torte, you’ll want to walk around. When I’m in town, I always take advantage of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, a grand boulevard that encircles the historic city center in a 3-mile loop, for a post-torte power walk.
This time, the Ringstrasse is aglow with tiny, twinkling lights from Vienna’s Christmas markets. The Christkindlmarkt in front of city hall, has the most stunning backdrop, but the Spittelberg Market, nestled in one of my favorite neighborhoods, the buzzing Neubau, near the MuseumsQuartier, is definitely worth a visit. You also won’t want to miss the market at Schönbrunn Palace, just a subway ride away from the Ringstrasse.
My conversation with Wolfgang had turned to Austria’s famous Christmas cookies, so I was on the hunt for some as I strolled through the markets. He told me that it’s a time honored tradition for Austrian families to bake cookies — from scratch — at home. “Every family has their own secret recipe,” Wolfgang said. “At least four different kinds of cookies will be made, which have to be hidden until Christmas, otherwise nothing remains. Nowadays, you can buy them outside the home but nothing is better than homemade!”
He told me the most popular flavors for Austrian Christmas cookies are vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate, anise, and orange. But, finally, at the Christkindlmarkt at city hall, I find my favorite: apple crumb.
I leave Vienna, Sacher-Torte and Christmas cookies in hand, with a smile on my face. But I have something else tucked away in my carry on: a Hotel Sacher Christmas ornament.
When I arrive home to my apartment in New York City, I hang it on my tree with love, and each time I look at it I’m reminded of that time I lived in Vienna, when the most important decision to be made was which newspaper to read next at which cafe.