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Germany bite by bite: Black Forest gateau

Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg
April 14, 2020

If you cannot travel to Germany, Germany will just have to come to you: With compliments from the kitchen! This time we have a specialty from Baden-Württemberg.


How to make Black Forest Gateau

For more than a hundred years the Black Forest gateau has been the crowning glory of every German coffee table. A dreamy-creamy indulgence guaranteed to brighten the mood, the dessert is a global culinary star. The Lonely Planet travel guide calls the gateau "Germany's King of Cakes." From China to the US, North Africa to New Zealand, the Black Forest cake is universally adored.

A slice of happiness

The gateau consists of several chocolate sponge cake layers. This is the innocent part. Next the sponge cake is sprinkled with high-proof kirsch, a cherry brandy, before it is slathered with cream. Sour cherries are then placed on top.

Finally, everything is hidden under a thick layer of cream and decorated with more cherries and chocolate shavings. This creates the look that people the world over recognize as a Black Forest gateau.

The kirsch can be left out, or the cream can be replaced by buttercream according to taste. There are countless variations. But its look remains the same.

Several confectioners have claimed to have invented the original recipe. Most prominently Josef Keller and Erwin Hildebrand — both from Baden-Württemberg.

Lecker Deutschland Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte
Stacking with panache — three layers are a good startImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Moxter

The trail of whipped cream leads to Triberg

In the idyllic village of Triberg the legacy of Josef Keller is held in high regard. Master pastry chef Claus Schäfer still produces the classic cake here according to the original recipe from 1915. Schäfer's father had been an apprentice to Swabian Josef Keller and was trained in the finer points of cake making. He conscientiously wrote down all instructions. Later his son Claus found the booklet rather by chance, recognized the potential and revived the recipe from 1915, with great lasting success.

In Tübingen, where Erwin Hildebrand presented his version of the cream cake in Café Walz in 1930, the appeal of this sweet indulgence is well-known. The town even has ambitions to establish a Black Forest gateau museum.

The cream cake really only became truly popular in the 1930s. It suddenly was a big hit in the confectioneries of all the larger cities in the Alpine region, but also in Berlin. There was a very practical reason for this.

It was then that the first electric refrigerators came onto the market, making it possible to make the cake and preserve it with reliable cooling. Any cream cake will otherwise collapse mercilessly. The refrigerator therefore paved the way for the victorious rise of the Black Forest gateau.

Culinary cultural heritage

Lecker Deutschland Schwarzwald Tracht
The Bollenhut hat is a characteristic feature of the Black Forest, although it is only worn in three villagesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Seeger

In the Black Forest the traditional gateau is more than just a cake: it is a cultural asset. Comparisons to nature and customs are often made to underline how closely the cake is connected to the region.

Some suspect that the Black Forest national costume, especially the Bollenhut hat, was the inspiration for the cherry decoration of the cake. The chocolate shavings are supposed to remind us of the dark forests that gave the region its name.

And then there are the cherries and the cherry brandy. Both the fresh and the alcoholic versions are firmly rooted in the Black Forest. Cherry trees thrive here, the climatic conditions are perfect. And so, the ingredients for the cake reflect the best produce from the region.

Lecker Deutschland  Schwarzwald Erholung Obstbäume
The loveliest thing about spring in the Black Forest: the fruit tree blossomImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Feuerer

A gateau as a tourism asset

The gateau and its ingredients practically tempt you to venture on a culinary tour of discovery through the Black Forest. The cherry blossom time in April is particularly charming.

A hike on the Cherry Tree Trail between Sasbach and Riegel leads past endless orchard meadows. The Eggenertal is also known for its splendid blossoms. And in Mösbach every year in spring on a Sunday in April a big festival is celebrated, the Cherry Blossom Magic.

Then farm shops open their doors, offer samples of liqueurs and schnapps, serve culinary delights and invite you to go on hikes where you can learn interesting facts about local fruit growing. This year the festival was supposed to take place on April 5th, but it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. So, an excursion tip for next year!

12,000 fruit distillers are listed in Baden-Württemberg. The Black Forest distilleries create fruit brandies with great passion.

The 14-kilometer Brennersteig circular hiking trail also passes Oberkirch. Here you can experience how the Black Forest people define "passion": there are almost 900 home distilleries. However, tastings and guided tours that provide an insight into the tradition of the art of distillation will have to wait until tourism returns after the coronavirus lockdown.

At which stage you should plan a visit to the open-air museum Vogtsbauernhof in Gutach. There you can experience first-hand how a multi-layered Black Forest gateau is made. A professional demonstrates his art in the museum café, including a tasting session. The icing on the cake of the "Cherry Whisper" guided tour gives an insight into the living conditions of the Black Forest farmers. A beautiful combination of culinary and cultural delights. 

Lecker Deutschland Kirschen
Fresh, preserved, or as Kirsch schnapps — cherries are used in all forms in the Black ForestImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Reinhard

Who makes the best gateau in this county?

And another event tip for your 2021 diary: Every spring amateur pastry chefs and professional confectioners compete against each other at the Black Forest Gateau Festival in Todtnauberg. The festival is not only a competition, but also a folk festival with music and cabaret, culinary tastings, courses in jam making — and of course Black Forest gateau lessons for everyone. All cakes are sold afterwards for a good cause.

But where can you get the best Black Forest gateau in the Black Forest? Authentic and highly praised is that of the "Goldenen Krone" (Golden Crown) in the upper Black Forest, in Sankt Märgen. The cafe is run by women from the region who have joined together to form a cooperative. No cook, no master confectioner, no professional staff — there are about 20 dedicated women at work here. Their accumulated experience and attachment to their region is evident in the selection of cakes. The Black Forest gateau that is served here is legendary.

Since nobody is traveling at the moment, and restaurants and cafes are closed, why not just try making a Black Forest gateau yourself? You get to decide how many layers your cake should have, how much kirsch schnapps you want to sprinkle on it, and how high the cream peaks should be. Do not forget, this cake makes you happy!

Here is a step by step guide. (Downloads)

Elisabeth Yorck
Elisabeth Yorck von Wartenburg Author, editor, planner, social media manager