Vienna’s “Fächertorte”—Jewish Budapest’s “Flódni” Layer Cake in Disguise. #RachelRaj #Demel

The fantastic Fächertort, or "fan-cake", a flódni in disguise.

Vienna’s fächertorte recipe.

“FÄCHERTORTE,” says the white-aproned waitress at Vienna’s Demel Konditorei (German for pastry shop) from behind the magnificent display case of one of the world’s best Viennese cake and torte selections.

“Fächertorte, which translates as ‘fan-cake,’ is a house specialty,” she explains, while pointing at the little sign in front of one of the famous creations. She repeats the word fächertorte several times, in a purposefully exaggerated voice, for the benefit of giggling American tourists who are busy taking pictures.

“What is she saying? F*cker-tarte? Are you serious?”

Well, certainly the sound is close, but only close, and probably reveals more about the folks’ mindset—and mine—than anything about the delicious layer cake itself.

The formidable vitrine is seldom free of people devouring the cakes with their eyes. Early in the morning, you can have a glimpse a the "museum of Viennese tortes and pastries" main display. And if you are lucky, there's even a pastry chef in the picture!
Demel’s formidable vitrine is seldom free of people devouring cakes with their eyes. Early in the morning, you can have a glimpse of the main display, a veritable museum of Viennese tortes and pastries. (And if you’re lucky, you might even catch a pastry chef in your photo!)

This old world Viennese specialty—not the same as sachertorte,  another historic Demel house creation which is a chocolate cake with apricot jam—is comprised of four separately-made fillings piled on top of one another. The bottom layer is comprised of ground poppy seeds covered with a shimmery layer of walnut purée. Next comes a fruity layer of thin apple slices topped with a black dollop of powidl jam (thick plum stew). Finally, everything is wrapped in a thin crust of cookie dough and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

My wife's and my Fächertorte. We like to bake together. Results are generally worthwhile ;-)
This is my wife’s and my fächertorte. We like to bake together. Results are generally worthwhile.

Today, even though the recipe for fächertorte can be found in one of the most popular cookbooks about Viennese cuisine Die Gute Küche by Ewald Plachutta and Christoph Wagner, the cake is very difficult to find in pastry shops. (In her book Koschere Köstlichkeiten, Salcia Landmann lists it too, though with a yeast dough.)

The cake has relatively expensive ingredients and needs quite a few steps in its preparation. Two facts which may likely explain its rarity in Vienna’s pastry shops…well, this and the fact that it’s so Jewish, and that the Viennese did murder or chase away all the Jewish customers.

But Demel comes to the rescue. The establishment continues to honor its unofficial title as Vienna’s cake “museum,” and regularly features the cake in its repertoire.

At this level we can see the Fächer-torte's short pastry's crust encasing the marvelous fillings, Prune jam, apple, walnut and poppy seed.
At this level, we can see the fächertorte’s short pastry’s crust encasing the marvelous fillings, plum jam, apple, walnut and poppy seed.

During world war two, when part of the management of the Demel, this former purveyor of the Imperial court, preferred to leave the country, the other part continued to serve high-ranking Nazi dignitaries. One of these dignitaries was Baldur von Schirach, the German Nazi Party’s national youth leader, head of the Hitler Youth, and later, Gauleiter and Reichsstatthalter of Vienna.

But reportedly, the Demel continued to serve their delicacies to quite a different sort of crowd, tucked away in a hidden hallway: former regulars. Why do we know this? Austrian historians like to quote Viennese journalist and diplomat Milan Dubrović from his book Misguided Story—The Viennese Salons and Literary Cafés:

In a narrow, dimly-lit corridor between the kitchen and the loo, the concealed guests sat like stringed, chair next to chair: the U-boats [note: Hidden Jews], the persecuted, the political defamers, who ate Schirach’s leftovers, pies and creams out of his plate while discussing the daily news that they had listened to on an illegal broadcast.”

It may sound unbelievable that, in world war two Vienna, the head of the Germans would not have checked the places where leading Nazi figures ate.

But then, who knows—it’s that sort of thing that saved people, too.

The three fillings of the Fächertorte: apple, walnut, and poppy-seed. The latter two are not very tasty before they are baked together with the other fillings in the oven. Not shown here, is the fourth filling called powidl, the local specialty plum jam.
The three fillings of the fächertorte: apple, walnut, and poppy seed. The latter two may not sound very appealing upon reading the recipe, but they are particularly tasty baked with the other fillings in the oven. (Not shown here is the fourth filling called powidl, the local specialty plum jam.)

Anyway, I’d like to spin on that story myself by imagining how those hidden Jews would have wanted to continue eating their beloved cakes, including the fächertorte, which was, before the extermination of Europe’s Jewry, a Yom Kippur treat in Vienna.

As Susanne Zahradnik, a Viennese Jew born in 1920, recollects in her 2003 Centropa interview:

“I remember that once on the Day of Atonement [note: Yom Kippur] we had to restrain ourselves in the garden to eat no nuts, because then we had to fast. After sunset, there was always a big dinner with goose and fächertorte, which was prepared with jam, Applesauce, nut and poppy seeds.”

In many families, fächertorte was a traditional treat for Yom Kippur. And because of the presence of poppy seeds—which is Mohn in German and mon in Yiddish, and a sound similar to Haman, the villain of the Purim story—it was also a Purim treat, just like its Hungarian counterpart, the flódni cake.

As a Jewish food maven probably would have noticed right from the beginning, there’s a striking similarity between fächertorte and what has become in the last decades the symbol of Jewish Budapest’s art of baking, the flódni.

Incidentally, in Andràs Koerner’s book A Taste of the Past- The Daily Life and Cooking of a Nineteenth-Century Hungarian Jewish Homemaker, Riza Néni, who lived almost at equidistance between Budapest and Vienna, has a recipe that seems to be the precursor to both the flódni and the fächertorte.

My daughter eating her second portion of Rachel Rajs delicious flódni.
My daughter eating her second portion of Rachel Raj’s delicious flódni.

Though the difference between the two pastries from the two neighboring metropolia of the former Habsburg empire is minor, it exists and is defining.

The individual layers of the flódni, contrary to those in the fächertorte, are separated by layers of dough. When baking the fächertorte, the juice of the apples seeps through the nuts slowly into the ground poppy seeds. But in the flódni, the different fillings need to already be close to the jam-like final product upon assembly, as they are separated by a layer of pastry dough, which prevents the different juices and flavors from mingling together and seeping downwards.

In a flódni the four different layers are separated by a thin layer of dough.
In a flódni the four different layers are separated by a thin layer of dough.

Flódni is a sort of sheet cake, which makes sense as it is sometimes also called fládni and seems to come from the German for “flat cake.” It is a little bit more rural, or informal than Fächertorte. The latter, is a torte, thus a bit more stately, elegant, or let’s say conservative, Viennese in other words. But also, it is very little known. Sadly, we know why. Again, the public for such Jewish cakes has been murder and chased.

Flódni in Hungary, on the contrary, became a star lately with the help of Budapest’s Rachel Raj. With her Café Noé next to her mother’s Judaica store in the vicinity of Budapest’s Tabak shul, the great Neolog Synagogue, and her appearances on TV, she is almost as famous in Hungary as Rachel Ray is in the US. The comparison may sound a little over the top but has obviously already been made because of the similarity of their names—for instance, in a 2015 article in Tablet magazine “Budapest’s Top Pastry Chef Gives Christmas a Jewish Flavor,” where they also show Rachel Raj’s flódni recipe. (Another detailed recipe I particularly like can be found in Rick Rodgers’ fabulous Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague.)

Rachel Rajs Café Noé in Wesselényi street 13 in Budapest, next to her mothers Judaica store and just around the corner from the city's great Dohány street synagogue.
Rachel Raj’s Café Noé in Wesselényi street 13 in Budapest, is next to her mother’s Judaica store and just around the corner from the city’s great Dohány street synagogue.

Rachel Raj, the sympathetic businesswomen, studied fashion before turning to cakes and becoming a celebrity pastry chef in Budapest. Though she now makes all things cake, especially decorations in her shop, Tortaszalon (meaning cake salon), she built her reputation on the flódni.

Imagine, she even served the late Anthony Bourdain a piece of her famous flódni during the shooting of a Parts Unknown Budapest episode!

Anthony Bourdain and Rachel Raj during the shooting of the Budapest episode for the CNN series "Parts Unknown" in 2015.
Anthony Bourdain and Rachel Raj during the shooting of the Budapest episode for the CNN series “Parts Unknown” in 2015.

Budapest’s Jewish population once amounted to a quarter of the total population and basically shaped the city to what it is today: in my opinion, it’s the most Jewish city I know: It was, for the most part, built in its contemporary shape by its Jews. (Mary Glucks’ Invisible Jewish Budapest – Metropolitan Culture at the Fin de Siècle.)

Today, the city is home to around fifty thousand Jews (there are about seven thousand in Vienna), and we’re seeing a resurgence of, and interest in, local Jewish and Hungarian cuisine.

As for the relationship between flódni and fächertorte, my guess is that the specialty came from the Hungarian countryside and its surroundings to the city of Vienna with the immigrants of the former Habsburg homelands. Thus, from the flódni, the flat-cake-shape, the delicacy became a torte, the fächertorte, served by a purveyor of the imperial court of Austria-Hungary. It’s very likely that this cake got its metropolitan roots through the city’s Jews.

But to know with any certainty which came first, the torte or the flódni, is probably like the chicken or the egg causality dilemma.

Hungarian Newspaper clipping about Rachel Raj.
Hungarian Newspaper clipping about Rachel Raj.

And in case you’re wondering, I have thought of making the fächertorte as popular in Austria as Rachel Raj made the flódni in Hungary. But when I see her— the young, good-looking, former fashion student— presenting the cake, and compare her to me—a middle-aged, bald, not-so-slim male— there’s nothing more to do but to try to make myself feel less guilty. Naturally, I then comfort myself with another bite of my favorite calorie bomb, the fächertorte.

Nino Loss at Café Korb by Ronnie Niedermeyer for Vienna's "Wina - das jüdische Stadtmagazin" June 2017 edition.
Yours truly is not a sex symbol selling fächertorte… or anything else for that matter (I’m obviously waiting for your personal messages convincing me of the contrary).

And now, a few visual instructions followed by the recipe.

Swiftly mix together the ingredients.
Rubbing the cold butter into the flour mixture.
Quickly mix the ingredients together. Do not knead and overwork the dough.
Quickly mix the ingredients together, being careful no to overwork the dough.
Make the fillings by heating milk, honey and sugar. Then add the remaining ingredients, once for the poppy-seed filling, once for the walnut filling.
Make the fillings by heating milk, honey and sugar. Then add the remaining ingredients, once for the poppy seed filling, once for the walnut filling.
The three fillings of the Fächertorte: apple, walnut, and poppy-seed. The latter two are not very tasty before they are baked together with the other fillings in the oven. Not shown here, is the fourth filling called powidl, the local specialty plum jam.
The three fillings of the fächertorte: apple, walnut, and poppy seed. The latter two are not very tasty on their own but evolve into a delicious mix when baked together with the other fillings. Not shown here is the fourth filling called powidl, the local specialty plum jam.
Roll out the dough and fit it into a spring form.
Roll out the dough and fit it into a springform.
Wrap the sides tightly but delicately with aluminium foil in order to prevent the dough from sliding down in the oven.
Wrap the sides tightly but delicately with aluminum foil to prevent it from sliding down in the oven.
Prebake the dough in the springform for 15 minutes to insure that it will be done.
Prebake the dough in the springform for 15 minutes to ensure that it is cooked through.
Fill with the poppy-seed mix. Then the walnut filling. Top with the marinated apples. Finish with a couple of dollops of thick plum jam.
Fill with the poppy seed mix, then the walnut filling. Top with the marinated apples. Finish with a couple of dollops of thick plum jam.
Lace the top of the cake and brush with egg-wash.
Lace the top of the cake and brush with egg-wash.
Bake for 45 minutes and then let cool completely on a rack.
Bake for 45 minutes and then let cool completely on a rack. Unmold and dust with confectioner’s sugar.
The fantastic Fächertort, or "fan-cake", a flódni in disguise.
The fantastic fächertorte, or “fan-cake,” a flódni in disguise.

And here’s the recipe:

Recipe: Fächertorte

The Short Dough Crust

Buy or make your own short dough. There’s excellent short dough available even kosher and parvé if this is what you’re looking for. I prefer not to use hydrogenated oils, hence no margarine. So if I were to need a parvé dough, I would make my short dough with vegetable oil, typically canola. Otherwise, a classic short dough with butter is always preferable.

Short dough

500g / 17oz all-purpose flour
200g / 7oz confectioner’s sugar
230g / 8.1oz butter
2 large eggs
1 Tblsp vanilla sugar (to substitute mix 1 vanilla bean or 1 Tblsp of vanilla extract with 18g of sugar)
zest from 1/2 lemon
pinch of salt

  1. Combine the dry ingredients for the dough.
  2. Dice the butter into cubes, then mix it into the flour and sugar mixture with your hands. Rub the butter into this mixture, so as not to warm the butter more than necessary. Bring everything together working quickly. It should feel like sand or coarse meal between your fingers.
  3. Add the eggs. Mix swiftly, just enough so that everything pulls together to form a ball of dough.
  4. If, at this point, it is a bit too sticky, add a very small amount of flour and try again.
  5. Let rest in the refrigerator for 45 minutes.
  6. Proceed with your recipe and use any leftovers to make simple cookies.

The Fillings

This torte is all about how the delicious fillings come together during the baking process. The juice of the marinated apples should slowly seep into the lower layers of walnut purée and ground poppy seeds. When it’s all baked together, the whole is much more delicious than the sum of its parts.

An important note on ground poppy seeds: try to buy them at Central or Eastern European specialty stores and check for the freshest possible product, as poppy seeds can turn rancid.

The top layer of apples is covered with a thick plum stew called powidl, a regional specialty stew made with very ripe Italian plums and no sugar. If you can’t find real powidl, pureeing prunes with just enough water to form a thick paste makes an acceptable substitute.

Fächertorte (yields one 9 to 8 inch / 23 to 18 cm cake):

500g / 17oz short dough (see the classic recipe above

Apple filling:
1kg / 35.3oz sweet-tart apples like Granny Smith, Boskoop or Braeburn (if you are in Austria, try to find a “Strudler”-variety), peeled, cored, quartered, sliced into approximately 1/10 inch / 2.5mm.
60g / 2.1oz sugar
1 Tbsp (18g / 0.63oz) vanilla sugar (to substitute mix 1 vanilla bean or 1 Tbsp of vanilla extract with 18g of sugar)
50g / 1.76oz raisins
1/8 tsp (0.33g / 0.01oz) ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp / 15ml rum 

Walnut filling:
30g / 1.1oz sugar
1 Tbsp / 15ml honey (like acacia)
1/16l / 1/4 cup milk (or apple juice)
150g / 5.3oz walnuts, finely ground

1 Tbsp / 15ml rum 

Poppy-seed filling:
30g / 1.1oz sugar
1 Tbsp / 15ml honey (like acacia)
1/16l / 1/4 cup milk (or apple juice)
150g / 5.3oz poppy seeds, ground (not mixed!)
1 Tbsp (18g / 0.63oz) vanilla sugar (to substitute mix 1 vanilla bean or 1 Tbsp of vanilla extract with 18g of sugar)
zest of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp / 15ml rum

6 Tbsp / 90ml powidl, a thick plum stew. You may substitute powidl with 12 pitted prunes, puréed with just enough water to form a very thick paste. Cook while stirring incessantly for a couple of minutes to thicken the paste.

Egg wash:
1 large egg at room temperature
1 tablespoon water

confectioner’s sugar for dusting

  1. Make apple filling: Mix apples with all other ingredients and let marinate.
  2. Make walnut filling: Bring milk, honey, and sugar to a boil and stir until dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the remaining ingredients. Set aside to cool.
  3. Make poppy seed filling: Bring milk, honey, and sugar to a boil and stir until dissolved. Take off the heat and mix in the remaining ingredients. Set aside to cool.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375°F / 190°C (regular convection, no fan).
  5. Roll out the dough to a thickness of no less than approximately 3mm / 1/8 inch.
  6. Line a springform with the dough: Use two-thirds the dough to line first the bottom of a 20 to 23cm / 8 to 9 inch springform with a disc of dough, and then line the sides with a large strip.
  7. Wrap the sides of the springform and the dough tightly with tin foil so as to prevent it from sliding down while heating in the oven.
  8. Prebake the dough for 15 minutes, or until starting to brown, on the middle rack of the preheated oven.
  9. Cut remaining dough into 1.3cm / ½ inch strips to prepare the lattice design on top of the fillings.
  10. Fill the bottom third evenly with the poppy seed mixture, then delicately spread the walnut layer on top. Add the marinated apples and their juices. Finish with the powidl prune stew.
  11. Form a lattice pattern on top with the strips of dough.
  12. Apply egg wash on top of the lattice.
  13. Bake for 50 minutes on the middle rack of the oven.
  14. Set on a rack to cool completely, preferably overnight.
  15. Unmold delicately. Use a sharp knife if necessary.
  16. Dust with confectioner’s sugar.

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Nino Shaya Loss-Weiss
Hi, I'm Nino, an unbridled foodnik blogging from Vienna, the city of dreams and Sigmund Freud. I'm cooking up a therapy with recipes and stories from Viennese cuisine and its eclectic influences – Jewish, Italian, Hungarian, Bohemian... – with an armchair psychoanalytical twist.

6 Comments

  1. I love this cake! I had one at Demel’s last time in Vienna and was looking for a recipe all over the Internet. Thank you so much for posting this.

  2. I like how elegant your fachertorte looks – and that the juice from the apples are likely to moisten the walnut and poppy seed layers, yielding what I imagine to be a delicious, moist cake (the power of imagination!). I tried Rachel’s flodni in Budapest and found it a tad heavy for me. Will try your recipe one day – thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Lin!
      I like Rachel flódni very much but I prefer the absence of the extra layers of dough and as you say the fillings get really delicious this way. Hope to see you around. In any case, let us know how the recipe went for you!

  3. Hi Nino,

    I found your recipe on Instagram & I am hoping to bake it this week. You miss out at what stage the egg wash is used. I’m guessing it’s just on the top of the lattice before the Fächertorte goes into the oven?
    I’m really looking forward to trying this recipe!

    Jess

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