Alex Barbera on a week in Budapest and Vienna
I have a confession: I spent a glorious week exploring Budapest and Vienna and all I remember is cake.
Don’t get me wrong – I did a lot of sightseeing in both places. I can tell you about climbing a golden staircase in Budapest’s Parliament. I can tell you about lighting a candle in St. Stephen’s Basilica and visiting Dohany Synagogue, which is the largest in all of Europe. I can tell you about getting lost in Dracula’s Labryrinth under Buda Castle and swimming in the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. I can tell you about walking through Mozart’s apartment or wandering through the Estate Rooms of Hofburg Palace.
But I would be lying if I told you that any of these were the highlights of my trip.
The first highlight of my trip was a glorious piece of carrot cake. I got it from Espresso Embassy just before my tour of Budapest’s Parliament. It was a generous piece, full of walnuts, carrot and even a layer of tangerine between the two sheets, which added a nice tang to each bite. In place of the typical cream cheese icing one finds atop most carrot cakes, there was a soft blanket of white chocolate, which provided the only hint of sweetness throughout the whole cake. After consuming it rather quickly, I realized that although carrot cake has many healthy components, maybe that particular cake wasn’t meant to be eaten as a breakfast meal. I felt rather full (read: I couldn’t stand up straight) through the late afternoon, and the cake satisfied my sweet tooth through the end of my stay in Hungary. Ironic, I know.
The glut of goulash was so hearty in Hungary that I actually ate a lot less than I hoped I would. As a devout foodie, I try to make it to as many restaurants as possible, especially in a foreign city. The goulash, which is a rich stew of meat and vegetables, held me over for the most parts of my days and made me realize that the natives in Hungary don’t necessarily live to eat as I do, but rather eat to live. Each authentic Hungarian restaurant serves a few signature dishes, like goulash and chicken paprikash, which, like the carrot cake, is meant to stuff you for as long as possible.
By the time I arrived in Vienna, my stomach was beyond ready for some more cake. I learned from the carrot cake episode, however, that I needed to plan accordingly, especially since Vienna is so well known for its pastries.
I started in Café Mozart with Vienna’s signature chocolate cake known as Sacher Torte. It is a dry, two-layered chocolate cake with a fine layer of apricot marmalade between them. A coating of chocolate wraps around the outside surface of each piece, which is served with a mountain of unsweetened whipped cream to compliment its natural dryness. Sacher Torte is a soft cake; the chocolate flavor was far from overwhelming and unlike the previous piece I ate, sat in my stomach quite contently.
Next, I went around the corner to Café Sacher and ordered the exact same cake, because after all, this place was named after it. Café Sacher was much smaller than Café Mozart, and its atmosphere felt like teatime at the Carlyle in New York. There were couplings of classy old women, smoking cigarettes and gossiping over cake and hot chocolate. After spotting the hot chocolate, which had a heap of whipped cream on it (are you seeing a pattern?) I ordered one too. When everything came to the table, I thought I might go into diabetic shock just looking at it. I admit, the hot chocolate was a little a bit of overkill. Perhaps the ability to consume liquid and solid forms of the treat simultaneously comes with age – but it was a learning experience.
After these two bakeries – or confectionaries, as the natives call them – I decided it was time for a trip to the Museum Quarter. That’s where I could find Museum Café (and the Albertina and Leopold Museum, both of which I highly recommend). It was at that restaurant that I had my only slice of non-completely chocolate Viennese cake. I ordered the Mozart Cake. Although one waiter tried to convince me that the Mozart cake had pistachio in it, my trained taste buds picked up two layers of dark chocolate sponge cake, two layers of whipped-cream filling and a chocolate profile of Mozart himself, which topped it off. The cake tasted like what I imagine a tiramisu cloud would, but better. I don’t know why it was named after Mozart, and honestly, I was in too much of a noshing nirvana to care.
Sitting in these confectionaries, I was happy to see a balanced combination of tourists and native Austrians in each one. Turns out, cake eating is a part of Viennese culture just as espresso drinking and cigarette smoking are a part of Parisian culture.
The following and final stop on my cake tour could actually be considered a historical one, as Demel Bakery was the favorite of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth (better known as Sissi). Apparently Vienna’s cake culture was just as serious in the 19th century. Hotel Sacher (home of Café Sacher) and Demel had a decades long argument over which bakery could claim the title of the “original” creator of the Sacher torte. After much deliberation, Hotel Sacher got the rights to call their cake “The Original Sacher Torte” and Demel got the rights to decorate their tortes with a triangular seal reading “Eduard-Sacher-Torte”, the cake inventor’s name.
Despite all of the hype around this Sacher Torte competition, I decided that ordering three Sacher Tortes in a three-day period was a little bit repetitive, and ordered their house specialty, the Anna Torte, instead. This was a three-layer chocolate truffle cake with chocolate buttercream. It had a decorative chocolate nougat folding along its top, powdered with sugar, that gave it enough height to stand out in the bakery’s very full cake case. I was a bit hesitant to cut into my piece at first, because I didn’t want to ruin the fondant, but once I took a bite, I realized this was one of the best life decisions I have ever made.
Although the cake is made with hints of orange, it reminded me more of a Teuscher champagne truffle. The non-overwhelming, yet rich and distinct flavors and textures of chocolate perfectly complimented each other and convinced me that this is the most important piece of cake I would ever eat. Once I found out there was a Demel branch at the Vienna airport, I decide to buy three slices of it to take back to the States. I figured I would save two for my family, and freeze the other one for emergencies, as the cake might actually have supernatural powers.
People ask me what I loved about Budapest and Vienna and I’ve memorized the typical list. But while I recite the places, I always think back to those plates I scraped clean. I say Mozart’s apartment, and I think of Café Mozart and the Mozart Cake. I talk about Schönbrunn Palace and instead of thinking of the emperor, I remember of the emperor’s favorite bakery, Demel. Rumor has it they’re opening a branch in New York, and for everyone’s sake, I think I might have to save that piece of Anna Torte in my freezer until they do.
Alex Barbera is a harsh food critic, addict of Netflix and dog enthusiast from New York City. She is an expert at getting lost and making guacamole.