I recently saw The Illusionist, a lovely jewel of a movie about magic, princesses, and love. Sound too saccharine and hokey? Consider that the film is set in fin de siècle Vienna, and manages to capture all the somber, old-world elegance of that city, infusing the film with the timeless quality of a fairy tale.
It makes you want to believe in magic, that the fantastical and impossible can come true, that a young magician can make an orange tree sprout from a seed in the space of a breath, that sweethearts cruelly separated as children can find one another again years later, that the dead can return and speak to the living.
I knew the movie had me under its spell because I was not troubled by the skeptical, jaded gaze of the modern eye: I did not think of whether the magic tricks had been aided by computer effects, or whether some of the actors’ accents were a bit dodgy. I was captivated instead by the gorgeous settings, all gaslights, cobblestones, silk dresses, old marble and patina’d wood; the muted, sepia tones of the picture- it’s like this film was already old when it was made, the corners of the screen darkly flickering, colors all rich browns and tarnished golds; the exciting uncertainty of the turn of the century, when people were still balanced between the logic of science and the lure of the supernatural. When you see a pair of butterflies fluttering through the air, bearing a lace handkerchief between them, you want to believe that it’s real magic, even as you know inside that it’s not.
For me, one scene that shows how perfectly this film captures the time of the Hapsburgs: near the beginning, police Chief Inspector Uhl (played wonderfully by Paul Giamatti), meets a guest in a charming, elegant old kaffeehaus, and asks him congenially (and much to my delight), "Will you have some strudel?"
Several beautiful kaffeehäuser make their appearance in the movie, a fitting tribute to this bastion of Austro-Hungarian culture. In Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, these coffeehouses served as quasi-residences for intellectuals to discuss, argue, and create, much like the cafes of Paris, and provided a haven for anyone else who wished to read his newspaper with a cup of coffee over a long leisurely afternoon. Your coffee would always arrive on a tray with a glass of water beside it, an old Turkish custom indicating that the guest was welcome to stay as long as he wished – and indeed, no one would ever think to hasten you out the door. The kaffeehaus was meant for lingering.
Of course, these coffeehouses also offered dessert, from strudels to cakes to yeast breads to dumplings. I highly recommend you pick up Rick Rodgers’ Kaffeehaus, which provides a comprehensive and accessible history of both the kaffeehaus and Viennese pastry, a glorious world of its own from French patisserie. The apple strudel, with parchment-thin sheets of dough wrapped around ripe fruit, is Austro-Hungarian. The famous Sachertorte, with its layers of chocolate and apricot jam covered in chocolate glaze, was created in Vienna for a visiting prince. Gugelhupf, that sweet, donut-shaped cake, is also an Austrian favorite. Rodgers has documented dozens of traditional recipes in his book, oftentimes with stories of their history, and the pages are filled as well with pictures of coffeehouses in Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, many still in their glorious turn of the century condition, with their wide walls of windows, the marble topped tables, the Thonet chairs, the newspapers piled in the corner.
Spurred on by the movie, I wanted to make something from this vanished time, some dessert enjoyed by a denizen of Vienna as he read his newspaper and sipped his coffee, perhaps before going to a night of magic at the theater. I chose the Linzertorte, perhaps more well known today in its other incarnation as the Linzer cookie. I have made Linzer cookies before, and even Pierre Hermé’s rendition of the Linzertorte, but the original is quite a treat in its own right.
I used a combination of recipes from Kaffeehaus and from Baking Illustrated: There is a shortcrust version of Linzertorte, where you cut butter into dry ingredients much like a pie dough, and a creamed version, where you cream the butter in a mixer before adding in the other ingredients. I went for the creamed method, and the result is a rich, dense base upon which you spread a layer of the traditional red currant preserves, followed by a lattice of the same dough. The cinnamon and cloves give a distinctive, spicy flavor – I loved how it smelled as it was baking – and combined with the red currant filling, makes a very decadent cake. One slice is more than enough to fill you up! I also had a good time making the top – the dough is quite workable and forgiving, so long as you keep it chilled, which made the strips quite easy to cut and place.
So imagine, if you will, a cup of coffee and glass of water on a silver tray besides a slice of this cake, and that you are relaxing in a coffeehouse in old Vienna, where beauty and magic are the order of the day.
adapted from RIck Rodgers’ Kaffehaus
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups almonds, blanched and toasted
1 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large egg yolks
1 cup red currant or seedless raspberry preserves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg yolk for egg wash
3 tablespoons sliced almonds for garnish
Process toasted almonds in a food processor until very fine but before it turns oily and into butter. Combine ground almonds, flour, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, salt in a bowl.
Put butter and sugar in mixer bowl and beat for several minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down sides as necessary. Add egg yolks and mix to combine. Add in flour mixture and mix until combined.
Take dough and divide in half, flattening each into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic and chill in refrigerator until firm, at least half an hour and up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take a 9" springform pan and butter the bottom and sides well.
Take one of the dough disks out of the refrigerator (if it’s been in there overnight, you may have to let it sit for a few minutes to soften up). Press into the bottom and up the sides of the springform pan, aiming for a thickness of a little less than 1/4" everywhere. Use a knife to trim the dough around the sides so it is even.
Fill bottom with pie weights. Bake dough in oven for about 15 to 20 minutes until the crust is set and the center is still slightly moist. Remove pie weights and bake in oven for about 5 more minutes until the center is dry is well. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature.
When the shell is cool, take the second disk of dough out and roll to thickness of 1/4". If the dough gets too soft, you may need to return to the fridge to let it firm up.
Whisk red currant preserves and lemon juice together in a bowl until smooth. Spread evenly into the shell.
Trim the second disk of dough into a square and cut into 10 strips, each 3/4" wide. Use the strips to make a lattice pattern over the preserves, five in each direction. (to get a basket weave effect, place three strips in one direction – one down the center, two at the ends, then rotate 90 degrees and place three more in the same fashion. Rotate 90 degrees and place two more strips between the first three strips, then rotate 90 degrees and place the last two strips in the same fashion). Trim the strips off at the shell edge and press into the shell to secure. Again, if the strips start getting soft and tearing, put back in the fridge for a while.
Beat the egg yolk with a tablespoon of water to make an egg wash and brush over the lattice. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over the top.
Bake in the oven until the preserves are bubbling, about 45 minutes. Cool on wire rack for about 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the torte and loosen the ring. Let the torte finish cooling on the rack.
Serves about 8-12 people