Is There a Difference Between a Torte and a Cake?
What's the difference between a torte and a cake? Or a torte and a tart, for that matter? The answer—in English, at least—is not so simple. A torte is a cake or a tart, depending on when and where the recipe originated and who named it. Confused? You should be. Rather than get bogged down by definitions and categories, however, it's best to simply celebrate the delicious variations and interpretations the name torte implies.
Traditional tortes come from the Central and Eastern Europe—namely, Germany, Austria, and Hungary—where the word simply means cake. These are the confections typically found in Viennese coffeehouses; as such, they pair well with a strong cup of coffee. These cakes are rich and dense since many are made with ground nuts or bread crumbs in place of flour. You'll find that most are layered and sandwiched with jam, frosting, or other flavorful fillings. Some, though not all, of these desserts are fancy, multi-layered sweets meant for special occasions. Others are quite humble and easy to put together.
Among the most popular examples is Linzer Torte, which is decidedly more tart than cake. It's made of nut-rich pastry crust, covered with raspberry jam, and then topped with more crust woven into a lattice. The torte is named for the city of Linz, Austria, where it originated, and variations abound. Almonds are traditional, but some Linzers include hazelnuts or pecans. Likewise, you'll find versions with apricot or cherry jam filling in for the standard raspberry. Linzer Torte is a Christmastime favorite throughout Eastern and Central Europe. More modern interpretations include one with a gingerbread crust and lots of Linzer-style cookies, including thumbprints and cutouts.
Invented in 1832 at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, Sacher Torte is another fine example of the form. It's a chocolate cake brushed with warm apricot jam and covered in a shiny coat of rich dark chocolate ganache. This luxurious dessert lends itself to fancy embellishments like edible gold or chocolate candies. However a Sacher Torte is finished, slices are customarily served mit schlag ("with [whipped cream]").
A layered pastry of thin sponge cake sandwiched with chocolate buttercream and finished with caramel, Dobos Torte is named for the Hungarian chef who invented it in 1884. Purists insist on seven layers, while others say that the number is not as important as the composition, which must include individually baked layers rather than those cut from a single cake. Still other beloved tortes include Mandeltorte (made with ground almonds), Mohntorte (rich with poppy seeds), and Esterhazy torte (named for a prince, it features chocolate buttercream sandwiched between light sponge cake or discs of baked meringue). It's worth noting that some Italian cakes are called tortes in English, simply because the Italian word torta is translated to English that way.
Beyond the European classics, countless examples of tortes abound, like the Australian Saratoga Torte, composed of baked meringue studded with cracker crumbs and generously topped with jam and cream. In some parts of the United States, it wouldn't be autumn without Marian Burros' Plum Torte, the most requested recipe from the New York Times archive since it first ran in 1983. It's been a beloved home-baking tradition ever since, once Italian prune plums appear at farmers' markets. More recently, many flourless chocolate cakes have come to be called tortes, whether they contain nuts or not.
All confusion aside, it seems a torte by any other name would taste just as sweet.