Dessert: sweet, delicious, immoderate, celebratory. Can you imagine a birthday, wedding, church supper, or special occasion without it? Then why not try a dessert that is totally over the top. It is my German grandmother’s Blitz Torte, a sublime confection of meringue, cake, custard filling, and almonds that is as delectable as it is beautiful. Are you sufficiently tempted?
To satisfy their sweet tooths, the Germans and Austrians have developed an astonishing variety of desserts that are almost mythical for their decadence and glory. The Viennese think any time of day or night is an excuse to sit at a coffee house, sip coffee, and enjoy one of their famous pastries. German Blitz Torte is not really difficult, because the cake is baked at the same time as its meringue “frosting.” And the custard filling, if made in the microwave, makes the process even simpler. But just in case you don’t have the time or courage, I’ve also included a super-simple dessert below. It too is over-the-top.
What’s so special about dessert that it crowns all of our celebrations? In one word, hospitality. We’re hospitable, we think, when we are kind, friendly, welcoming, and generous to guests and strangers. In almost every culture, it is considered inhospitable for a guest to refuse food offered by the host. And today there’s even an entire so-called hospitality industry that has commercialized the term.
In the Old Testament however, hospitality carries a far more serious meaning. To offer hospitality to the stranger—the word can be translated foreigner, alien, sojourner, wayfarer, Gentile—was not just a kind gesture, it was a sacred duty. In early Greek culture a host who did not provide the stranger with food, water, and shelter had committed the gravest of offenses against the gods. Xenia, the Greek word for the guest-host relation (from which we get xenophobia, fear of the stranger), did not depend upon a prior acquaintance. A stranger was literally unknown. No introductions beforehand! In Leviticus, hospitality required that even an enemy who sought shelter must be treated as a guest.
“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” When Jesus Christ says this, he invokes the entire Old Testament tradition and obligation to treat strangers, widows, orphans, and immigrants as we would treat one another. Recall the Gentile immigrant Ruth, whom Boaz, in fulfilling his duty to God, allowed to glean in his fields after the harvesters were finished. And remember the “beyond what was necessary” of the Good Samaritan.
Hospitality is the forgotten reason we go to such extremes—and ecstasies—over dessert. In addition to the recipe for Blitz Torte, there is another fabulous dessert that can be made in just a few minutes. It takes ordinary sweetened fresh strawberries to excessive heights by adding a dash of balsamic vinegar and serving the dish with a thick, rich mascarpone cream. You’d have to be allergic or ascetic, or both, to pass it up.
Mascarpone cream, found in the dairy or cheese section of your grocer’s, is a kind of Italian cream cheese. Combined with regular whipped cream, it makes for double creaminess on top of the sweet and piquant balsamic strawberries. Your guests will think they’ve been transported to strawberry heaven.
Balsamic Strawberries with Mascarpone Cream
3 pints fresh strawberries hulled and sliced
1/3 c balsamic vinegar mixed with 2 t sugar, 1 t vanilla, and 1 T lemon zest. Bring to a boil in the microwave and cool. A half-hour or so before serving, sweeten the strawberries with 3-4 T sugar and add the balsamic mixture. Let stand 30 minutes.
Beat ½ c of chilled mascarpone cream with ½ c heavy whipping cream and 2 T sugar into soft, thick peaks. Serve a generous dollop over the balsamic strawberries. Serves 5-6.
And now the Blitz Torte, which like its name in English, “lightning” cake, will strike all your taste sensations.
Grandma Muth’s Blitz Torte
4 egg whites
1 ½ c + 2 T sugar
½ c butter
1 ¾ c flour
2 ¼ t baking powder
¾ t salt
2/3 c +1 t milk
1 t vanilla
½ c shaved almonds
¼ c sugar
1 T flour
2/3 c milk
2 egg yolks beaten
1 T butter
Batter: Cream butter and 1 c sugar. (I do this in my food processor. If you use one, cut down on the beating time.) Add flour, baking powder, and salt. Add milk and vanilla and mix until flour is dampened. Beat 2 minutes or until thoroughly mixed. Add egg yolks and beat 1 minute. Grease two 9-inch cake pans and line with waxed paper. Pour batter into pans and make meringue.
Meringue: Beat egg whites till foamy. Gradually add ½ c sugar and beat till stiff. Spread on top of each cake batter; sprinkle with almonds and remaining 2 T sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until meringue is delicately brown. Cool 5 minutes.
Custard: Mix sugar, flour, and salt in a microwave-proof bowl. Stir in milk and eggs. Cook in microwave until thick, stirring from time to time (about 2-3 minutes). Or alternatively, cook till thick on the stove, stirring constantly. Add butter and refrigerate covered. This can be made ahead of time.
To Assemble: Loosen sides of cake with spatula and remove one torte from pan. Peel off waxed paper and place, meringue side up, on a serving plate. Spread with all the cooled custard. Remove second layer like the first and place meringue side up on top of filling. Refrigerate. Serves 10.
Joanne’s Quick Tip: For foolproof whipped cream, stick the beaters and a metal bowl in the freezer first. For a stiff, tall meringue, have the egg whites at room temperature.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.