It's been a long time since I last made a traditional Austrian cake. If you want to know what's been keeping me all those years, I'll be very honest with you. I used to hate baking, primarily because I never was much of a sweet tooth, so I had never felt the urge to bake until quite recently. It's only since we moved to London that I discovered that end of the culinary spectrum - possibly because good pastries are hard to come by in this country. Sure, supermarkets and cafés offer muffins, cookies and deep-fried stuff galore, but proper home-made cakes are not all that easy to find. And although I love a good opera cake (bought, not home-made) as much as the next person, you can't beat a cake that really makes you feel at home. Like coming in after a long autumn walk in the woods, fingers and toes slowly thawing by the fireside, a pot of tea at arm's length... surely this calls for something like your Mum used to make much more than poncey patisserie. Right?
The other obstacle to baking Austrian things more frequently is that in a country that (deservedly) enjoys world fame for its patisserie and (inexplicably) coffee culture, most cakes are just impossible to recreate at home. Our way of baking is very far removed from the American (and I guess British) approach where you throw all ingredients into one bowl, mix them up with a fork, pour into a tin and hope for the best. No, that would be far too simple! To make a proper Austrian torte (think Dobos Torte), you'll be killing your back standing in the kitchen for hours non-stop just to prepare fourteen pivotal ingredients to a cake, not to mention the fact that you'll run out of mixing bowls and whisks half-way through it!
On the other hand, we obviously have simpler fare as well, but I never even attempted to make any of that, because back home, they're so well known all around that a) they don't impress anybody and b) everybody has their own favourite version of a particular cake and instead of reaping compliments, the best you'll possibly get is a half-hearted "this is nice, but you know, my auntie soandso makes the best EVER (insert name of the cake that you just pain-stakingly made) and we've been trying to coax the recipe out of her for ages, but she took it to her gave". How can you possibly compete with that!
So it was only this week that I undertook my first attempt to make one of the most popular cakes known to the Austrian: the Zwetschkenfleck. It's a tray bake with plums, topped with cinnamon & almond streusel and the name sort of suggests already that this isn't considered haute cuisine... "Fleck" literally translates as "blotch" or "stain", although in Austrian dialect, it is commonly used to designate a scrap of cloth. A Zwetschkenfleck is an afterthought, something you make on the side when you've got too much fruit at home at harvest time and you can use all sorts of fruit, of course, the plums just being the most common.
I did not have a recipe for it, nor did I remember exactly how my Mum makes it. I think the traditional would be a sponge or shortcrust base, a generous spread of jam, topped with the fruit and then the streusel. I wanted to make the deluxe version of it, which is probably what you would find in most patisseries and coffee houses (including Paul's in Paris and London), with a base of pâte briochée, a layer of crème pâtissière, a layer of plums and a topping of cinnamon-laden streusel with almond slivers, half of which I naughtily gobbled up while I was assembling the cake. What can I say, since I brought the cake to a coffee morning where I could be sure not to encounter any Austrians or Germans, I felt quite confident with my first attempt at baking Zwetschkenfleck. And although it wasn't all that difficult to make, it was a sure hit with the ladies... whether they're easy to please or just glad someone could be bothered to actually bake something, I don't know. What I DO know is that I feel like I've done a big step towards my own reconciliation with Austrian baking ;-)
Plum & cinnamon streusel cake (Zwetschkenfleck)
(makes a 30 x 40cm tray cake)
For the brioche base:
25 g live yeast (buy at the bakery counter in UK supermarkets)
180 ml warm milk
60 g vanilla sugar
50 g butter
330 g self-raising flour
15 ml rum or cognac
2 large egg yolks
For the crème pâtissière:
500 ml milk
100 g sugar
50 g corn starch (e.g. maizena)
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 tbsp vanilla extract
For the topping:
1 kg plums
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
120 g flour
120 g golden caster sugar
100 g ice-cold butter (finely diced)
200 g flaked almonds
Dissolve the yeast the in luke-warm milk. Pour into a food processor and add the remaining ingredients for the brioche base. Beat well until combined smoothly. Cover the bowl with a towel or cling film and leave to rest and rise for two hours.
For the crème pâtissière, I use a Thermomix. Put all ingredients in the TX bowl, set the machine to 7'/90C/speed 4. If making this cream the conventional way, whisk the corn starch, eggs and egg yolks together until smooth, then pour over the hot milk, whisking thoroughly. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to cook and whisk, over a low heat, until you have a cream the consistency of custard. It should be lump-free, completely set and dry enough not to soak the base.
Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, pre-heat oven to 200 C. When the brioche dough has risen, butter a 30x40 cm baking sheet, then line with non-stick baking paper. Pour in the dough and smooth out all the way to the edges, about 5 mm thin, using a dough scraper.
Place in the oven and bake for 5 minutes. Remove and leave to cool. Lower oven temperature to 180C.
Meanwhile, cut the plums into eighths. Make the streusel topping by crumbing up athe butter, flour, sugar and cinnamon by rumming the mixture between your hands. Stir in the almonds and place in the freezer for 15 minutes.
When the brioche base has cooled slightly, spread the crème pâtissière on top, evening it out as much as you can. Layer the plum slices evenly (I usually use a fan-like pattern in straight rows, alternating the way in which the backs face.
Top with the streusel topping and place in the oven, baking for 35 to 40 minutes.
Leave to cool slightly or completely, serving with whipped cream or ice cream, if you wish.