I picked the Sugar High Fridays theme “Test of Time – Desserts over a century old” because I thought it would be cool and something we hadn’t done before. I didn’t have any particular dessert in mind to make myself, but then in a flash I realized what it would have to be.
Laurie Stern, the perfumer for the marvelous Velvet and Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery, is a client of mine and a very dear friend, and back in February I put together a Valentine’s Day newsletter for the Purrfumery featuring her famous Linzer Tortes. Every year Laurie and a friend make huge batches of Linzer Torte dough which they shape into hearts, fill with raspberry jam, decorate with fanciful flowers and leaves made from dough, and give out to all their friends. Now that I can’t eat wheat I have to pass, sadly, on my annual torte treat, and I’ve been wondering if there isn’t a way to turn this nut-and-wheat flour dough into something deliciously gluten-free.
The research I did while working on the newsletter turned up a surprising fact: Linzer Torte is the oldest known cake or torte in the world. This made it a perfect sweet for my Sugar High Friday – not just old, but the oldest cake in the world! A recipe dating back to 1653 was found in a monastery archive in a collection called “Book of All Kinds of Home-Made Things, Such as Sweet Dishes, Spices, Cakes and also Every Kind of Fruit and Other Good and Useful Things, etc.”
It’s funny though – I know 1653 means Linzer Torte has been around for a long time (over 350 years!) but when I see 1653 as the date of the oldest known cake, what I think about is how long humanity didn’t have cake (over 10,000 years!). What a shame!
So back to our culinary history lesson. Linzer Torte is very old, and appears to have been named for Linz, Austria, although there were some spurious rumours floating about in the early 20th century that it was a Viennese baker named Linzer who actually created the cake. Those Viennese – as if it weren’t enough to have invented psychoanalysis, modern philosophy, quantum mechanics, and Sachertorte, now they have to try to take Linzer Torte away from poor Linz.
The original Linzer Torte recipes, the ones from 1653, were based on almonds, with the popular hazelnut variation coming later. Spices were not specified, clarified butter was kneaded into the dough, and the torte was baked like a pie in a “silver dish.” The latticed top and the jam or jelly filling (originally red currant jelly) have been around since the beginning. Eventually the dish evolved to become the beloved treat it is today, featuring a free-standing crust made from ground almonds, hazelnuts, or both, combined with wheat flour, eggs, butter, sugar, and a mixture of lemon, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and vanilla.
In deciding what to make, I combed the web and my cookbooks for Linzer Torte inspiration. I knew I wanted to follow one of these very old recipes, since that’s part of the fun for me of this month’s theme. But I also wanted to see if I could find a successful gluten-free version to add to my own baking repertoire. And I had the notion that Linzer Torte could be a delicious breakfast treat if it weren’t so full of sugar and butter, so when I found a recipe using agave nectar and grapeseed oil, I decided to try that as well.
The great Linzer Torte Experiment (or Linzer Tortztravaganza! as I like to call it) was about to begin.
In the first corner: the “Original Linzer Torte,” straight from the Linz tourism website and the nearest bet I could find for a translation of the 17th century recipes. Made with wheat, this torte is not about to become a regular addition to my life, but I wanted to start with the original.
In the next corner: the Boston Globe Gluten-Free Linzer Torte. This torte uses garbanzo bean flour and cornstarch in place of the wheat flour. I decided to use the spices called for in this recipe, with the addition of freshly grated nutmeg, in all the tortes. I wanted to compare the substrate, not the flavoring, of each one.
Holding down the healthy corner: Linzer Hearts from the blog Elana’s Pantry. These are made using only almond flour, with grapeseed oil in place of butter and agave nectar instead of sugar. This recipe is vegan as well, no eggs. The original recipe was for cookies, but I decided to see how it worked as a torte.
Rounding out the quartet: I looked through my Bette Hagman dessert book (Bette was the grand doyenne of gluten-free baking) to see if she had a recipe for Linzer Torte and found one for Nut Crust Supreme that seemed along similar lines. I decided to follow my friend Laurie’s Valentine’s torte recipe, the one that originally sparked my Linzer lust, but with Bette’s GF Flour Mix (1 part rice flour, 2/3 part tapioca flour, 1/3 part potato starch) in place of the wheat flour.
To see the four recipes I used with my own tweaks, notes, and ultimate reviews, please check out my detailed Linzer Torte page. (Coming soon!)
Things I learned while researching and making quarter-scaled versions of FOUR different Linzer Torte recipes:
~ Linzer Torte lattice should form a diamond pattern, not a perpendicular, or square, pattern as you often see on American pies.
~ There is a reason the high art of pastry is founded on wheat flour. Dough containing wheat gluten looks better, cooks better, and weaves better than other doughs.
~ I really am allergic to wheat. So please someone remind me to stop eating it, even in the interest of science and sexy lattices.
~ My oven thermostat seems to be around 75 degrees off.
~ There is an awesome website called Gourmet Sleuth that converts weights of specific foods into volume measurements. This was invaluable since between my four recipes I was dealing with amounts given in both grams and ounces, and I don’t have a kitchen scale.
~ Trader Joe’s has discontinued their Ground Hazelnut Meal and now carries only Ground Almond Meal. I had been counting on finding both there, and had to make a decision between using only almonds for the experiment or driving across town to get whole hazelnuts to grind in the food processor. I thought about what SHF blogger Janne wrote about old recipes being ones that, of course, will tend to use natural and locally available ingredients. I decided that since I am in California and not in Austria, almonds would do just fine.
~ Three words: Meyer. Lemon. Zest. (They may be out of season but I had some in my freezer – there’s no excuse not to use it where it will really shine!)
~ In my research I came across one Linzer Torte recipe from 1822. I did not recreate this one (it calls for 12 eggs!), but I used it as a reference as I made my other recipes. I now wholeheartedly agree with the direction to include “the fine cutted peel of one lemon and a little of its juice.” The Linzer doughs I made with juice and zest were head and shoulders in terms of aroma and subtle flavor over those made with zest alone.
~ There is also another nugget of essential Linzer wisdom in the 1822 recipe. Linzer Torte is not actually that good right after you bake it. On the other hand, “Please let it rest one or two days, the taste will win enormously!”