Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Vasina Torta


Vasina Torta means Vasa’s Torte in Serbian. I meant to write Vasa’s Cake first, but somehow cake is not the same as torte. No offense here, but cake is cake, and torte is torte, as in Sacher torte, Dobosh torte, Esterhazy torte. Torte is a masterpiece, a creation that demands multiple layers, creams, and glazes, a lot of skill and patience. When I think of a torte, it’s the feeling of decadence that comes first, enveloped in a thick scent of vanilla and confectioners’ sugar. An image then follows, that of the old pastry shops in Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade that used to make and sell those cakes. A pastry shops that do not exist anymore.

My grandfather’s name was Vasilije, Vasa for short, and we baked the torte every year for his birthday. He was a colonel in Yugoslav army and a decorated World War II veteran. He was a quiet, unsmiling man with a reputation for having short temper, and everyone in the family was slightly afraid of him; even Dad, who had been on a first name basis with everyone, called him "Sir". Yet, I always looked for an opportunity to spend more time with my grandfather. Contrary to how he appeared in front of the other members of the family, whenever we were together, alone, the stern soldier vanished, and an entirely different man came out. He lent me a helping hand as I turned his apartment upside down and into a pirate ship. He gave me his swords, and pinned his medals onto my dress, because I was the captain, while he, The Keeper of the Treasures, had no way out but to wear my mom’s old beads and bracelets, an earring, and an eye patch. He allowed me to play with his fishing rods, which no one else was allowed to touch, and during summer holidays took me on fishing trips to the banks of the Sava river. We would bring our catch back to his apartment, wash it, gut it, dust it in flour and paprika, and fry it in a skillet.

There are tortes that are more famous, more indulgent, more demanding, and more intricate. But this is the torte that sums up all the marvelous adventures my grandfather and I carried out together. Also, it is one of the oldest and best-known Serbian tortes; it dates back to 1908, when it was prepared as a gift from a mother-in-law to her son-in-law, Vasa Čokrljan, a merchant from the town of Paraćin, who sold his store and took his delicate pregnant wife to Vienna so that she could give birth in better conditions. To make the cake precious, Vasa’s mother-in-law used oranges, which, at the time, were a rare and expensive delicacy in Serbia. It was torte born from love, made with love, and it remained the most beloved torte for generations of cooks.

As any other torte, Vasa’s requires some amount of pastry skills. It consists of three layers: a delicate almond or walnut sponge, orange flavored chocolate walnut cream, and Italian meringue on top. There is some debate over the thickness of each layer – the original recipe, which appeared in 1939 edition of Pata’s Cookbook, the classic cookbook on Serbian cuisine, did not specify the size of the pan, and it became a matter of interpretation of individual cooks. I like to keep the height of layers roughly the same, and sometimes cut down on the meringue, just because it's the way I like it. Don’t let the length of the recipe scare you. I wrote down both the instructions and the rationale behind, to help avoid pitfalls that come with making this torte. The first is the sponge, it’s light with no fat, and almost no flour, and should be handled carefully to avoid collapse. The second is cooking of egg yolks, you’ll have to use bain-marie and whisk constantly to prevent the eggs from scorching. The third is the Italian meringue, which does have a reputation for being difficult to make, but whipping piping hot sugar syrup into beaten egg whites makes it the most stable of the meringues. And please be careful when handling the hot syrup, I cannot emphasize this highly enough. If you are making the torte for the first time, pencil in about three hours plus. Eventually you may be able to streamline the workflow, and even parallelize some of the task. But I like the idea of doing it slowly... Having breaks here and there, to sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee. Not everything should be rushed. There is beauty in slow living. I like that torte-making reminds us of that.

Vasina Torta (Vasa’s Torte)

for the cake:

4 large eggs
4 tablespoons (60 g) superfine granulated sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
a pinch of salt
4 tablespoons (40 g) finely ground almonds with skin
1 tablespoon (10 g) cake flour
1 tablespoon vanilla powder (I use Nielsen Massey)

for the chocolate walnut filling:

3 egg yolks
75 g granulated sugar
55 ml whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla powder or vanilla extract (I use Nielsen Massey)
150 g ground walnuts
zest from half orange, grated on a microplane
35 ml freshly squeezed orange juice
50 g bitter-sweet chocolate, melted
100 g butter, at room temperature

for the meringue layer:

3 egg whites
150 g granulated sugar
75 ml water
1 teaspoon vanilla powder
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, or 1 tablespoon lemon juice


8-inch round non-stick springform pan
digital thermometer

Two hours before baking the torte, bring the eggs and butter to room temperature.

First make the cake. Preheat the oven to 325°F regular bake (do not use convection). Place the oven rack to lower middle position. Line the bottom of the baking pan with parchment paper.

Mix the ground almonds with the flour.

Separate egg whites and yolks.

Combine the egg whites, cream of tartar and a tiny pinch of salt in a clean dry bowl of a stand mixer (or other large bowl if using a hand-held mixer) and beat with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed (or high speed with a hand mixer) until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted. (When lifted, the head of the mixer should form gentle peaks in the egg whites that very slowly collapse back into themselves.) Gradually add the sugar, at high speed, until peaks are firm but not overly stiff when the whisk is lifted. (If you over-whip the egg whites they will not have any more elasticity left to rise when they get to the oven.)

Using a spatula, slowly fold in the egg yolks, one at a time. Add the almond flour mixture, and gently fold in.

Transfer the cake mixture to the baking pan. Flatten the surface with the spatula. Bake until the cake is golden brown on top, springs back when lightly pressed, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Set the pan on a rack to cool.

When the cake is cool, release it from the pan and place it on a serving platter. (It’s easier to assemble the cake on the serving platter, then move it once it is done.)

Now make the filling. In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks with the sugar. Using a mixer, beat until the mixture becomes pale, almost white, and fluffy. Transfer the mixture to a double boiler, or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of boiling water. Cook the egg mixture while whisking constantly for about 5 minutes. The goal here is only to pasteurize the eggs and not thicken the mixture. Remove the mixing bowl from the heat and let the egg mixture cool completely. Mix from time to time to prevent the surface of the cream from hardening.

Place the ground walnuts into a medium mixing bowl. Heat the milk with vanilla powder until just boiling. Remove from the heat and pour the milk over the walnuts. Leave for two to three minutes, so that the walnuts can fully absorb the milk. Add the orange peel, orange juice, and melted chocolate. Mix until everything is fully combined. Let the mixture cool completely.

When the egg mixture has come to room temperature, beat the butter with the mixer until it’s fluffy. Add the egg cream and beat until fully combined and fluffy. Add the chocolate walnut mixture and continue to beat until fully combined. Transfer the cream to the refrigerator and leave for one to two hours.

Begin to assemble the torte. Place the cake on a serving platter and spread the chilled chocolate filling over. Do not cover the sides of the torte. Return the torte to the fridge.

Make the meringue. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, vanilla powder, and water. Heat over high heat, stirring only until it comes to a boil. Once it reaches a boil, stop stirring. Cook until the sugar syrup registers 240°F on an instant-read thermometer. Meanwhile, combine egg whites and cream of tartar (or lemon juice if using) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Set mixer to medium speed and mix until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes.

Once the temperature of the syrup reaches 240°F, pour the syrup immediately over the whites, while mixing constantly. (Hot sugar is dangerous, so use caution!) Increase speed to high and whip until the meringue is completely cool, for about 10 minutes. It should be firm, glossy, and hold stiff peaks.

Finish assembling the torte. Add the meringue on top of the chocolate walnut cream and flatten with the spatula. Alternatively, you can pipe the meringue in the pattern on your choice. (Check out the phot below for this way of applying the meringue.) I usually use about two thirds of the meringue, because I do not like a very thick meringue layer. Return the cake to the refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving.

Serve chilled or barely at room temperature.



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