Vienna’s Sweet Empire

By Nick Malgieri

Published on February 27, 2009

I'll never forget the first time I set foot inside Demel, Vienna's famous pastry shop. It was the summer of 1973, and I was apprenticing in the kitchen of a hotel near Zurich after graduating from culinary school in New York. As a 25-year-old student of the pastry arts, I couldn't wait to get to Vienna, the world capital of sweets, to taste the confections I'd been reading about for so many years. When a break in my work schedule appeared, I boarded a train for Austria's capital city, checked in to a $10-a-night hotel, and followed my guidebook's directions to the historic First District, in the center of town. There, steps from the imperial Hofburg palace, sat the pastry shop of my dreams: K.u.K. Hofzuckerbacker Ch. Demel's Sohne (Imperial and Royal Court Sugar Baker Christoph Demel's Sons), or Demel, for short.

For a few years leading up to that trip, I had devoured every mention of Demel in glossy food and travel magazines. But nothing could have prepared me for the sensory overload of encountering all the Viennese classics—dense chocolate sachertortes, jam-filled linzertortes, strudels wrapped in papery-thin pastry, pastel-frosted petits fours, and more—housed inside gleaming glass cases trimmed with polished brass and wood. For every familiar dessert there was an unfamiliar one, covered in buttercream, meringue, marzipan, or chocolate glaze, as well as trays of cream-filled buns and puff pastries. I stood there, agog, until I started to wonder why none of the black-clad hostesses were offering me a seat. It dawned on me that, in my jeans and leather jacket, I wasn't exactly dressed for the occasion. Most of the men in the dining room wore suits, and many of the women donned pearls. Had I known then that Demel was the drawing room of Vienna's high society and that the staff had a reputation for ignoring those who didn't fit the mold, I might have packed a sport coat. I respectfully took my leave.

Once outside, I snapped as many photos of Demel's elaborate window displays as my Instamatic camera would allow; they were decorated for autumn's hunting season with forest logs and leaves fashioned out of sugar and meringue. Right then and there, I vowed to return to Demel in the future, not only as a customer but as a serious baker. Someday, I told myself, I would get inside that bakeshop and learn how Europe's most extraordinary sweets are made.

Founded in 1786, Demel is a living vestige of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which came to power in the 13th century and reached its peak during the rococo era, when the house of Hapsburg, based in Vienna, rose to dominate not just Austria but also Slovakia, Hungary, and most of what we now refer to as eastern Europe. Beginning in the 1870s, under Emperor Franz Joseph, Vienna, as well as Budapest and Prague, became a hotbed of culture and the arts. A flourishing of the culinary arts ensued, the empire's cooks drawing from both western and eastern European traditions. The emperor and his wife, Elisabeth, hosted elaborate feasts at the Hofburg palace, where savory courses were followed by intricately prepared sweets that were often richer and even more elaborately decorated than those found in France.

Vienna's supremacy in the pastry arts derives from those regal traditions and the lively exchange of ideas between cultures within the empire. Another factor was the city's love of coffee, epitomized by a rich Kaffeehaus tradition, which blossomed during the 18th century. Pastry shops during that period served coffee too, sealing the everlasting bond between coffee and sweets and establishing themselves as social institutions.

Demel was one of those pastry shops. Originally called Burgtheater Zuckerbackerei (Burg-
theater Sugar Bakery), for its location near the city's main theater, it was founded by one Ludwig Dehne and became known for rustic sußspeisen (sweet dishes) and the more elegant mehlspeisen (flour-based dishes) on which Austro-Hungarian pastry chefs were beginning to build their reputations: cakes, dumplings, puddings, and a vast array of boiled and baked treats. The bakery was sold in 1857 to one of Dehne's bakers, Christoph Demel, whose sons relocated it to a street near the imperial palace 30 years later. The move was a strategic one: soon Demel had become one of a handful of pastry shops (along with Sluka, Heiner, and Gerstner, which also still exist) allowed to supply the palace with sweets. Empress Elisabeth was famously fond of Demel's candied violets and its coffee, which she had sent to her room each morning.

Demel also became the social center of Vienna's upper crust, and its popularity continued to grow even after the Hapsburg empire collapsed, in 1918.

It did suffer one memorable setback, however, involving the city's most beloved chocolate cake. In the 1930s, the story goes, Demel purchased the recipe for its signature sachertorte, a two-inch-tall cake glazed with apricot preserves and coated with a shiny chocolate icing, from the Sacher family, who had opened the Hotel Sacher in 1876. After selling the recipe, the Hotel Sacher continued to make the cake, but differently: it split it into two layers and added apricot preserves between them. Litigation ensued, and the Hotel Sacher won the right to call its cake the Original Sachertorte.

After the war years, the shop enjoyed another golden age, which lasted through the 1960s, under the ownership of Klara Demel and her husband, Federico von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini. An architect and designer, Berzeviczy-Pallavicini introduced the beautiful boxes and wrapping papers still used by the shop today. He also collaborated with chefs on the over-the-top window displays that I ogled on my first visit, all those years ago.

I ultimately made it back to Demel, though it took me more than 30 years. Needless to say, I was better dressed this time around. I was also a professional pastry chef and could more fully appreciate the inspired handiwork that went into the bakery's astonishing array of sweets. Some things had changed at Demel over the years: in 2002, the bakery was bought by a Vienna-based international gourmet food company, and it's no longer such an exclusive scene. But I was pleased to discover that the pastries at Demel were every bit as sumptuous and meticulously crafted as on my first visit.

Sitting at one of Demel's marble-topped tables, I sampled a slice of russische -punschtorte (Russian punch cake), a rum-spiked sponge cake layered with rich custard cream and frosted with soft meringue (which is kissed with the flame from a blowtorch to give it a caramelized flavor). Each bite was a carefully considered layering of flavor, texture, and aroma. Equally sublime was the truffeltorte, a buttery chocolate cake filled with an airy whipped chocolate ganache (cream mixed with chocolate) known in Vienna as parisercreme (Parisian cream).

Over the years, I'd clung to my dream of getting inside Demel's kitchen, and this time, I had an in: I'd arranged to meet with the shop's head chef, Dietmar Muthenthaler, the man in charge of every crumb of cake and cookie Demel produces. Muthenthaler, 44, a native of the region, has been baking since his teens and has worked in some of the finest pastry shops in Vienna. When I arrived on the day of our appointment, he led me toward a back room where a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass partition overlooked the production area. As we chatted, we watched some of the best pastry cooks in Europe ice cakes, decorate chocolates, and cut out thousands of tiny cookies from sheets of dough. "When I first came to Demel, in 2002," Muthenthaler said, "I found antiquated production methods that had never been updated, because Demel is Demel, and Demel never changes. It was a lot of work to develop more-efficient ways of producing Demel's specialties and retrain the staff accordingly."

I peppered Muthenthaler with questions about the finer points of making Demel's most popular sweets, including one of my favorites, the marmorgugelhupf, a marbled version of Vienna's famous coffee cake that is baked in a fluted mold. By way of answering my questions, the chef led me into the production area, a warren of rooms with soaring ceilings. I could hardly believe it: 35 years after my first visit, I was finally in Demel's inner sanctum.

I inhaled deeply and was met with that familiar and reassuring scent of butter and sugar baking together. Before me was a scene of intense but methodical activity taking place amid ovens and storage racks, a sheeter for rolling dough, mixers of several sizes, and yards and yards of wood and marble tabletops. In a bakery like Demel, where almost every item is shaped, filled, or decorated by hand, these tables, or benches, as they are called, are where you find the most interesting work. At one, bakers sliced towering stacks of round cakes into layers; at another, a woman was frosting a cake by holding it from below with her fingertips and maneuvering it to make it meet a spatula that she held in her other hand. At another bench workers piped pastel flowers onto glossy cakes, while nearby a young apprentice was rolling brioche dough into long cylinders and then shaping them into knots, braids, and other designs.

At the end of my tour, Muthenthaler invited me back for an even more close-up experience, and I spent the following two days in Demel's production area, learning how to make everything from diminutive Amadeus butter cookie sandwiches (filled with almond paste and dipped in chocolate) to the russische punschtorte. I had always admired the rich aroma and moist texture of that torte, and as I observed a baker sprinkle the naked layers of the cake with an upturned bottle of Spitz rum, a locally made spirit with a distinctive floral flavor, I reveled in finally knowing the real secret behind one of my favorite Demel desserts. After the cake was filled with custard and frosted with soft meringue (called schaummasse), the baker piped on more meringue in elegant ribbons and swirls, then fired up an extra-large butane pastry torch, which he wielded nimbly around the cake's surface to toast the meringue a light golden color.

Watching the production of Demel's famous truffeltorte was equally revelatory: I was fascinated to learn that the batter is similar to the one that's used for sachertorte, except that its baked layers are spiked with rum. Instead of simply pouring the liquor over the top of the cake, though, the cooks add it to a sugar syrup, whose sweetness offsets the chocolate's slightly bitter edge.

When the cake was finished, a young baker readied it for the pastry case by slicing it carefully into 16 portions. He put a thick slice onto a plate and handed it to me. The filling was airy and light, in perfect contrast to the rich cake and bittersweet dusting of cocoa on top. As I savored the confection, I experienced a heady mix of emotions: a sense of joy, inspiration, humility, and, most of all, gratitude—to Demel, namely, for bringing such sweet things to life.

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