You skim the dessert menu. "I'll have the torte," you say. But what, really, are you asking for when you do? What are you imagining?
Is it the layered, shiny-glazed, chocolatey slice from fancy restaurants and museum cafés? Something a little more Austrian-inspired and jammy? (Lookin' at you, Linzer torte.) Are you just looking for a piece of cake? And is there really a difference between a piece of cake and a piece of torte?
The answer: Yes. But the how is not such a piece of cake to unravel.
So, what is a torte?
Well, that's true. Mostly.
This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it. The OED specifies that a torte is a round cake (or bread!)—and also suggests that it has always differed slightly, in some way, from cakes, or that it's a subsection within the umbrella of "cake": A 16th-century example cites "tortes or cakes."
Another OED definition clarifies that a torte is an "elaborate" sweet cake or tart. (And here, the inclusion of "tart" muddies the definition of "torte" even further.) According to Rebecca Salisbury, our Culinary Institute of America-trained Director of Customer Care, the CIA’s Baking and Pastry book defines "torte" as “The German word for cake. It can be multilayered or a single, dense layer."
And, says our resident baking expert Erin McDowell, "Tortes are traditionally 'fancy' cakes—meaning they look very polished and clean."
"The word torte can also be used as a verb in some pastry kitchens," she explained. "In this case, it's referring to slicing a cake into layers. So a pastry chef might say 'I'll bake the sponge, torte it, and fill it with buttercream.' I have heard that this isn't a correct usage of the word, but I've heard it used this way a lot."
"Tortes are just classically European, whereas cakes are far more American," Rebecca asserts.
The word torte is indeed European: In many Indo-European languages, the word for cake is some variant on "torte": torte (German), or torta (Spanish/Italian). But, as Erin explained to me, in both Italian and German, "the word [torte/torta] is pretty general, just like cake is in English."
Glancing through the many, many recipes for tortes in the CIA's Baking and Pastry book, Rebecca noticed that "they’re far smaller in size (less flour), shape, much more composed. Often soaked in liqueur or syrup. Addition of nuts. There doesnt seem to be a finite distinguishing definition pulled out here." True that, Rebecca, true that.
Our trusty copy of the Food Lover's Companion claims that a torte is a "rich cake, often made with little or no flour but instead with ground nuts or breadcrumbs, eggs, sugar, and flavorings. Tortes are often multilayered and filled with buttercreams, jams, etc."
Erin specifies this even further: "Sometimes, they are made with less (or no) chemical leaveners (baking soda or baking powder) [than other cakes]—often using physical leavening through whipped eggs, egg yolks, [or] egg whites as the only leavening agent."
Erin pointed me to a few famous tortes we can look to as examples:
The Sachertorte, which Erin calls infamous. The Food Lover's Companion calls it an "extremely rich," two- or three-layered chocolate cake with apricot jam between the layers. It's "enrobed" in a chocolate glaze and was invented in 1832 by the Viennese hotelier Franz Sacher. "I sat inside the Hotel Sacher and ate a slice when I was in Vienna," Erin told me. "It lives up to the hype (and the hefty price tag)."
The Dobos torte, a Hungarian cake invented by Jósef Dobos in the late 19th century. It's a whopping nine thin layers of sponge cake tall, sandwiching chocolate buttercream. It's topped with "a hard caramel glaze," says the Food Lover's Companion. Erin added that it's often topped with nuts as well.
The Esterhazy torte is "a good example of a torte not actually being a cake, but boasting thin, dense layers of another dessert," says Erin. The Esterhazy torte is another Hungarian dessert, essentially a stack of very thin pieces of meringue sandwiching a boozy buttercream filling and, says Erin, glazed in poured fondant.
Linzer torte is also not cake, per se. It hails from Linz, Austria, and consists of a nut-based crust, usually pressed into a tart pan and slathered with jam (usually raspberry). It often has some kind of top-crust latticework. Some confusion here might be due to the similarity between the word "torte" and the word "tarte," which is French for "pie."
A torte is truly a dessert of many colors: It can be a single layer or multi-layered, chocolatey or otherwise, flourless or spongy, jam-slathered or nut-based. Is this confusing? Yes, it definitely is. And this wide definition of "torte" is possibly due to the fact that "torte" is such a general word in German, Italian, and Spanish. This makes it hard to decide what to name a cake when developing a recipe: Is it a torte, or just a plain old cake? (And it can't be denied that "torte" sounds a lot fancier than "cake"; it's easy to understand why a cake might make its way onto a restaurant's dessert menu as a torte.)
Because of this, there are a lot of different kinds of tortes.
Rebecca's rule of thumb—tortes are more traditionally European, and cakes more traditionally American—might be the best and the easiest rule to follow when deciding what's what. If you want to be a bit more precise about it, Erin explains that "the word torte is often referring to a cake with a very dense crumb structure and rich texture—the kind that the fork just glides through with minimal resistance." (And alternatively, we can just not get worked up about what to call the darn things and stick to cutting slices of them to eat with tea.)
Why? They're nut-based (like the Cherry Almond Torte, which resembles the famous Linzer Torte, which is, admittedly, more like a tart than other tortes; and the Calabrian Walnut Cake, which is a single-layer Italian torte). They're dense (like the Chocolate Oblivion Truffle Torte).
Why? Even though the Ginger Apple Torte is called a torte and it is a single layer, it's not nut based or particularly dense, and it doesn't have any kind of glaze or light filling (like mousse or buttercream), making it more of a cake. As for the others, they aren't nut-based, or fully glazed, or the traditional small, flat, round shape. The layers on the Coconut Layer Cake are too big to for it to be a torte!
Torte—or cake? Tell us your favorites in the comments.