Food History

Cakes Versus Tortes: What's in a Name?

April 15, 2016

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.

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So, what is a torte?

Sachertorte, an (in)famous Viennese torte. Photo by Yossi Arefi

A. It's a cake.

Well, that's true. Mostly.

B. It's a fancy, layered cake.

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."

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Top Comment:
“European cakes (like the Dobos Torte) just happen to include fancy and layered creations and the concept has been taken and applied to other patisserie goods in America, Australia etc...I think English translations and baking interpretations have actually muddled it, so now a torte (as I understand it to be generally) is a European inspired fancy layer cake that combines various components such as sponge, creams, jaconde, nuts, chocolate, pralines, jams etc ...Not sure if that made any sense? Haha”
— Amanda

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."

C. It's a German or Austrian dessert.

"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."

Jam! Chocolate! Photo by Yossy Arefi

D. It has jam in it, right? No, wait—chocolate? No, nuts. And mousse! And it's flourless?

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."

All glazed over. Photo by Yossy Arefi

E. All of the above.

You're right!

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.)

Here are some things that are tortes:

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).

And here are some things that aren't tortes:

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.

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  • chefrockyrd
  • Amanda
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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


chefrockyrd March 26, 2019
Loved this article. Love tortes, tortas whatever. Love making them and of course eating them. But everytime I hear Sacher, I moan.
A friend sent me a real honest to goodness Sacher torte from the famous hotel. She kept asking if it had arrived, even well after she returned from her trip. It was very expensive she said but wanted me to have one.
Some time later, a giant cardboard box with a small wooden box inside came with the name stamped on top. Upon opening it, It was a very small torte, cracked, stale, and falling apart. I was embarrassed but told my friend we got it and thanked her. About 2 weeks after the cake arrived the hotel sent us a bill for customs and shipping! Like $18 if I remember. I sent a note back on the bill explaining how it arrived and never heard another word.
From now on I will make my own.
Amanda April 18, 2016
I think it comes down to the linguistics! The Germanic, Italian and Spanish word to describe what in English is a cake happens to be 'torte' or 'torta'. It's like a 'Chocolate Cake' would be known in Italy as a 'Torta di Cioccolato'. European cakes (like the Dobos Torte) just happen to include fancy and layered creations and the concept has been taken and applied to other patisserie goods in America, Australia etc...I think English translations and baking interpretations have actually muddled it, so now a torte (as I understand it to be generally) is a European inspired fancy layer cake that combines various components such as sponge, creams, jaconde, nuts, chocolate, pralines, jams etc ...Not sure if that made any sense? Haha
Kevin April 18, 2016
I think you're spot on in this being a matter of linguistics rather than baked goods. A simple dictionary search listed close to a dozen words in Spanish, French and Italian (respectively) that can be translated to cake, while each word had multiple uses.

For instance, bear in mind Latin languages aren't even close to within my general grasp, from Spanish la tarta can be translated to mean cake, tart, pie or apparently gateau (what little French lessons I had I still remember, gateau is French for cake?).

On the other hand, from German you have kuchen as cake, or flan or mud pie, while torte apparently translates to cake, gateau or flan.

My native tongue, Norwegian, surprised me by detracting from the confusion in it's minor way by simply listing kake as the only word for cake, whereas torte turns into either kake or pai depending on whether it's translated from Italian (kake) or German (pai), and the Scandinavian languages being as close as they are I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case with all of them.

However you turn it all around, linguistics matter and muddling them leads to confusion not clarity.

Oh, and before I forget: for OP; Thank you for changing the text to reflect the confused linguistic nightmare that is the Indo-European language group :D I wish you'd taken it much, much further but then I'm a closet language-geek with far too much to learn still.
Kevin April 17, 2016
'In most Germanic languages, the word for cake is some variant on "torte": torte (German), or torta (Spanish/Italian).' Enjoyable article, but it has to be said that neither Spanish nor Italian are germanic languages. When using specifics in blanket statement, please don't use examples outside the specified group.
Caroline L. April 18, 2016
Hi Kevin, thank you so much for catching this! I've adjusted the article accordingly.
Tracy M. April 15, 2016
Nice piece. Can you do icing and frosting so I can settle the matter once and for all with my teenage son?
Caroline L. April 18, 2016
I'm on the case!