Friday, November 30, 2007

Mind-Blowing Sweets from The Best Pastry Shop in the World

Today I launch my Foodie Friday feature, which will cover some aspect of the “food” theme of my blog: recipes, restaurant reviews, food porn, and other edible topics. I’ll post twice a month, at least, more if there are foodie musings I’m inspired to share.

I’m going to start big with my homage to The Best Pastry Shop in the World. I’ve eaten many pastries in Europe, the US and Japan. Many of them have been exquisitely delicious. The warm walnut cakes in Tsumago. The hazelnut-raspberry-cream torte in Edinburgh. But the sweets of Café Zauner in Bad Ischl, Austria are by far the best for subtlety of flavor, a depth of experience that is truly comparable to an erotic afternoon in bed with the love of your life.

My husband and I stopped in Café Zauner on our drive from the storybook town of Hallstatt to Vienna in the fall of 1992. It was mid-morning, so we bought a slice of torte and a poppy seed pastry to go, having feasted on lovely walnut bear claws at our pension. I wanted to stop at Zauner because it was an institution even back in the 19th century when Emperor Franz Joseph summered here with his (platonic) mistress, Katharina Schratt. Katharina’s chef baked a raisin-studded Kugelhopf coffee cake for the Emperor’s morning call each day, but it was said she had a standing order for one from Zauner in case of unforeseen disaster in her kitchen.

Later that afternoon we stopped at a church with onion-domed spires on a bluff overlooking the Danube. There wasn’t much to see inside, though the place was full of tourists, mostly from Eastern Europe, who seemed hungry for life in the capitalistic West. It was then I remembered the cakes we’d bought that morning. I ripped the box open and divided each carefully into two pieces. We ate them with our fingers, my husband from the napkin, I from the torn box. The mocha torte was delicious, dense hazelnut cake layered with cloud-like cappuccino mousse. The poppy seed Danish was a marvel of the pastry maker’s art, not gritty and leaden like most poppy seed fillings, but silken smooth, almost frothy, with a kiss of lemon essence. The silence in the car was broken only by murmurs of pleasure. I knew without question—and how often do you understand these things precisely when they are happening?--that I’d never eaten anything more exquisite in my life.

I hope to return to Austria some day. My ideal vacation would involve a whole week in Bad Ischl with visits to Zauner for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fortunately, the internet age has made it possible to order some of its less perishable treats for delivery in the US (no mocha torte, alas). In fact, I ordered some Christmas specialties this year: stollen (a yeast fruit bread), lebkuchen (gingerbread), and fruchtebrot (more on what this is in a moment). True to its reputation for refining pastry to the level of art, Zauner’s special gingerbread is a multi-layered affair, unlike the generous, moist and nutty disks of the classic Nurnberg bakery, Lebkuchen Schimdt (also recommended, but homier). A thin layer of nutty gingerbread is covered first with a rich, dense fruit jelly, then a layer of marzipan. The entire miniature square is glazed in fine chocolate. It’s superb. We’re saving the stollen for Christmas, but I’d bet it’s nothing like what you’d buy in your local supermarket.

And the fruchtebrot? We had some last night. Zauner’s has a thin pastry crust, decorated with almonds and angelica. The filling is a moist blend of dried fruits and booze that reminds you simultaneously of mince pie, plum pudding and fruitcake. Yet the sum is greater than all three. The Zauner version has a silky texture that is unique--it’s the essence of an old-fashioned Christmas and you find yourself eating it not just with your very happy palate, but with a luscious dose of nostalgia and wonder as well. After all these years, Zauner still holds its magic. If you don’t mind spending a bit on the postage, you can sample some of that magic here.

So, I hope you enjoyed a trip to The Best Pastry Shop in the World. Stay tuned for Mysterious Monday (sex) and Writer’s Wednesday (writing, of course).

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