What’s in a name? Cake, Gateau or Torte- Plum Torte with Cardamom Cream

I’m calling this a Plum Torte, but what’s in a name? Well in the case of cakes, gateaux and tortes. Name is mostly about perception. Add to that fact the tendency of most cooks to categorize recipes as a means of defining them quickly. It is further confused by the fact that we bloggers tend to throw words around a bit irresponsibly. Me included.

Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start with perception. Standing at the bakery counter you might not notice much difference between a cake, a gateau and a torte. So is there a difference?

First, cake. We all know what cake is. It’s sweet, it’s round and it is de rigueur in commemorating special events, most notably birthdays and weddings. Few desserts are as lovingly embraced as a really good cake, perhaps because cutting a cake is such a potent ceremonial moment.

However, the terms gateau and torte are more complicated. Partly because they are foreign words (to we English speakers) and partly because we cooks have played fast and loose with names in general for centuries.

cookbook by Carol BloomBut this is where my theory of perception comes in. Often you’ll find recipes that use labels like cake, gateau and torte rather haphazardly. Because most of the recipes I have seen for gateau or torte are really layer cakes (even if it’s just one layer) with a few fancy ingredients. Fancy ingredients deserve a fancy name, right? So why not call that dense chocolate layer cake a gateau, maybe even torte? The perception will be that is extra elegant and nobody will question the label because they’ll be too busy scarfing down that cake, err I mean gateau.

It’s easy to roll your eyes in those instances; pretentious cooks are not exactly a new breed. But in truth there is a lot of confusion on the matter. The word torte comes from the Italian word torta, which means a round bread or cake. In Europe, most cakes are called tortes. That is because a torte is a cake.

But what about gateau? Well, a gateau is a cake, any kind of cake (including a torte) because it is French for, you guessed it, cake.

So if cake is cake and gateau is cake, and torte is cake, and cake is gateau– how come a cake is not always a torte?

The typical description of a torte only muddies the water. According to random people on Chowhound: “A torte can have layers, like a Dobos torte, but might not. Cakes also can have layers, but angel food cake and bundt cake do not have layers. A torte can have a sweet icing like a cake, but if you are making a French torte it might not have any icing at all.” There, is that clear?

Let’s ask an expert.

“Torte. The German word for cake. Tortes are usually made with flour, sugar, eggs, and butter, but often groundnuts or breadcrumbs are substituted for some or all of the flour. Tortes have a moist quality that keeps them fresh for several days. A torte may be either a multilayered cake or a dense-textured single-layer cake…Tortes originated in Central Europe.” From International Dictionary of Desserts, Pastries and Confections, Carole Bloom 1995 (p. 304)

Now for my theory. Cakes use milk and eggs. Tortes use butter and eggs. Not that butter can’t be found in cakes because tortes are cakes too. But milk won’t be used in tortes and that’s ok because not all cakes are tortes. Now don’t look too closely into my theory, because I don’t know what to say about pound cake! Besides, I’m a blogger–  I’m allowed to play fast and loose with words ya know.

So today I have a torte, or at least I think I do. I call it a torte because the New York Times called in a torte when they first published this recipe. But this version is adapted (or I mean doubled) from one of my favorite blogs, sis. boom [blog!]. He called it a torte too.

And even though I am calling it a torte it is really a birthday cake! Confused much?

plum tortePlum Torte with Cardamom Cream

serves 12 CLICK here for a printable recipe

  • 2 c whipping cream
  • 2 T extra-fine sugar
  • 2 t ground cardamom
  • 1 c butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1⁄2 c granulated sugar
  • 2 c unbleached flour
  • 2 t fresh baking powder
  • 1⁄2 t kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs
  • 6 plums, halved & pitted
  • turbinado sugar, to taste for sprinkling

Make the cardamon cream: Whip the cream together with the extra-fine sugar and cardamom until cream just barely holds soft peaks. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Using an electric mixer cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs, then beat until well incorporated.

Using a rubber spatula spread the batter (it will be quite thick, into an ungreased 10-inch spring form pan. Place the plum halves, skin side up, on top of the batter as closely together as possible. Press them in to the batter just a bit. Sprinkle lightly with the turbinado sugar.

Bake for one hour ten minutes until a sharp knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool slightly (about 20 minutes) then run a sharp knife around the edges and release the spring form. Serve warm, with the cardamom cream.


Greg Henry

Sippity Sup