Crucian Vienna Cake
The precise history of the Crucian Vienna cake is unknown: who first served it; when the guavaberry and green lime (also called “greengage”) preserves became obligatory ingredients; and who determined that the cake “must” be comprised of between five and seven layers, for example, have been lost to history. What is considered fact, however—perhaps gleaned from the cake’s name and composition—is that it was inspired by the world-famous layer cakes of Vienna, Austria, and is particular to St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands. Versions of the cake are made on the sister-islands of St. Thomas and St. John, but nowhere else in the Caribbean or in the European countries that colonized the island. And even within the Virgin Islands, it is well-established—even if only anecdotally—that the most authentic interpretation of the cake occurs in the kitchens of the oldest families of St. Croix. What is also for certain is that to taste the cake is to immediately acknowledge its rightful place amongst the great culinary luxuries of the world.
The word “Crucian” is used to describe that which is of St. Croix—its people, its food, and its music, for example. And while there is little or no official historical connection between the Austrian capital Vienna and St. Croix, Europe’s fascination with the island is evidenced by the fact that prior to its acquisition by the United States in 1917, six different European flags had flown over the tiny Caribbean island, beginning with Spain in 1493. And it is that confluence of European and Afro-Caribbean cultures that gave rise to the Crucian Vienna cake.
The traditional cakes of Vienna are baked in layers with fruit or frosting between the layers. And the most famous Vienna-style cake is the “sachertorte,” first baked for Prince Wenzel von Metternich in 1832 by sixteen-year-old Franz Sacher when he, in his second year of apprenticeship, was assigned the task of creating a remarkable dessert for the prince’s special guests when the head chef of the Metternich kitchen had suddenly taken ill. That evening, Sacher prepared a two-layer chocolate cake with an apricot preserve between the layers; and he covered the cake with chocolate icing. Inspired by similar cakes, some of which appear in cookbooks dating back to the early 1700s, one such book being that of Conrad Hagger (1718), and another being Gartler-Hickmann’s Tried and True Viennese Cookbook (1749), the cake was a success with the prince’s guests. And it is said that the prince triumphantly declared, “Let there be no shame on me tonight!”
But it was Franz’s son Eduard, advancing his father’s culinary legacy, who made famous the cake that would come to be called the “sachertorte.” While working as a pastry chef at Demel Bakery and Chocolatier, Eduard perfected his father’s recipe, first serving the cake at Demel, then at the Hotel Sacher, established by Eduard in 1876. Since then, the cake is revered as one of Vienna’s greatest contributions to the art of cuisine—so much so that December 5th is National Sachertorte Day in Austria.
When the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha on February 10, 1840, she established two enduring traditions: white wedding gowns and white wedding cakes. In an era where brides were typically married in dresses of bold colors, it was Victoria’s gown of white silk-satin and Honiton lace that would inspire brides across the Christian world, and then beyond, to wear white on their wedding day. Likewise, it was around the time of Queen Victoria’s wedding that refined white sugar became available to the wealthy classes. So when, as one of the wealthiest persons in the world, Queen Victoria’s nine-foot-wide, 300-pound wedding cake was decorated with what would come to be called “royal icing”—a stiff, snow-white icing made primarily of confectioner’s (powdered) sugar, egg whites, and lemon juice—she inspired the trend of using refined white sugar in pastries.
Exactly when Vienna-style cakes became popular in the Danish West Indies (present-day United States Virgin Islands) is not known. What is known, however, is that by the 1890s, the “Crucian Vienna cake” was already being regarded as a “traditional cake” on the islands of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas. But to look at the cake, with each of its yellow-cake layers separated by a fruit preserve of a different color, is to know that the earliest the Crucian Vienna cake could have emerged as a new creation was in the 1840s since the light-colored cake would have necessarily incorporated granulated white sugar [as opposed to brown sugar or molasses] in its confection, and because the cake is traditionally decorated with white “royal icing” or the much softer, fluffier, white “boiled icing,” made primarily of a boiling-hot syrup of water-dissolved granulated white sugar, egg whites, and cream of tartar.
The various layers—typically seven—of the Crucian Vienna cake are made of a medium-dense pound cake or some other medium-dense yellow cake which serves as the edible canvas upon which the colorful preserves are “painted.” The top crust of each layer is evenly sliced off, leaving an open-faced layer which is then moistened and flavored with a semi-sweet white wine [so as not to discolor the yellow cake], such as an Italian moscato, before being topped with a thin layer of a fruit preserve. Traditionally, the open face of the bottommost layer is topped with guavaberry preserve. (See “Guavaberry” below). The next layer is topped with “green lime” (also called “greengage”), a tongue-tantalizing, bitter-sweet-sour preserve made from the skin of limes. And each subsequent layer is topped with a preserve made of some tropical- or temperate-climate fruit—pineapple, guava, apricot, and raspberry being some of the most commonly used—before being placed atop the preceding layer. The open face of what will become the uppermost layer is moistened with wine (but not topped with a preserve), then laid open-face-down onto the previously stacked layers such that the crust of the bottom of the uppermost layer becomes the top surface of the cake, onto which the icing is spread. The entire cake is covered with white “royal icing” or “boiled icing” and allowed to “set” for twenty-four hours such that icing can attain the desired consistency, and the wine and various preserves can moisten, perfume, and flavor the cake before it is sliced for serving.
The Crucian Vienna cake is in effect a celebration of the bounty of the tropics. It is served on special celebratory occasions: birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries, for example.