A Checkerboard Cake With Czech Roots
Part of an ongoing series on unique holiday dishes
To celebrate the new year, for as long as I can remember, my mom has baked a cake called punch torte, a tradition started in her family back in the former Czechoslovakia.
"At midnight, we pour champagne and had a toast to New Year's and then we hugged and kissed each other, drank our champagne, and then we ate cold cuts, potato salad, and then after that we had the cake with a little bit of coffee," my mother remembers.
It's a pink-glazed sponge cake with layers soaked in a rum and citrus syrup. It all starts out with 16 eggs. Yes, 16.
"Eight eggs for the basic dough and then 8 eggs for dough [that] we divide in half. Half of it we make pink and half we put a cocoa in it and we make it brown," my mom says.
You start by separating the yolks from the whites, mixing three different cake batters: one white, one pink, one brown.
The tradition of serving up this pink-glazed torte goes back to my great-grandmother's kitchen in the early 1900s. She ran a restaurant in the next town over, but at home she made all sorts of extravagant creations without the help of modern machinery.
"She'd make this very similar, but she would blend it and beat it all by hand," my mother says.
My mother learned to make this cake as a young girl. She was born during World War II and food was scarce, but my family was fortunate enough to have a sprawling garden. So, the 16 eggs were a luxury they could afford.
"We had chickens and we had goats for milk during the war when they were bombing the town, and so we were able to eat them and enjoy it," she remembers.
Some of the other ingredients weren't so easy to come by. The cake soaks in a citrus rum punch, which calls for the juice of one lemon and one orange. Finding citrus in this former communist country required both patience and connections.
"If we got one lemon for a tea, we had to stand in line for two, three hours, and if there was news that in a little vegetable store there would be lemons next day, somebody secretly told somebody and then everybody spread it between their friends, and then everybody lined up in front of the store and waited for the lemons," she remembers.
Once the lemons and oranges were acquired, they were squeezed into a cooked-sugar syrup. The pink and chocolate cakes were cut into concentric rings and reassembled to look like bull's-eyes. The layers were stacked on top of each other and the syrup spooned over top. Then came a 24-hour wait.
The next day, the cake was glazed with a pink lemon frosting. In the 1940s and '50s, food dyes were not available, but my great-grandmother had a stash hidden away.
"A lot of the stuff my grandmother had left from the hotel and restaurants we had, and we were so excited to see that lovely pink cake," she says.
For me, the bubblegum-colored frosting isn't the best part of this cake. It's when you cut into it. Thanks to those concentric circles, a dazzling checkerboard appears in each slice. It's best enjoyed with a glass of champagne.