Little did I know that when I looked for a new German gooseberry cake recipe to try that it would lead to what is likely my most exciting discovery since I started this blog almost three years ago.
One of the recipes I had earmarked for a long time was Hansen Jensen Torte or Hannchen Jensen Torte, sometimes also called Schwimmbadtorte (Pool Cake). While the first two names were obviously a reference to the inventor of the cake, the latter puzzled me. The delicate multi-layered meringue cake filled with whipped cream is hardly something you would bring along to eat by the poolside.
My research on German websites yielded numerous variations of the cake, yet nowhere any clues about the name. In an article in The Wall Street Journal in 2012, Berlin-based food blogger Luisa Weiss also stated that she could not find anything about the origin of the cake.
Then I started reading the comments to Luisa’s article and had a eureka moment. Ragnar Heil wrote that his grandparents used to spend their vacation at the North Sea and Hannchen Jensen was the owner of the B&B where they stayed. They liked her cake so much that Hannchen Jensen gave her recipe to his grandmother, who then “shared it (on paper, they did not have FB, Twitter or Tumblr) while meeting her friends at the swimming pool…”
I was able to locate Ragnar in Germany. Not only did he declare Hannchen Jensen Torte is his favorite cake – a three-tier version was served at his wedding – but he also kindly offered to visit his grandmother, Ruth, and videotape her talking about Hannchen Jensen and her famous cake.
Hannchen Jensen was a widow who ran a guesthouse in Lindholm, a village near Niebüll at the coast of the North Sea. Ragnar’s grandmother first visited with her young children in 1972. Like all the other guests, on each vacation Hannchen Jensen treated them to Kaffee and Kuchen. In true Frisian tradition it was rather tea, Friesentee, often accompanied by Kümmelschnaps (Caraway schnapps), also a North Frisian specialty. The guests, who came from all over Germany, loved the cake and took the recipe home, spreading it in all directions.
And, it turns out, Hannchen Jensen’s original cake was made with (canned) mandarin oranges, not gooseberries. Listen to Ruth’s first-hand account (in German with English subtitles; if subtitles do not appear, turn on CC on Youtube):
Over the weekend Ragnar sent me the video footage, saying he was still at his grandmother’s looking through photo albums together in search of a photo of Hannchen Jensen.
I was already quite happy with what I got when another email arrived, “Now we are talking business: I am very proud to present you: The original Hannchen Jensen Recipe – handwritten by Hannchen Jensen herself.”
Readers of Spoonfuls of Germany know that I am all for keeping German cuisine as authentic and true to the original as possible. In this particular case, however, I chose the gooseberry variation.
Not only because gooseberries feel inherently German to me, and because I had a bumper crop from my three gooseberry bushes this summer. But also, if I had not been looking for a gooseberry cake, I would have never stumbled upon any of this.
Mystery solved. And another delicious German cake with a great story added to my repertoire.
Hannchen Jensen Cake (Hannchen Jensen Torte, Schwimmbadtorte)
While Gooseberries can be eaten raw, I find that their full flavor only develops when cooked ever so briefly. I poached the raw gooseberries until they just started to soften. Canned gooseberries might also be used.
Some recipes (not Hannchen Jensen’s original cake though) call for cake glaze (Tortenguss). To me it looks and tastes like aspic; it is one of the few traditional German baking products that I truly dislike. So when I need a glue to hold fruit together, I always use the juice or cooking liquid and thicken it with a tiny amount of cornstarch, which has the same effect as the store-bought glaze but goes almost unnoticed.
7 tablespoons (3½ ounces/100 g) unsalted butter, softened
½ cup (100 g) sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (4½ ounces/125 g) cake flour (Mehl Type 405 in Germany)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons milk
4 egg whites
¾ cup (150 g) sugar
2 ounces (60 g) roasted or toasted unpeeled almonds, coarsely chopped
1 pound (450 g) fresh or frozen gooseberries, blossom ends trimmed
4 tablespoons water
¼ cup (50 g) sugar, more to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch, preferably organic
1¼ cups (300 ml) heavy cream
2 tablespoons real vanilla sugar (see my recipe here)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Line the bottom of two 10-inch (25 cm) cake pans with removable sides or two springform pans with parchment paper. Generously grease the sides. If you only have one pan of that size, bake one cake layer after the other.
2. Beat the butter with the sugar, vanilla and egg yolks until creamy and pale yellow. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt. Fold it into the dough until no traces of flour remain. Add the milk.
3. Divide the dough among the two pans and even it out with a knife or a spatula. Bake on the center rack in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, until is it a pale yellow and a cake tester comes out clean. Leave the oven on.
4. Remove the sides of the pans and transfer the parchment paper with the cake layers to a wire rack.
5. Beat the egg whites with the sugar until very stiff and glossy. Place the two baked cake layers with the parchment on a large baking sheet next to each other. Divide the meringue among the two cakes and spread it with a knife of a spatula, it does not have to be look neat but the meringue should be about the same level so it bakes evenly. Sprinkle the almonds on top.
6. Bake in the preheated oven for 12 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C) and bake for another 8 minutes, or until the meringue is not longer soft to the touch. Turn off the oven and leave the cakes in the oven for another 10 minutes, during which time the meringue will harden and darken some more.
7. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack, meringue side up. Let one cake (the bottom layer, the less prettier one) cool completely. While it is still warm, place the other cake (choose the prettier one for the top layer) onto a cutting board and cut in into 12 neat slices. Place the slices exactly in the order that you cut them back on the parchment and let cool.
8. Place the gooseberries in a large skillet in a single layer. Add the water and the sugar. If the gooseberries are very sour, add more sugar to taste but they should remain rather tart, as the rest of the cake is sweet. Slowly bring the water to the simmer and cook the gooseberries until they just start to soften, 1 to 3 minutes depending on the size. Do not overcook them or they will turn mushy. Carefully remove them to a large plate using a slotted spoon.
9. Pour the poaching liquid into a small saucepan and set aside.
10. To assemble the cake, place the bottom layer, meringue side up, on a cake plate. Cover it with the drained gooseberries, gently pressing them into the meringue.
11. Dilute the cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water and add this to the saucepan with the poaching liquid. Slowly bring it to the boil, stirring constantly. As it thickens the liquid will turn from opaque to clear. Immediately drizzle it over the gooseberries. Let cool.
12. Whip the cream with the vanilla sugar until stiff. Spread it over the gooseberry layer.
13. Neatly place the second cake layer on top, fitting the individual pieces snuggly next to each other. Refrigerate until serving.
Makes 12 servings
July 6, 2015 at 6:19 pm
That is a very interesting story/research…as usual! The photos are so alive!
July 6, 2015 at 6:42 pm
It looks amazing to go along with the wonderful storyline. 🙂
July 6, 2015 at 10:10 pm
I don’t speak German, so I couldn’t understand the words in the video – but I loved the conversation and body language – truly great sleuth work on your part – loved this one! Thank you for sharing!
July 6, 2015 at 11:12 pm
Thanks! There are English subtitles, they just need to be turned on for mobile devices 🙂
July 10, 2015 at 3:40 pm
What a story, you are amazing .
One day I will make it too!
September 29, 2015 at 11:36 am
Hi Nadia, This is an awesome story, I love history when it has anything to do with food. My daughter sent me your story. She read a post from the blog The Wednesday Chef on this cake and wanted to learn more, since our last name is Jensen. So she dug around and found your post! Thank you so much for your diligence in finding the true story!!
I tried to read the original recipe but could not decipher what the amount of mandarin oranges were. I would like to try it that way since gooseberries are not very popular around here, yet, and they are not in season right now either. Your help would be greatly appreciated!! Susan Jensen
September 29, 2015 at 7:12 pm
Susan, Glad you found the true story! If you click on the image of the handwritten recipe in my blog post above, you will get the typed version both in English and German. The recipe indeed does not specify how many mandarin oranges are needed, I just double-checked 🙂 I think it should be anything between 1 and 2 cans (they are usually small), well drained. I will test the original recipe some time this coming winter, as I am working on a new Spoonfuls of Germany book and will include both the version with mandarin oranges and gooseberries. Meanwhile if you make that cake before me I would very much like to know how it turns out. Instead of posting here, feel free to email me at email@example.com Nadia
October 1, 2015 at 2:58 pm
Thanks Nadia! I will definitely let you know how it turns out! thanks so much, really appreciate the feedback 🙂
February 23, 2016 at 11:02 am
Thank you for caring and sharing! Just made pavlova cakes for valentines, and today my mind is on recipes for gooseberries as well. This cake is mashing up everything for me. Thank you, thank you. Can’t wait to try it out. Also, my maternal side of the family’s surname is Shroyer :))) great cooks and bakers too!
March 24, 2016 at 10:57 am
I have summarized the story in a brandnew blog about my home
Pingback: Hannchen Jensen Torte - Himmelstorte - Bake-Street.com - Bake-Street.com
March 7, 2021 at 5:20 am
Hello, I found this recipe after doing some research to prepare to make Luisa Weiss’s Hannchen Jensen cake that I found in her book “My Berlin Kitchen”. I am making it for my German step father’s birthday. After comparing the recipe in her book and yours I decided to go with yours for three reasons, yours offers alternatives to fresh gooseberries (they are not in season), yours has less sugar in the batter (I find all my American cakes are too sweet for my German family so I always have to reduce the sugar Anyway!), yours has an even use of the eggs (yolks into batter and whites into merigue, Yay!), also this is the first I will be trying Vanillezucker. I’m very excited! A little intimidated by the cooking cakes and merigues (I’m worried my cakes will be too dry!) but still very excited! I’ll report back 😉
March 7, 2021 at 8:22 am
Rebecca, I totally agree about the sugar content in American cakes, I reduce it by at least one-third in every recipe. Raw gooseberries are rather mealy, they only develop there wonderful flavor and juiciness once cooked. And I would not be too worried about the meringue begin too dry, there is plenty of fruit and whipped cream to balance it. And yes, please let me know how it turns out.
April 10, 2021 at 8:02 am
Nadia, I made this cake and it was a huge hit. I ended up using two 9″ pans and it didn’t matter much. I realized while making that when you write dough that is much more descriptive than I realized. I was expecting cake batter, but I had to struggle to spread the dough out into the pan. However, once I accomplished that, it baked beautifully. I used jarred gooseberries, so I skipped step 8 altogether, with the exception of saving the jarred liquid and using it in step 11. The end result was beautiful and everyone loved it. I bought your book and have been enjoying it. Thank you so much!!!
December 20, 2021 at 9:13 pm
My mother is from the Freisen Islands, Insel Fohr and we call the cake, which is my grandmother’s recipe Fsiry cake and we make it with fresh strawberries. I am 57 and have been making this cake either on my own or with my grandmother my entire life! This is and always has been my favorite cake. Everyone I bake this for lives it! I love you and miss you Nana.
December 20, 2021 at 9:14 pm
March 18, 2022 at 8:57 am
Lora, What a lovely tradition. I hope you can pass the recipe on to the next generation(s) in your family.