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