Although I have visited the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia at least once per year ever since I can remember, it was only last year that I found out about the existence of the Grillaschtorte. At a Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) family gathering, my mother’s cousin’s daughter introduced us to what would become one of my favourite layered cakes – Grillasch or Grillage, also known as Eissplittertorte.
The beauty of the Grillaschtorte is that it can be had both as a cream-heavy, crunchy cake in winter and as a cold, ice-cream-like one in summer. This is because you can adjust the temperature of the cake and the texture of both the cream and the meringue within it depending on how long you take it out of the freezer before serving, and whether or not you allow it to defrost in the fridge – genius, isn’t it?
Although this cake is both dexterous and tasty, it is sold and known only in very few bakeries in Germany. Indeed, the highest concentration is found at the Niederrhein – the most northern of the four parts the river Rhine is divided into – and more specifically in the German part of the Niederrhein between Aachen in the West and Remscheid in the East (not including the more Southern cities and surrounding areas of Leverkusen, Cologne and Bonn). Folklorist Peter Honnen conducted a study in 1997 asking participants if to their knowledge the term “Grillaschtorte” existed in their town. From his findings he was able to draw a mysterious invisible line splitting the state of North-Rhine Westphalia into two: that in which locals knew about the cake and that in which they didn’t (with, of course, some minor exceptions). Thus inhabitants of one town may frequently indulge in a Grillaschtorte, while inhabitants of the adjacent town will have never even heard of it before.
Heinz Lamers, a baker native to the Niederrhein region, has even gone so far as to create a website calling for action to save the Grillaschtorte (rettet-die-grillagetorte.de). There one can also read Peter Honnen’s article about the detailed findings of his questionnaire (although written in German, Google Translate does a pretty decent job of translating the text). While it is puzzling how such an invisible line could have been drawn, the most baffling thing for me is how such a versatile and delicious cake could have stayed a secret to most people in Germany, and is now even said to be in decline!
The meringue cream cake, so the legend goes, was invented by a Konditor (pastry chef) in Krefeld in 1908, and yet this claim is rejected by many surrounding bakeries/patisseries. In all likelihood, as the stories of food journeys go, it was adapted from similar cakes further afield until it reached its current form in the Niederrhein – one that is not even fixed today, but differs from bakery to bakery. Based on mentions in literary texts, we can say that it dates back to at least the 19th century, and may have been adapted from similar cake concoctions found in the East (now Czech Republic) and the South (now Bayern in South Germany, and Austria), where the Grillagetorte was made with butter cream or cream and biscuit (as opposed to the whipped cream and meringue the cake is made of in the Niederrhein area today).
This lineage or branch-off would also explain its name Grillage (pronounced Grillasch in German), which in Austrian refers to brittle, a.k.a. nuts roasted in sugar – a main ingredient, which is usually used in the cake base. Interestingly enough, this base is left out in some family recipes (including those of patisseries), retaining the name of the cake but losing the reference. Today there still exist bakeries/patisseries which guard their precious recipes. One such patisserie, Billstein (established in 1882), is to be found in Krefeld, the contested birthplace of the Grillaschtorte.
Upon entering the Konditorei, one will find Master Craftsman’s Certificates (Meisterbriefe) proudly displayed inside, going back five generations. Other baked goods such as cookies, pralines and cakes can be bought there, but the Grillaschtorte is an absolute must-try.
It can be bought by the piece or, the more popular version, as a smaller Törtchen, which can easily be eaten by one person, but can also be shared by two. Chances are you will have your own preference as to when the cake should be eaten – right after it is removed from the freezer (allowing for the cream to keep its now ice-cream like consistency), fifteen minutes, or even half an hour later are all viable and common options. If you prefer your cake to be cold and harder in consistency, eat it right away, if you like it more creamy and smooth, practice some patience by allowing it to defrost entirely. The beauty is that you can have it either way – or somewhere in between.
Follow me on social media sites such as Instagram to stay tuned for a tried-and-tested recipe for this delightful cake.
Availability: Konditorei Billstein
Breiten Dyk 89