Dark chocolate orange cake with meringue, also known as Vaso’s cake or Vaso’s torte (Vasina torta) is the best Serbian traditional cake, beloved in the Balkans. Invented by a grateful mother in law, the cake boasts three layers (a nut based crust, a chocolate and orange topping, and a topping made entirely out of meringue) of perfectly combined citrus and chocolate flavors and an (optional) chocolate glaze.
BELOVED IN THE BALKANS, VASO’S TORTE IS THE JEWEL OF SERBIAN DESSERTS
Most desserts in the Balkan region are old fashioned and require once expensive ingredients (eggs, walnuts, butter, etc.). A lot of was at stake, so people judged a cake on its quality. (Quality meant rich, filling and aesthetically pleasing.)
As you can guess, Balkan desserts tend to be
challenging complex. They generally don’t allow for shortcuts, 30-minute prep or 3-ingredients or less.
However I suspect most of you, like me, value quality over quantity. And quality requires dedication. Today’s dark chocolate orange cake with meringue, is no exception. The cake, also called Vaso’s cake or Vaso’s torte (Vasina torta), isn’t good.
TORTE VERSUS CAKE
Tortes are a type of cake.
When we think of a typical cake, it’s spongy on the inside and beautiful on the outside. Recipes call for glazes, frostings and toppings to achieve this effect.
But these gorgeous cakes are often tasteless underneath their makeup.
Admittedly, in diaspora circles these cakes are a subject of disdain. You’ll often hear a disappointing “oh, it’s just an ordinary sponge (patišpanja),“ where patišpanja indicates an easy to make cake.
You can recognize sponge based cakes by color. If you cut yourself a piece and it’s yellow inside, it’s probably a regular sponge cake.
Meanwhile, a torte is a denser, richer type. Its crust consists of eggs, flour, ground nuts and chocolate. Tortes are more complicated to make, but the moisture factor, substance and taste are lightyears ahead of sponge cakes.
Tortes fall into a group of sweets I call ‘grown up’ desserts.
I’ve discussed this with a lot of people and jointly concluded that tortes and heavier desserts (think baklava, hazelnut cake, plum pie, etc.) are sweets we tolerated in childhood, but learned to appreciate – learned to love – only after becoming adults.
Is it because this chocolate orange cake (and desserts like it) is rich? Is it because nostalgia kicks in later in life and becomes the guiding light of our taste? Do our taste buds change for better as we age?
I don’t know.
I do know is when I eat Vaso’s cake these days, I pant with satisfaction at how sensual the threesome of orange, dark chocolate and meringue can be.
(Please note that on the blog I use the terms (torte and cake) interchangeably.)
STORY BEHIND THE CHOCOLATE ORANGE CAKE (AKA VASO’S CAKE)
We can’t know for sure how much of this story is fiction and how much isn’t, but I’d like to think it’s all a true story. I’ve picked up the pieces via several online sources, so forgive me if I don’t get all the details right.
At the beginning of 20th century there lived (in a small Serbian town of Paraćin), a handsome man named Vaso Čokrljan. A longtime bachelor, Vaso’s marital status was for many years the main topic of town gossip.
What a surprise it was to everyone to hear that at the tender age of 41 Vaso finally married! The lucky lady in question was one Jelena, who’d later describe Vaso as gentlest and kindest of husbands.
When Jelena was pregnant with their child, local doctors informed them she probably wouldn’t survive giving birth. Vaso was devastated.
Sparing no expense he travelled with Jelena to a well known gynecologist in Vienna. Although the birth was difficult (they had to use a complicated set of clamps), both Jelena and their baby girl survived.
After recovering in Vienna, they returned to Paraćin. To celebrate their triumphant return, Vaso’s mother in law organized a huge celebration. She made many regional delicacies for this feast, but the main attraction became a special cake she created in honor of her son in law.
This three layered cake boasted the best region had to offer (different types of nuts, meringue and eggs), and was paired together with a citrus orange flavor. These ingredients (oranges especially), were expensive and difficult to procure, so this wasn’t a cake just anyone could whip up.
And that’s how we got today’s chocolate orange cake.
As Vaso’s cake was usually something I ate at a pastry shop, and not a cake we usually made at home, I tested quite a few recipes. For the final version you’re reading today, I relied heavily on two sources. My gratitude goes out to them.
1. The Big National Cookbook
First source was a classic Yugoslavian cookbook called the “The Big National Cookbook” (Veliki narodni kuhar).
(I own the 6th edition published in 1984, as a collaboration between National book, Belgrade (Narodna knjiga Beograd) and Youth book, Ljubljana (Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana). The recipe for Vasina Torta is on page 398.)
If you speak B/C/S and love cooking, you MUST get this cookbook! (And this is a minimalist speaking!)
2. Jelena from Food for Thought
Second source was a Belgrade food blogger named Jelena, who blogged over at Food for Thought.
Jelena belongs to that original group of men and women who wrote for the love of food – not SEO, and whose articles didn’t consist of “OMG You guuuuuuys!!! :)” followed by 37 adjectives.
Unfortunately she stopped blogging circa 2015. However, each post is translated into English, so you can browse her recipe index. Her food is phenomenal.
Jelena, if you read this post at some point thank you for your blog, for your detailed and patient way of responding, and for the treasure of knowledge you shared!
CHOCOLATE ORANGE CAKE IN TASTE AND LOOKS
LAYER 1: SIMILAR TO OTHER CAKES
What’s unusual about this chocolate orange cake is that there is only one cake (crust) layer. (Most cakes have on average 2-3 parts for layering.) This layer is made with eggs (separately mixed), ground walnuts, sugar and grated baking chocolate.
This layer is very similar to cakes we’ve done before. So, when I made this chocolate orange cake for the first time I called mom over. She’s the cake whiz in our family and I felt better having her throw a glance over every now and then. Even one of her glances can prevent a cardinal mistake.
LAYER 2: ORANGE DEFINED
Orange defines cake’s second layer.
The foundation of this second layer is sugar syrup and walnuts, eggs and chocolate. But it is the freshly squeezed orange juice and orange zest (which turn the flavor slightly toward citrus), that give this cake the ‘wow’ factor. (You can adjust the amount of orange juice. Optimal amount is between 7-10 tablespoons.)
LAYER 3: ITALIAN MERINGUE
Classic Italian meringue forms the third layer of our chocolate orange cake. You may remember that what makes this meringue different is the addition of sugar syrup to egg whites whipped into soft peaks. Here is where mom (again) came to rescue as she can whip up a perfect meringue in her sleep.
If meringue scares you I found a website with great tutorials for every kind of meringue you can imagine. I find it helpful to think about it this way: at its most basic, meringue is just egg whites, a pinch of salt and a mixer.
(OPTIONAL BUT RECOMMENDED) LAYER 4: CHOCOLATE GANACHE
Most people use a portion of the meringue to plaster cake sides with a nice snowy finish.
But I trusted Jelena. She insisted cake was best when the three layers are left alone, and the fourth and final layer made entirely of dark chocolate, for Jaffa effect.
Jaffa is a type of cookie biscuit topped with (artificial) oranges and chocolate. (Biscuits similar to Jaffa include Tops, Delicje, Milka’s ChocoJaffa and others.) Chocolate is poured on top of the cake and left to drizzle on the sides, leaving a perfect window into the layers one, two and three. It’s magic!
However, you can imagine my disappointment when (after I would nail the other three complicated layers), my ganache, that simplest of chocolate toppings, kept on coming out all wrong.
First time around the chocolate was too thick. When I poured it over the cake it looked… (use your imagination). Second time I made it the bag with chocolate exploded above the cake sending chocolate everywhere in one big splash. The third time, I don’t even remember what happened the third time.
I finally watched a few of Tatyana’s videos to get the idea of how she does it. (She’s a cake blogger with numerous tips on cake decorating.) I’m not at what I now call ‘Tatyana level,’ but the ganache is coming out better each time.
(By the way, term ganache comes from the old French for “moron.” Apparently a chef student messed up while pouring hot cream onto chocolate. His mentor called him a ganache, although the result was the splendid glaze we use today.)
Even if you are an experienced baker, give yourself at least three hours the first time you make this cake. (No worries, the layers don’t take an hour each. It’s just that there are waiting periods in between.)
For example, the first cake layer needs some time to cool off after baking. Parallel to that, it’s best if you leave the orange layer in the fridge for 30-45 minutes. You’ll have an easier time spreading it over the cake layer after it’s toughened.
Finally, these two should really integrate in the fridge together for at least an hour or two before you make the meringue.
Meringue should not be going onto anything remotely warm, lest it gets destroyed. In the same manner, nothing should be going onto meringue while it’s warm, lest it gets destroyed.
I found this chocolate orange cake, our Vaso’s torte, tastes best a couple of days after you make it. If unable to wait that long (who has the time?), at least promise me you’ll give it a solid “sleepover” in the fridge.
Finally, do yourself a favor and get a cake buddy in exchange for a slice or two. If all they do is wash the dishes as you’re going through them, you’ll be infinitely better off. Because you will use A LOT of dishes.
Ok, now this is entirely too much information. Let me know if you make this cake, and how you like it.Print
Dark chocolate orange cake with meringue, also known as Vaso’s cake or Vaso’s torte (Vasina torta) is the best Serbian traditional cake, beloved in the Balkans. The cake boasts three layers (a nut based crust, a chocolate and orange topping, and a topping made entirely out of meringue) of perfectly combined citrus and chocolate flavors and an (optional) chocolate glaze.
Layer 1 (Cake) Crust Batter
- 5 egg yolks
- 5 tablespoons regular sugar
- 1 tablespoon white flour
- 1.5–2 ounces ground walnuts
- 1.5 ounces grated baking (or dark) chocolate
- 5 egg whites
- Pinch of salt
- 1–2 tablespoons melted butter
Layer 2 Orange Infused Topping
- 4–4.5 ounces milk
- 4–4.5 ounces regular sugar
- 7 ounces ground walnuts
- 2 ounces grated baking (or dark) chocolate
- 2–3 tablespoons milk
- 7–10 tablespoons juice from one fresh orange
- Grated zest of 1 orange
- (Optional) 1-2 tablespoons rum or Grand marnier
- 4 egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons regular sugar
- 5.5 ounces butter (room temperature)
Layer 3 Italian Meringue
- 5 ounces water
- 8.5 ounces sugar
- 4 egg whites
- Pinch of salt
(Optional & Highly Recommended) Layer 4 Chocolate Glaze (Ganache)
- 5.5 ounces baking (or dark) chocolate
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 3–4 tablespoons milk
- 3 tablespoons butter
Layer 1 (Cake) Crust Batter
- Heat oven to 395°F (200°C).
- In a large mixing bowl start mixing yolks with a hand mixer while adding the sugar to the bowl one tablespoon at a time. Mix 5-6 minutes on high, or until yolks turn light yellow and easily separate from bowl walls.
- With a wooden spatula add flour, walnuts and chocolate to egg yolks. Stir everything until well integrated.
- In a separate large mixing bowl beat egg whites and a pinch of salt with a hand mixer. Start by mixing on low for one minute, then finish off with 2-3 minutes on high or until firm peaks form.
- With a wooden spatula add egg yolk mixture to egg whites. Mix in slowly but thoroughly so that at the end the batter feels light and airy.
- Take a 9-10 inch (24cm) adjustable cake ring (pan) and line the bottom with parchment paper. Using a baking brush paint the ring walls and bottom generously with butter.
- Pour batter into cake ring and shake lightly until batter is evenly distributed. Lower temperature to 355°F (180°C) and bake for 20 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to check for doneness.
- Cool the cake off completely. Using a knife gently separate cake from ring walls. Open the ring and transfer the cake (crust face down) onto plate you’ll be serving it on. Carefully remove parchment paper from the cake.
Layer 2 Orange Infused Topping
- In a small pot combine milk and sugar and bring to a boil on high. Lower the temperature and stir frequently until sugar dissolves in milk.
- Melt chocolate with 2-3 tablespoons of milk on low at the same time. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
- In a large mixing bowl cover walnuts evenly with sugar and milk. After walnuts absorb the liquid completely add melted chocolate, orange juice and zest. (If using, add rum or Grand marnier now also.) Mix well until integrated. Let cool.
- Meanwhile make a bain marie (heated bath) by placing a pot filled with water one third of the way on the stove. Bring water to a boil, then lower temperature just enough to keep it at a slow boil.
- (Parallel to water warming up) In a large metal mixing bowl (that can partially fit into the pot from the step above) start mixing yolks with a hand mixer while adding the sugar to the bowl one tablespoon at a time. Mix 3-4 minutes on high, then transfer the bowl into the pot. (There should be a little bit of space between the water and the bottom of the bowl, but the bowl should prohibit the steam from leaving the pot.) Keep stirring egg yolks quickly and continuously with a plastic spatula around 5 minutes. Remove egg yolks from steam heat and let cool.
- In a large mixing bowl mix butter until soft with a hand mixer. Add egg yolks and continue mixing. Finally add the remaining mixture (walnuts, etc.) and mix a few more minutes until the layer is well integrated and airy (light) at the same time. Transfer to fridge for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Combining layers 1 and 2: Place a (clean) cake ring (just the side portion) about half way up the cake crust and close it. Evenly distribute layer 2 on top of the cake crust. Use a knife if necessary. Transfer back to fridge leaving the cake ring on.
Layer 3 Italian Meringue
- In a small pot bring water and sugar to a boil. Bring temperature to low and stir occasionally. Cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the syrup is of a consistency of thin honey.
- About 5 minutes before syrup is finished in a large mixing bowl beat egg whites and a pinch of salt with a hand mixer. Start by mixing on low for one minute, then finish off with 2-3 minutes on high or until firm peaks form.
- (Please note if you are wary of bacteria (salmonella) you can do this step using a bain marie like you did for layer 2 egg yolks. Fill a pot one third with water and bring to a boil on high. Water should be boiling by the time you’re ready to beat egg whites, or about 5 minutes before the syrup is done. The rest is the same by adding the syrup in while mixing on steam.)
- Continue beating egg whites while lightly pouring the syrup into the bowl. You are now mixing until stiff peaks form. Syrup should be trickling in for about 5 minutes to give you enough time to mix it in. After you’ve mixed all the syrup turn the mixer off, and flip the bowl around. If the meringue stays in the bowl you’re finished. If it moves mix a little longer.
- Combining layers 1 and 2 with layer 3. Take the cake out of the fridge and remove the cake ring. Wash and dry it, then place back on the cake (about half-way up) and close again. Pour meringue on top and evenly distribute as the third layer. As you’re distributing push lightly to avoid air being trapped inside. Return back to the fridge.
(Optional & Highly Recommended) Layer 4 Chocolate Glaze (Ganache)
- After the meringue layer has completely cooled down, melt all glaze ingredients on low. Stir frequently to avoid burning. If it looks too thick, add a little more milk. (Meringue has to be completely, 100% cool.)
- Transfer to a strong plastic bag, cutting off a very small tip on one end. Pour chocolate first on meringue edges so that chocolate drips down the sides of all of the cake’s layers for a beautiful visual effect. Pour remaining chocolate on top and use a dull edge of a long knife to even it out.
- Return to the fridge. Leave overnight at the very least. (Best if you can wait an entire day before you eat it.)
- The cake lasts up to 7 days in the fridge.
This recipe heavily relied on Vaso’s cake recipes by Jelena from food for thought food blog as well as The Big National Cookbook (a classic Yugoslavian cookbook). My gratitude goes out to both!
Take eggs out of the fridge 1-2 hours ahead so they’re at room temperature once you start baking. It’s good to have more eggs on hand than you expect you’ll need, accidents happen.
Separate egg yolks from egg whites as precisely as you can. If some egg white ends up in egg yolk section it’s no big deal, however if you get any yolks in egg whites remove them as much as possible. Otherwise you’re better off using new egg whites.
Wash your mixer rotating parts and cake ring (pan) after each use as you’ll use them for several steps and they need to be completely clean for each.
Toothipick test: stab the cake several times in different places with a toothpick. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. Otherwise, if the toothpick has crumbs on it, bake a few minutes longer then repeat the test. To prevent burning, place parchment paper on top of the cake.
The volume of fresh orange juice will depends on how much you like orange and dark chocolate flavor combo.
Bain marie is a method by which you’re cooking ingredients on steam heat. This method is excellent for killing bacteria while still allowing ingredients to keep a smooth consistency. Keep stirring egg yolks quickly and swiftly otherwise they have a potential to overcook and become an omelette. All the “fancy” equipment you’ll need for a water bath are a pot for boiling the water and a mixing bowl (preferably a metal one) whose bottom partially fits into the pot. Fill the pot one third of the way with water and bring to a boil. Place the mixing bowl inside so the least amount of steam escapes. Some people allow the bottom of the mixing bowl to hit the water, while others don’t. I’ve tried both ways and prefer the method where there is a little bit of a distance.
Please note I don’t use bain marie for egg whites, but this is my choice. Egg whites are generally not a good growing ground for salmonella, plus I’ve never had a problem with it before. However, I understand you may want to protect yourself in the slightest possibility of contamination. I get you. In this case, create a bain marie the same way as you did for layer 2 egg whites. Be careful and steady the bowl in the pot (wear a mitten or use a kitchen towel to protect your fingers) while beating egg whites. When you start adding in sugar syrup you’ll have to either turn off mixer several times while you add it in, or use the hand that was steadying the pan and bowl to add the syrup in. Do it slowly and you’ll be ok.
In absence of a strong plastic bag (it has to be strong, lest it falls apart), use a small dish with a pour spout for pouring chocolate. By the way anything will work, from džezva (Balkan coffee dish) to a sauce bowl.
Some only use baking chocolate and heavy cream (50-50) to make the glaze. Whatever you decide, test it ahead for consistency.
For best taste leave the cake in the fridge overnight. It’s even better if you can hold off 24 hours before eating it. The cake lasts up to 7 days in the fridge. As per Jelena, when cutting it run your knife under hot water first.
Keywords: chocolate orange cake, dark chocolate meringue cake, vasina torta, vaso's torte