You could hear the polka music a mile away.

We’d park in the grass and run up the gravel hill to the fairground pavilion, trying to make it in time for the Chicken Dance, which the big band played at least once an hour. Those first few notes would bring everyone in earshot to the dance floor. Red-faced soldiers. Old women fresh from the beauty shop. College kids. Laughing couples. Toddlers in dirndls or lederhosen.

People who barely felt comfortable bobbing their heads at a concert would get out there and shake a tailfeather.

Usually while they were still sober.

For the other 55 minutes of every hour, there was the food.

Our local Edelweiss Club laid out a feast for Oktoberfest. Jumbo pretzels and pickles. Schnitzel and sauerkraut. Brats and freshly-baked brotchen. Roasted nuts. Dozens of apple strudels. And, my favorite, Black Forest Cake.

One slice required more food tickets than any other single item at the festival, including beer, so we’d pool our tickets together at the end of the night to share a slice.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful dessert than Black Forest Cake. Layers of chocolate cake filled with sour cherries and whipped cream – and covered with even more whipped cream, shaved chocolate and maraschino cherries. But this isn’t just a piece of cake. It’s a celebration of Germany’s Black Forest region, famous for Morello cherries and kirsch, a cherry brandy.

For some recipes, booze is optional, but a true German-style Black Forest Cake will contain kirsch, whether it’s whipped into the cream, soaked into the cherries or brushed onto the cake layers. Or all three. Because a lot of the cherry flavor comes from the kirsch.

At the German bakery where I worked, there was a group of older German ladies who’d come every Saturday morning, and they’d always order the same thing: Black Forest Cake. For breakfast. The boozier, the better.

Making a Black Forest Cake is really one of the most fun baking projects on Planet Earth, so I hope you’ll tackle it at least once. I love using Kathleen King’s devil’s food cake for chocolate cake layers, because it’s dark as midnight and stays moist for days. However, for the bottom layer, I usually use a cake-sized chocolate cookie, made by baking sugar cookie dough in a springform pan the same size as my cake pans. The cookie base stays sturdy under such a moist, filled cake and makes it much easier to move the entire cake to a different plate, if needed.

If you run out of time to make this cake for Oktoberfest, promise me you’ll do something to celebrate. Find a local festival. Hook up some brats and German potato salad. Bake a loaf of beer bread.

And dust off your Chicken Dance. The Chicken Dance is cool.

Black Forest Cherry Torte (Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte)

I use a cake-sized chocolate cookie to give a sturdy bottom to the cake, but feel free to use a chocolate cake layer from the Devil’s Food Cake recipe I’ve included, since it makes two 9-inch cakes.

Loosely based on the recipe in Margit Stoll Dutton’s “The German Pastry Bakebook”

Makes one 12- to 16-slice cake

  • Devil’s Food Cake (recipe below)
  • Chocolate Cookie Bottom (recipe below)
  • Cherry preserves
  • Cherry Filling: 1 14.5-ounce can tart cherries (drained) + 1/4 cup cherry preserves + 1 tablespoon kirsch (optional)
  • Whipped Cream: 1 pint heavy cream + 1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Kirsch, divided (cherry brandy; look for imported, not American)
  • Maraschino cherries
  • 1 ounce shaved, semisweet chocolate (use vegetable peeler on room temperature chocolate)
  1. Bake and cool the Devil’s Food Cake layers. Slice one of the cakes in half horizontally. Set aside.
  2. Bake and cool the Chocolate Cookie Bottom.
  3. Prep the Cherry Filling, if you haven’t already.
  4. To Make the Whipped Cream: In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip cream and confectioner’s sugar until stiff. Place in the refrigerator. (If you have a smaller mixer, make each quart of whipped cream separately, as needed.)
  5. To Assemble the Cake: If you have a cake decorating turntable, place a cake plate on the turntable, and cover it with a parchment sheet cut in half. (You want the parchment sheet to fit under your cake, so that when you’re done decorating, you can quickly pull each half-piece out from under the cake to have a clean plate.)
  6. Gently remove the Chocolate Cookie Bottom from the springform pan, and place it on your cake plate.
  7. Spread a very thin layer of cherry preserves on the cookie bottom.
  8. Evenly spread 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream over the cherry preserves.
  9. Carefully place the top layer of cake, top-side down, on the whipped cream.
  10. Brush the cake with 1 1/2 tablespoons of kirsch.
  11. Spoon the Cherry Filling evenly on top of the cake. (You might not use all of it, depending on how much liquid drains from the cherries.)
  12.  Top the Cherry Filling with 1 1/2 to 2 cups of whipped cream.
  13. Top with the remaining chocolate layer, bottom-side up.
  14. Brush the cake with the remaining kirsch.
  15. Set aside 1 to 1 1/2 cups of whipped cream for decorating.
  16. Pile most of the rest of the whipped cream on top of the cake, and gently spread the whipped cream to cover the top and sides of the cake. (I like to use the edge of a bench scraper instead of a spatula to level the whipped cream on top of the cake and guide it down the sides. Then, I use the scraper’s straight edge to take away excess whipped cream and straighten the sides.)
  17. Using a measuring tape and a toothpick, lightly slash markings for 12 to 16 pieces in the whipped cream on top of the cake.
  18. Fit a pastry bag with a large decorating tip, and fill the bag with whipped cream. Pipe a rosette (a big swirl) on the outside edge of each piece you marked.
  19. Place the maraschino cherries on a clean kitchen towel to drain, and pat them (as dry as possible) before placing one in the center of each rosette.
  20. Decorate the top by piling the shaved chocolate in the center.
  21. Pull parchment sheets out from under the cake.
  22. If you have any whipped cream left, pipe a border along the bottom edge of the cake.
  23. Refrigerate the cake until ready to serve. Use a long, sharp knife, and wipe it off with a damp towel between slices.

Devil’s Food Cake

Adapted from Kathleen King’s “Tate’s Bake Shop Cookbook”

Makes two 9-inch cakes or three 8-inch cakes

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup salted butter
  • 2 1/4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 squares (3 ounces) unsweetened chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 9-inch springform pans or round cake pans (or spray them with Baker’s Joy). Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper circles, and spray them with nonstick spray.
  2. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar.
  4. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  5. Stir in the melted chocolate.
  6. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk in three stages, ending with the flour.
  7. Add the boiling water and vanilla. Mix well, but don’t overmix. (The mixture will be VERY thin, so don’t freak out.)
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
  9. Bake for 33 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If the cake on the upper rack finishes first, remove it and place the bottom cake on the upper rack. It might take a few additional minutes to finish.)
  10. Place the pans on a wire rack, and let the cakes cool completely in the pans before unmolding. (If the middles dip a little, the cakes are still OK.)
  11. Once the cakes are cool, you can wrap them in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator. Or, wrap one in plastic wrap and aluminum foil, and freeze it for later. (We’ll only be using one.)

Chocolate Cookie Bottom

Adapted from Elisa Strauss’ “The Confetti Cakes Cookbook”

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick spray. Set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, and beat until combined.
  4. Add the flour mixture in two batches, beating until dough just comes together. Finish mixing with your hands, until the ingredients are fully combined.
  5. Press the dough evenly onto the bottom of the springform pan. Bake for 17 minutes. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely.