Life After Life 2: Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau)

‘Es schneit’ she said. ‘It’s snowing.’ He glanced out of the window as if he hadn’t noticed the weather. He was eating Palatschinken. They looked good but when the waiter came bustling over she ordered Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte to eat with her hot chocolate. It was delicious. (December 1930, page 597)

With its setting of 1910 – 1967, Life After Life is dominated by war, particularly the Second World War since the protagonist, Ursula, is 29 when it breaks out.As the author, Kate Atkinson, notes in her endpiece to the novel, being born in 1951 she grew up with a sense that she had missed out on something ‘terrible and tremendous’ and she ‘would never know it’. The writing of both Life after Life and its sequel A God in Ruins – which involved detailed research, as is evident from her lengthy bibliographies at the end of each novel – can be seen as Atkinson’s attempt to understand this ‘terrible and tremendous’ event which has shaped our modern world.

In Life after Life Ursula spends time in Germany as part of a post-university ‘gap year’ tour of Europe before embarking on teacher training. However, as is the case with other events in Atkinson’s novel, Ursula has the chance to live her time in Germany in different ways. In the first version she gets blindly caught up in the Nazi party propaganda and ideology when she goes to a ‘youth camp’ with the daughters of a family with whom she is lodging in Munich. Introduced to a dashing blond man, Jurgen, Ursula falls in love and marries him. By the time she has become aware of the reality of the situation in Germany she has a young daughter, Frieda, war has broken out and she is unable to leave and return to England. By 1945 she and her perpetually ill daughter are living a miserable existence in Berlin; Ursula takes the only escape route that she can see available for them.

However, in a second version Ursula goes to Germany in 1930 with the knowledge of what will happen in the future. Her close relationship with Hitler’s lover, Eva Braun, enables her to come into close proximity with the Nazi leader and see if she can change the course of history.

In both versions of Ursula’s life, references to food abound, with the focus being on cake:

There was always cake on the Berghof, poppyseed Streusel and cinnamon and plum Tortes, puff pastries filled with cream, chocolate cake – great domes of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte – Ursula wondered who ate all this cake. (August 1939, page 425)

Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte – known in England as Black Forest Gateau – is referred to twice. Whilst it has associations with 1970s ‘posh cuisine’, and my memories of it as a child are of over-dry chocolate cake and sickly sweet cream, the combination of cherries, chocolate and cream is a winner. Although the cake traditionally has kirsch liqueur in it, I don’t like alcohol in cakes and puddings so I have left it out. I make no apologies for the fact this is a very simplified – even ‘streamlined’ – version, but this is much more how I like my cakes. My version started life as cupcakes, but then I adapted it into a shallow round cake to give it more of a dessert feel.


For the cake:
100g plain flour
2 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder
140g caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
a pinch of salt
40g unsalted butter, softened
120ml milk
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
A handful of stoned cherries (fresh or tinned)

To decorate:
A handful of stoned cherries (fresh or tinned)
100ml whipping or double cream
50g dark chocolate finely grated

Preheat the oven to 170C / 160C fan / Gas mark 3.
Grease and line a shallow cake tin (diameter 20cm).
Put the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter in a large bowl: using either an electric whisk, the paddle beater on a food mixer, or your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients to get a sandy consistency.
Whisk the milk, egg and vanilla extract together in a separate bowl. Pour half into the flour mixture and beat to combine.
Then pour in the remaining liquid and mix until you have a smooth mixture.
Spoon the batter into the lined cake tin. Then gently press the stoned cherries into the mixture. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 40-45 minutes until the top bounces back when pressed lightly and a cake tester or skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool in the tin for a bit and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
When the cake is completely cold, whisk the cream until it is thick. Spoon onto the cake and spread out with a knife. Scatter the grated chocolate over the top and then arrange the cherries to your liking.

Black forest gateau before baking

Finished black forest gateau

3 thoughts on “Life After Life 2: Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte (Black Forest Gateau)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *