Black Forest cake (American English) and Black Forest gateau (British English) are the English names for the southern German dessert Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, correctly spelled Schwarzwälder-Kirsch-Torte (literally “Black Forest cherry liqueur torte”).
Typically, Black Forest cake consists of several layers of chocolate cake, with whipped cream and cherries between each layer. Then the cake is decorated with additional whipped cream, maraschino cherries, and chocolate shavings. In some European traditions sour cherries are used both between the layers and for decorating the top. Traditionally, Kirschwasser (a clear liquor distilled from tart cherries) is added to the cake, although other liquors are also used (such as rum, which is common in Austrian recipes). In the United States, Black Forest cake is most often prepared without alcohol.
The cake is not named after the mountain range in south-western Germany but the local specialty liquor distilled from tart cherries called Schwarzwälder Kirschwasser, or abbreviated Schwarzwälder Kirsch, the ingredient that gives the cake a special kick, due to the distinctive cherry pit flavor and the alcoholic content. In the earliest combination cherries, cream and Kirschwasser was combined probably not in the form of a cake but instead as a dessert. Cooked cherries would be served with cream and perhaps Kirschwasser. A cake combining cherries, biscuit and cream (but without Kirschwasser) probably originated in Germany. Today, the Canton of Zug is world-renowned for its Zuger Kirschtorte, a biscuit-based cake which formerly contained no Kirschwasser. A version from the Canton of Basle also exists. The confectioner Josef Keller (1887-1981) claimed having invented Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte in its present form in 1915 in the then prominent Café Agner in Bad Godesberg, now a suburb of Bonn about 500 km north of the Black Forest. This claim, however, has never been substantiated.
Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte was first mentioned in writing in 1934. At this time it was known especially in Berlin as well as at good confectioners in German, Austrian and Swiss cities. In 1949 it took 13th place in the list of best-known German cakes. From this time onwards, Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte became world-renowned.