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 is added to the cake, although other liquors are also used (rum is common in Austrian recipes). In the USA, Black Forest cake is most often prepared without alcohol.
The earliest combination in the Black Forest of cherries, cream and Kirschwasser was 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 claims to have invented Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte in its present form in 1915 in the then prominent Café Agner in Bad Godesberg. 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.