The cake is named not directly after the Black Forest (Schwarzwald) mountain range in southwestern Germany but rather from the specialty liquor of that region, known as Schwarzwälder Kirsch(wasser) and distilled from tart cherries.
This is the ingredient, with its distinctive cherry pit flavor and alcoholic content, that gives the cake its flavor. Cherries, cream, and Kirschwasser were first combined in the form of a dessert in which cooked cherries were served with cream and Kirschwasser, while a cake combining cherries, biscuit and cream (but without Kirschwasser) probably originated in Germany.
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. German statutory interpretation states Kirschwasser as a mandatory ingredient, otherwise the cake is legally not allowed to be marketed as Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.