The headline on the jagged fragment of yellowed newsprint reads, “Marjolaine: Chocolate Cake Only the French Could Devise.” The date is March 31, 1982; the byline belongs to Patricia Wells. I was 13 when I tore the article and recipe from the Food section of The Sun.
For the uninitiated, a marjolaine is a four-layer meringue-nut cake with three different cream fillings— almond praline, rum and chocolate (the last of which also doubles as icing)— sandwiched between the layers. You make your own crême fraiche for the chocolate filling and your own caramelized almond praline, which is akin to peanut brittle, for the nut filling. The cake is complicated and takes “hours to prepare,” Wells writes, though she assures the reader that “the work can be spread over several days.”
At 13, I baked kifle, yeast-based, nut-filled, Christmas cookies, based on a recipe pulled from a magazine. I made pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse heads for my sister’s breakfast. And I helped my mother and grandmother fry doughnuts and make the custard filling for one of my father’s favorite desserts, cream puffs. I was well on my way to becoming an accomplished baker. But did I really think I could tackle a marjolaine? Apparently I did.
Yet in nearly 25 years, I never had. A few times I probably considered then reconsidered after deciding the weather was too humid (meringue gets tacky and weepy when there’s too much moisture in the air). On other occasions I might have concluded that the elaborate dinner I was making wouldn’t allow me to tackle an equally elaborate dessert.
Whatever the case, the marjolaine recipe remained sandwiched between the pages of my “Crabtree & Evelyn Cookbook,” quietly reminding me of its challenge each time I opened the book to track down the recipe for scones or chicken potpie. When I recently made the cookbook’s easy brioche, it once again confronted me. So, nearly a quarter-century after clipping the recipe, I decide it’s finally time to tackle it. My father’s 76th birthday will provide just the occasion.
Dad’s birthday dinner is set for Saturday. Heeding Wells’ advice— “the work can be spread over several days”— on Wednesday I combine the whipping cream and sour cream for the crême fraiche and set it on the counter to ripen for eight to 24 hours at room temperature. (It will need another 24 hours of rest in the fridge before it can be combined with melted bittersweet chocolate to make the filling/icing.)
Next, I decide to make the pastry cream, the base for the rum and praline fillings. But as I read over the recipe (something I’m often too impatient to do before jumping right into cooking), I discover a problematic third step: “Bring milk just to boil in large, heavy-bottomed pan.” The problem is that milk is not listed among the recipe’s ingredients. So I have no idea just how much milk to “boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan.” My patience worn thin, I put off more marjolaine-making until the next day.
On Thursday, I Google “marjolaine.” In addition to a line of lingerie and a fetching photo of a woman in a skimpy plaid bustier, I find several marjolaine recipes that have different recipes for the cream filling, which means they can’t tell me how much milk I need. Luckily, when I turn to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s excellent cookbook “A Passion for Chocolate,” I find a recipe for pastry cream with nearly the same amount of ingredients (her recipe calls for five egg yolks; mine has eight, but it’s worth a try), and decide to try her measurements. When I combine the beaten egg yolks, sugar and flour with 21/2 cups of hot milk, the cream thickens beautifully without lumps and only minimal whisking. Problem solved.
After that, the egg whites whip up easily for the meringue layers. The chocolate and rum fillings are no trouble. The biggest challenge that remains is making the praline. I follow the recipe carefully, cooking sugar being one of those experiments that has failed as many times as it has worked for me. I put a cup of toasted almonds and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, turn the heat to medium and stir. The sugar transforms itself into tiny pebbles, almost like Styrofoam packing material, before magically dissolving into golden brown liquid caramel. When the almonds begin to make popping sounds, I know it’s done. I pour the caramel onto a greased cookie sheet, wondering if I’m creating a molten disaster, but the praline cools quickly (and loosens easily). Minutes later, I’m pulverizing it to a powder in the food processor and mixing the powder into the remaining pastry cream.
I finally assemble the cake Saturday morning, even though the recipe advises assembling the cake at least a day before you plan to eat it— my life and my cooking can only provide for so much planning.
The cake layers are slightly uneven and the fillings ooze a bit over the sides of the cake, but when Dad sees the cake lit with candles then takes his first bite and swoons, who cares if it doesn’t look as sexy as the Internet girl in plaid? Especially because my marjolaine is heavenly. I nearly gasp as I taste the rich harmony of rum, toasted almond and bittersweet chocolate, with the thin hazelnut meringue layers providing a subtle, nutty background.
Later, as I’m wrapping up pieces in the kitchen to send home with my family, I pause, aluminum foil in hand, and silently thank the 13-year-old me for being so optimistic, so audacious, so open to challenge. I think she’d be proud of the results.