Monday, 21 November 2011


I’ve been meaning to make marjolaine for ages, ever since I first noticed it in David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert. Marjolaine is famously elaborate and fiddly, but with the dearth of baking lately I was due for a challenge.  And I got one.

I lacked the size of baking tray called for in David’s recipe, or the oven to fit such a tray, so turned to the internet to find a workaround and found there widely varied methods, most of all in whether the compulsory three flavours of filling were based on crème fraîche or a pastry cream.

I found an article waxing lyrical about a Patricia Wells recipe from the ’80s, which had a lot in common with David’s but used a meringue quantity for two trays almost as small as mine, so I combined the best of both worlds – going as far as a half-crème fraîche, half-pastry cream approach (a mistake – the pastry cream layers remained creamy, while the crème fraîche layer solidified, too stark a contrast). And Patricia called for rum, but I stuck with David’s brandy.

The various elements can be prepared ahead of time – indeed must be. A weekend wasn’t quite enough – I had to shortchange the maturation of the crème fraîche by quite a lot, which may be why it had a grainy texture that didn’t quite disappear when the 420g of chocolate was incorporated into it.

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s Ready for Dessert and Patricia Wells’ ‘Marjolaine Multilayered Chocolate Cake

75g hazelnuts
75g almonds
10 egg whites at room temperature
3/4 cup caster sugar
1 tablespoon cornflour

Preheat oven to 150 degrees. Spread nuts on baking tray and roast 5–10 minutes, until fragrant. Cool, rub hazelnuts in a tea-towel to flake off skins, then blitz to medium-fine powder in food processor.

Heavily butter two 10x14" baking trays and line with baking paper. (As I only had one tray, and an oven that treats its lower shelf very differently to its upper, I divided all the ingredients in half and made the meringues in two batches.)

Beat egg whites, adding sugar gradually, just until stiff. Fold in cornflour and ground nuts. Divide mixture in half, spreading evenly on baking trays. Bake for 20 minutes in a 150C oven, or until just beginning to brown. Mine were in for 40 minutes, and still hopelessly undercooked at that. Remove from oven, turn onto rack, paper side up. Cover with damp tea-towel for several minutes, then carefully remove paper while still warm. 

Cut meringue in half lengthwise.

Accept that they’re not going to dry out or stop weeping caramel beads on cooling, perhaps due to the conditions of 100% humidity at the time, and replace them in the oven at 150C for another half hour to crisp up.

Crème fraîche
1 cup sour cream
1 cup pure cream
Pour sour cream into bowl and stir in cream until smoothly blended. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours. Stir again and refrigerate overnight before using.

Chocolate cream
2 cups crème fraîche, bought, or prepared earlier as above
420g bittersweet chocolate

Bring crème fraîche to a boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate, bit by bit, stirring until well incorporated. Set aside until cool and thickened. For assembly, it’ll need to be thick but spreadable. This can be made as much as 3 days in advance and refrigerated – warm slightly over a sink of hot tap water for a minute and bash with the fork to return it to a useable consistency.

Pastry cream
8 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour (I used cornflour)
2 1/2 cups milk
280g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Beat egg yolks with sugar until thick and light. Incorporate flour. Bring milk just to boil in a large saucepan (not one only big enough for the milk or you’ll run into difficulties when it comes to add the egg mixture to it – it was late at night for me, and I found this out the hard way). Whisk half the hot milk into the egg mixture, then pour this egg and milk mixture back into remaining hot milk. Whisk over medium heat until thickening and bubbling. Let boil lightly for 2 minutes, whisking constantly until thickened and your arm is almost falling off.

While the mixture cools, beat chopped butter until creamy and spreadable. When the egg mixture is completely cool, add it to the butter and beat thoroughly until incorporated. This pastry cream can also be made days in advance and refrigerated, if you’re organised and have plenty of time on your hands midweek.

Praline powder
1 cup whole, unblanched almonds
1 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 150 degrees. Spread almonds on baking sheet and roast 5 to 10 minutes, until fragrant and lightly browned. Cool.

In a heavy-bottomed pan, combine nuts and sugar and heat gently, stirring constantly, until sugar starts to melt. Stir constantly, until mixture turns dark brown and syrupy and the almonds make a popping sound. The whole process should take about 5 minutes.

Pour mixture onto a silicon sheet and cool. 

Break into pieces and blend to a fine powder in a food processor. This praline can be made as far in advance as you like. It’s by no means a terrible idea to do a double quantity to keep on hand for sprinkling over ice-cream.

When ready to assemble the marjolaine (which should be at least 1 day before serving), divide the pastry cream into two equal parts.

Brandy cream
Blend one half of the pastry cream with 1 tablespoon vanilla extract and 3 tablespoons brandy, and chill.

Praline cream
Blend the remaining half of the pastry cream with the praline powder (it seemed a lot to me, so I kept some back to cover the sides with), and chill.

Final assembly
With the chocolate cream and pastry cream on hand and chilled but spreadable, place 1 layer of meringue on whatever you can find to fit it, surrounded by some strips of baking paper to protect the plate from drips (drips! – ha!). Spread half of the chocolate cream on cake – I did a bit less, cleverly intending to use the extra for coating the sides as well as top later on. Keep it nice and even, paying especial attention to the corners so it doesn’t become rounded as the levels progress upwards. (I was so full of fine, worthy intentions at this point, so heartbreakingly innocent and naïve.) Refrigerate for 15 minutes to firm it up.

Cover chocolate cream with second meringue layer, lining it up carefully with the first. Spread with all of the brandy cream. Refrigerate 15 minutes. This is where things began to come unstuck for me.

Scrape the excess brandy layer back up where it belongs as best you can, then top that layer with the third meringue layer, and spread all the praline cream over it, reasoning that it was merely the brandy content that caused a teensy bit of instability and that all would come up Millhouse (I think this is correct use of one of the The Quiltmaker’s more obscure sayings) in the chilling.

Not so. I’ve neglected to take a spirit level to the fridge shelf, but clearly it has the slightest lean that caused the entire praline layer and its supporting meringue to slide off and one side come to rest on the fridge shelf at a steep angle. Gravity dictated that the praline gently pooled in the margin of the serving plate and thence made its gooey, sticky way over the whole shelf. I suppose I should be grateful it’s a solid shelf, not one constructed along the lines of a cake rack.

At this point the chef (yes, it needs to be third person; plus, the reader may keep his or her quibbles about tense and mode shifts herein to him or herself. Thank you) goes into survival mode and throws any desperate remedy into the situation that can be found, thinking all the while of the ten eggs and half kilo each of chocolate and cream and the birthday to be celebrated the following day. Head and shoulders in the fridge, and in need of a spare set of hands strictly of one’s own and no one else’s, the chef manoeuvres the softening, reluctant meringue back roughly where it should be, and then hauls the whole mess out of the fridge, leaving an unspeakable chaos of sticky jars to be dealt with later.
A lot of the praline can be piled back up – no thought of evenness now – but meanwhile the brandy cream is oozing out the other side! and must be scraped back up with an icing spatula! To the accompaniment of a thousand screeching violins a la Psycho, the third meringue layer is dumped on the top with more haste than accuracy, and bamboo skewers rammed through the whole disaster to secure the layers. It was all like a particularly fraught episode of Grand Designs.

Finally, working around the skewers with the icing spatula rather than sweeping it from one end to the other, the top of the meringue is spread with remaining chocolate cream. The sides are bound in the turned-up remnants of the baking-paper plate shields and then bandaged mummylike in GladWrap to keep in what remains of their filling.  And into the freezer with it all for the rest of the day.

At this point, the chef collapses on the couch with a giant bag of chips and a beer, eventually recovering enough to thickly apply the rest of the chocolate all over it, which thankfully sets like so much cement. And because it was less sleek than intended, the leftover praline was patted on the sides.
 And bandaged again, and chilled again, until no more than five minutes before its cutting-open.

Breath was bated, but the pastry cream didn't pour out and all over the table. It was no last word in French elegance, though.
Here's what it should've been.
Here's what it was.

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