Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Massacring the Art of French Cooking: Reine de Saba

Today is my birthday, the big two-six. Now I tell you that not to solicit your happy birthdays (although you're welcome to leave your best birthday songs in the comments, if you like), but as an explanation for why we baked a cake.

Some friends invited us over for dinner Monday night, so we decided to turn it into an early birthday celebration and offered to make dessert. So we needed to bake a cake and, since it was going to be my birthday, not just any cake--the great Reine de Saba, or Queen of Sheba, a chocolate and almond masterpiece rumored to be Julia Child's favorite cake.

We first encountered the mighty Queen when we rented JULIE AND JULIA several weeks ago. My husband and I are closet foodies, so JULIE AND JULIA sounded interesting to us both. (Yeah, my husband's pretty cool like that.) By the end of the movie, all we had to do was take one look at each other, and we knew: We needed a copy of MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING.

Now French cuisine is to the culinary world what Shakespeare is to the literary one: that aged sage who seems more myth than truth, whose works are thick and incomparable and define the entire discipline. So the Queen of Sheba is more than just a cake; it's an aspiration, a distant mountain peak, a legend.

We made sure we had all the right ingredients and equipment. We made a special trip to procure the things we lacked. And then we started baking. My husband separated his first eggs (six of them, no less--the Queen doesn't trifle with silly things like baking powder). I beat my first egg whites (until soft peaks started to form, then added a tablespoon of sugar and kept beating, until there was nothing soft about them). We folded everything together. And then we eased our cake rounds into the oven and set the timer for twenty-two minutes (three less than Julia called for, just in case our oven wasn't properly French).

Twenty-two minutes later, when I inserted my fork exactly three inches from the edge (should have been a needle, but I figured a tine was good enough), it came out a little dirty. Three more minutes on the timer, then another fork into the cake. This one came out clean. Which meant it was time for the final test: the jiggle.

According to Julia, the center of the cake should "move slightly" when jiggled. The whole point of the Queen is to leave her slightly underdone so as to preserve her creamy texture.

So we jiggled. And got nothing.

There was nothing we could do about it by then, of course, so that was exactly what we did. We iced her as if nothing unusual had happened (in nearly half a pound of butter mixed with four squares of baker's chocolate), we pressed a few leftover slivered almonds into her sides, we took her to our friends' place. And when it was time for dessert and I sampled the first bite, I knew: We'd ruined her. The Queen of Sheba was as dry as a slab of day-old bread. Chocolate and almond day-old bread, but day-old bread, nonetheless.

What makes this an even greater tragedy is the fact that we're on a no-dessert diet for the next month and a half. Our health insurance company does these wellness challenges, and for each one you complete, you get a partial refund on your premiums. So the first wellness challenge is to not eat or drink any desserts, treats, or soda for two months. Two whole months. You do get a few free days, so you've got to make the most of them. And we wasted one of ours on the over-baked Queen.

Still, we will not be defeated. We refuse to be bested by the French. So we're planning to crack that cookbook again in about a week and give another recipe a try. If our next attempt is a success, I'm sure you'll hear about it. And if our next attempt is as, uh, massacre-ful as this last one, I'm sure you'll hear about that, too:)


Emma Michaels said...

Looking forward to seeing what you try next! Great post even if the Cake wasn't as perfect as you wanted and happy birthday whether you asked for it or not! :P


Myrna Foster said...

Happy Birthday! And condolences for the poor cake. It was probably done the first time you pulled it out. Cheesecakes aren't supposed to be done in the middle when you pull them out either. Your insurance company sounds evil.

This is kind of funny because when I dropped off your book, Ben asked how old you were. I'm bad with ages, so I said, "younger than I am." He tried to hem me in with specifics, so I said you were probably at least five years younger. I turned 33 last month, so I was right.

Charity Bradford said...

Happy Birthday! Sorry about the cake. I love to bake and cook as well, but have stubbornly avoided the whole French thing. My family is so picky I've given up fancy fixin's.

A year or two ago I picked up the book Julie and Julia and started a food blog of my own:
and a blog for my cake decorating:

There is a delicious chocolate cake link to NieNie's Cake on my blog. Mine always falls in the middle, but it still tastes good. I haven't figured out how to fix the fall yet though.

Krista G. said...

Thanks for your happy birthdays, all. And Myrna, I think you should be that woman who guesses people's ages at carnivals:) Clark County's fairgrounds are right there, you know...

Charity, your cakes look AMAZING. I was checking out your blog when your snickerdoodle cake was at the top - we're definitely going to have to try that one (when we're not doing this blasted challenge, that is). And your Mardi Gras cake (for your sister's wedding, I think) was beautiful.