Every Girl's a Princess
Sugar and spice — and marzipan too — that’s what princesses are made of.
By Leslie Bilderback 07/01/2013
When I was in culinary school, all of my chef instructors were European. We all assumed that was because they simply knew more than American chefs. Certainly their training had been different from what we were getting. They were all apprenticed at an early age and had worked their way up through the ranks. (Although the fact that they were all now teaching in America seems to suggest that the apprentice system wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.)
It was San Francisco in the mid-1980s. California cuisine was hugely popular and slowly evolving into a fusiony thing. For whatever reason, the European chefs flocked here. Most of my instructors were from France, with a handful of Scandinavians, a couple of Italians and a German thrown in for good measure. They were all men, and most were either dating or recently married to former students. We called them by their first names, with the prefix “Chef”— Chef Robert, Chef Leo, Chef Didier (there were three Didiers, which made gossiping about which chef was dating which student complicated).
I was lucky enough to win an apprenticeship during my senior term with Bo Friberg (Chef Bo to his students). If you have ever perused the pastry shelf at the bookstore you have probably seen his magnum opus, The Professional Pastry Chef. The first edition was our textbook. It was an inch thick and had 272 pages and a few black-and-white photos. Now in its glossy, full-color fifth edition, it clocks in at five inches and a whopping 1,072 pages. Chef Bo is a master pastry chef and a master confectioner. Before teaching, he was pastry chef on the Swedish American Cruise Lines, a path I later tried to follow, but alas, couldn’t make the cut. It’s just as well, though, because over the years I have heard many unsavory stories about cruise ship jobs — they make Kitchen Confidential sound like Goodnight Moon.
I’ve been thinking about Chef Bo lately because I have recently resurrected one of the cakes we were forced to learn at school: the princess cake. I say “forced,” because, at the time, I had little appreciation for it. (That’s an understatement. I hated that freakin’ cake.)
I am not talking about the skirt-cake with a Barbie doll shoved in the middle. (That cake though, is worth discussing. However, it would take at least another 900 words.) The princess cake I refer to is of Swedish origin (as was Chef Bo) and consists of white sponge cake, whipped cream and berry jam, all covered in a smooth dome of green marzipan. Prinsesstårta, as it is known in Sweden, was named for the Swedish princesses Märtha, Margaretha and Astrid, and was created in their honor at the turn of the 20th century by a Swedish cookbook author. But despite its provenance, I was not a fan. It was the marzipan I objected to, partly because it was green (a weird artificial green that I thought was tacky), and partly because Chef Bo was a little obsessed with it.
Marzipan was a critical element in nearly every cake, torte and confection he made us master. Sometimes it was the main feature, sometimes it was only a very thin layer, but it was in almost everything, and I grew to despise it. Chef Bo was a master at modeling the stuff, which he did fairly often, forming cute little figures of animals, people, elves, gnomes, angels and the occasional fruit. To give you an idea of his level of commitment, the license plate on his car read “MARZIPN.”
But it was the princess cake I really hated. Nobody in Cali-fusion–crazy San Francisco was making them. (Probably no one in the United States was either, except maybe in Minnesota.) Unfortunately, it is for that reason that they were a bestseller at the school bakery, which meant we made them daily. Rolling marzipan was a tough skill to master, which is probably why he made us do it so much. I can appreciate it now, but at the time, I thought it sadistic.
Marzipan was a new ingredient to me then. The sweetened nut paste was originally a Persian food and is still deeply rooted in countries that are or were once part of the Islamic world. While marzipan in Europe is typically almond-flavored, similar products found here and there are made from pistachio, cashew, peanut and even peach kernels. (Stone fruits are in the same botanical family as almonds, and their kernels have long been used for their nutty essence — Amaretto di Sorrano is flavored with apricot kernels, and grenadine is made with cherry kernels.)
Fast-forward 25 years, and there is still no one making princess cakes. And it’s a shame, because there is so much about the princess cake I appreciate now. The cake and filling are fresh and light, unlike the typical cakes you find these days — red velvet, carrot, chocolate with sea salt and maple-infused bacon. (I made that last one up — except I didn’t really.) And I have, over the years, made my peace with marzipan. In fact, I have become enamored with it. I attribute this to my travels, which have exposed me to a number of amazing variations, including painted marzipan fruit in Sicily, chocolate-covered marzipan eggs in Norway, marzipan pigs in Germany and Mozartkugeln in Austria. As it turns out, marzipan has a huge following all over the world, with the exception of the United States, which makes me think Chef Bo was probably a little homesick. Or maybe he was like a sweet pastry pusher, on the payola from the marzipan syndicate, trying to get us hooked. Well, Chef, it took 25 years, but it worked.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena. She teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com