Prinsesses and Tarts – more thoughts on European cakes

The Prinsesstarta which featured in last week’s European themed British Bake Off is just one of hundreds of Continental cakes whose appearance is as important as their taste. But as we saw from the contestants’ efforts, it’s hard to achieve this sort of beauty. The Prinsesstarta (which is not a commonly known cake in the UK – no doubt why those wily foxes Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood chose it for their challenge) not only has to look pristine, but it’s also quite a complicated cake under the smooth green icing. Mary Berry’s recipe directs the baker to make a vanilla custard, a sponge cake, jam, marzipan and a fondant flower. And even if you buy most of those things ready made, you’re still topping a cake with custard, jam and a custardy whipped cream, then more cake and fillings, and a third cake, shaping a dome from cream, covering it all with a pristine layer of fondant icing, and putting some nice chocolate decoration on the top. As I said before, I’m sort of tempted to give it a try, but only when I have a whole afternoon to spare and not particularly critical testers in the wings.

Mary Berry’s Prinsesstarta (www.bbc/food/recipes)

We may not be familiar with this cake in the UK, but in Sweden it’s extremely popular, especially with royalty which is where it apparently gets its name. According to swedishfood.com, it was invented by the woman who instructed the princesses Margaretha, Märtha, and Astrid in home economics in the 1920s, although the first recipe she published for it was simply called ‘Green Cake’. Now it’s brought out on every special occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, even apparently Father’s Day (without the flower – I wonder what replaces it…?) Like our Battenburg cake, it’s appearance bespeaks a small piece of tradition (and actually its appearance is not dissimilar, with all that smooth, coloured fondant wrapping).

P1010599I have to admit that when I bake I’m principally concerned with the taste and the sense of family, celebration or comfort which the cake conveys. I’m not really one for spending ages on finessing the way it looks. But I did have a go at something a little showier a few weeks ago: a fruit custard tart (a little) like the ones you get in French patisseries. I made it to take to a friend’s house for lunch, which is exactly the sort of occasion you would frequent the patisserie. In fact, you would likely go there to buy dessert for your own guests too: in France and Belgium, purchasing someone else’s skill is seen as more befitting hospitality than making your own. It turned out fine and I was pretty pleased – I might even have a go at one of those towering, fruit glazed versions another time (I used Eric Lanlard’s recipe from Home Bake). But I’m quite intrigued about where the division lies between shop bought and home-crafted beauty. Do Swedes make their own Prinsesstartas or do they buy them? Is making your own fruit tart a sign of skill, or a presumption? You know, I may just need a research trip to Europe to sort all this out…

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