Chelsey White, founder of Chelsweets and finance manager of consumer products at L’Oreal SA, decorates a cake at her apartment in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Caitlin Ochs/Bloomberg)

The Perfect Swedish Cake—and How to Make It

(Bloomberg) -- Four grains are generally used in Nordic baking: wheat, rye, barley and oats. But walk into a Swedish supermarket and you may find 150 types of soft bread, more than 50 varieties of crispbread and as many as 20 different flatbreads.

If that doesn’t sound enough, imagine traveling across the entire Nordic region in search of the best breads, pastries, cakes, cookies and other treats: From Icelandic Happy Marriage Cakes to  Finnish potato chocolate balls; from Danish marzipan Napoleon hats to Mother Monsen’s cake, a Christmas staple in Norway.

The Perfect Swedish Cake—and How to Make It

That’s the culinary journey chef Magnus Nilsson undertook to write The Nordic Baking Book. He started out from his Fäviken restaurant in central Sweden and traveled throughout Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Norway, exploring all aspects of home baking and collecting more than 450 recipes along the way.

And after all that, he decided that one of the very best was back home in Sweden. It’s called Prinsesstårta, a green marzipan layer cake first documented in the 1948 Swedish cookbook Prinsessornas Kokbok (the Princesses’ Cookbook).

“The princess cake, which is incidentally also my favorite birthday cake, is one of the most iconic Swedish cakes,” Nilsson said in an interview. “It just doesn’t exist in any of the other Scandinavian countries. It is very typical like for the period of time when it was invented, which was like the early mid-20th century, when sugar became very cheap and where imported things like almonds also became much cheaper than before and therefore available on a broader front for more people.

“So we have this wave of pastries, predominantly sweet pastries, that were invented from the mid -1920s until 1960 roughly that dominate the sweet pastry culture, especially in Sweden today. Before then, I don’t think that people actually made the kind of layer cakes that we see in Scandinavia today. It was just too expensive when you had to import sugar from the West Indies, for example. And when you had to buy almonds essentially by the piece, you bought it from Spain.”

Baked goods are particularly important in Sweden, which has a tradition of between-meal snacks called fika.

The Perfect Swedish Cake—and How to Make It

“It is a specifically Swedish thing that has been hijacked culturally by a lot of other countries,” Nilsson said. “It originates in the agrarian times before industrialization. Because of the climate you had to work very, very long days during summer to produce an excess of food to store for the winter and you had to have frequent food breaks during the day. It wasn’t enough for just breakfast lunch and dinner because when you were doing a 16-hour day in the fields, and that's where fika originated.”

Prinsesstårta traditionally consisted of three layers of light sponge sandwiched with thick layers of cream, topped with a green marzipan dome. These days, you’re likely to find chefs sneaking in a layer of raspberry jam. Nilsson likes this innovation and also favors a heavier cake than the original “airy, dry ‘styroform’” sponge.

If you have a birthday coming up, or just fancy a fika, here’s Nilsson’s recipe for the perfect Prinsesstårta.

Prinsesstårta (Sweden)

Preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Makes: 8 pieces

For the Sponge:
250 g/9 oz (21/4 sticks) butter, plus extra to grease
breadcrumbs, to coat
100 ml/3. fl oz (1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon) milk
4 eggs
350 g /12 oz (1. cups) sugar
320 g /11. oz (22/3 cups) weak (soft)
wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons Vanilla Sugar (page 536) and/or zest of 1 lemon (optional)

For the Vanilla Custard:
250 ml/8 fl oz (1 cup) milk
250 ml/8 fl oz (1 cup) cream
1 very good-quality vanilla bean, fat, soft and fragrant, split in half and seeds scraped out
6 egg yolks
85 g/3 oz (⅓ cup plus 11/2 tablespoons) sugar
7.6 g/0.28 oz gelatine
2 tablespoons sugar
400 ml /14 fl oz (12/3 cups) cream

Other ingredients:
Good quality purchased raspberry jam (optional, but not quite traditional)
350 g /12 oz green marzipan
Icing (confectioners’) sugar, for dusting
1 pink marzipan rose, to decorate (optional)

Preheat the oven to 175.C/345.F/Gas Mark 4. Butter a 24-cm/9-inch cake pan and coat with breadcrumbs. Combine the butter and milk in a small pan and heat until melted. Leave to cool to room temperature. Whisk the eggs with the sugar in a bowl until light and fluffy. Add the butter and milk mixture and mix in thoroughly. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl, adding the dry flavorings, if using, and whisk in gently. Add lemon zest or juice last.

Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan, smooth the surface and bake for about 40 minutes, or until cooked through. If you like crisp edges, then unmould the cake onto a wire rack and leave it to cool completely.

For soft edges, leave the cake in the pan to cool.

Pour the milk and cream into a pot and place over a medium heat with the vanilla bean and scraped out seeds and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy. Remove the milk from the heat and add one quarter of the warm milk to the eggs and sugar mix while beating vigorously. This is called tempering and helps prevent the eggs from curdling when you add them to the hot milk by evening out the temperatures a little.

Pour the egg mixture (now containing a quarter of the total milk) back into the pot containing the rest of the milk, while stirring. Return to a low heat, stirring constantly with a large spoon. You can see when the vanilla sauce is beginning to be ready as it will start to thicken. While it is still hot, add the gelatine, then leave it to cool.

Meanwhile, add the sugar to the cream in a bowl and whip it to soft peaks.

Once the vanilla pastry cream has cooled and thickened, whisk briskly to loosen it up a bit, then gently, but thoroughly, fold in the whipped cream. It should be smooth, velvety and thick.

Slice the cake into 3 horizontal layers with a long serrated knife. Spread either a layer of jam or a quarter of the vanilla pastry cream onto the bottom layer. Place another layer of cake on top and spread on another quarter of the vanilla cream. Finish with the third layer of cake and use the remaining vanilla cream to coat the sides and create a perfectly smooth dome on top of the cake. This cream dome should be almost shamefully thick.

Roll out the green marzipan thinly so that it is large enough to more than cover the cake. Lift it on carefully and use your hands to stretch and smooth it over the dome and down the sides, trying to avoid creases. Trim the bottom edge of any excess marzipan with a sharp knife. Just before serving, dust the surface with some icing (confectioners’) sugar and decorate with the pink marzipan rose, if using.

The Nordic Baking Book by Magnus Nilsson is published by Phaidon at £29.95 and $49.95 

Richard Vines is the chief food critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and Instagram @richard.vines.

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