While Italian food will always hold a special place in my heart, when it comes to desserts I have to admit it’s the French who really know what they’re talking about. Their puds are good. Too good, perhaps. Elegant, flawless and invariably involving multiple stages, these incredible feats of confection can often feel beyond the realm of your average home baker, appearing more frequently in the pages of a restaurant menu or the window of your local patisserie than on a private kitchen table. Recipes requiring rounds of piping bags, pints of cream and the patience of a saint aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, and a fancy French gâteau can be altogether far flightier than a dependable British pud.
That said, sometimes you need to take a leap of faith. It’s easy to stay in your kitchen comfort zone and shy away from anything that sounds too tricky, but where’s the fun in that?
This Friday just gone, one of my friends asked me to bring the dessert when we came round for dinner. (Ok, so I asked if I could bring the dessert, but she had a busy week, she loves it when I bake and I love to bake, so there wasn’t a lot of point in beating around the bush . . .). Flicking through my recipe books I found myself returning more than once to a two page spread in one of David Lebovitz’s books entitled simply ‘Marjolaine’. Having never heard of it, and with nothing to guide me (the page has no picture) except David’s rapturous description, I decided to investigate a little further.
Google the word on its own and your search will return a random mixture of lingerie, recipes and women with not very many clothes on. Add in the word ‘recipe’ and you’re back on a better track. A combination of articles, interviews and a forum for chefs eventually led me back to the man who invented the marjolaine, ‘father of modern French cuisine’, Fernand Point. The result of ‘years of experimentation’, this many-layered, multi-stage magnificence was his signature dessert, a triumph in taste and appearance and as close to perfection as possible (which for a French chef probably means perfection itself).
You might think that this, along with the fact that the instructions cover a double page spread and that I had to make it during the working week, might put me off. But seeing that the recipe could be made in stages, I decided to ignore all advice that this is a true labour of love and got stuck in, ticking off different elements as the week went on. On Tuesday I toasted my nuts and made the praline, on Wednesday I baked my meringues, on Thursday I assembled it all and on Friday I slicked over the final coating of smooth chocolate ganache before jumping in a cab round to my friend’s house. Each element involved less than twenty minutes preparation, and although it could be a little intense if you made the whole thing in one day, there’s really nothing that complicated about this recipe.
As for the result? Good things definitely come to those who wait; the marriage of taste and textures in a marjolaine is simply divine. Resting the assembled dessert in the fridge overnight allows the flavours to develop and the ingredients to work with each other, creating a mouthful that moves from chewy meringue with slightly softening edges through smooth whipped cream, crunchy caramel-like praline, toasted nuts, glossy, slightly tart ganache and waves of aromatic vanilla and sweet nutty liqueur.
I adapted David’s recipe to make it my own, flavouring half the meringue with chocolate, omitting some of the toasted hazelnuts and including a splash of Frangelico liqueur. In fact this dessert is infinitely adaptable, as shown by the numerous students of Point’s who have created their own interpretations. My understanding is that the four layers, rectangular shape, praline cream and some sort of ganache or buttercream are what make the dish a marjolaine, but you could replace the meringue with a very light sponge, stir coffee through your cream, add different types of nuts or a splash of stronger liqueur. It’s also fairly forgiving in terms of presentation as the whole thing is iced, meaning you can cover any cracks or flaws.
When you look at the list of ingredients below, and read through the various stages, you might be tempted to overlook this French fancy for something simpler, quicker and more instantly rewarding. Please don’t. I promise that once you’ve made – and tasted – a marjolaine, things will never be quite the same again.
Marjolaine (adapted from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz)
For the meringues
8 large free range egg whites
1 tbsp corn flour
75g hazelnuts, toasted, de-skinned & very finely chopped
1 tbsp cocoa powder
Grease and line two non stick baking trays. Preheat the oven 180 degrees C.
Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Combine the sugar, corn flour and salt. Increase the speed on your mixer and add the cornflour and sugar mixture one spoon at a time until stiff peaks form. Divide the batter into two bowls. Sprinkle the chopped hazelnuts into one bowl and the cocoa into another then fold both gently to combine.
Spread the hazelnut mixture onto one tray to form a rectangle approx. 30cm long and 22cm wide. Do the same with your cocoa meringue on the second tray. Bake for 20-25 minutes until light golden brown then leave to cool completely. You can store these in cling film for up to 3 days.
For the praline
100g golden caster sugar
65g almonds, toasted and chopped
Line a baking tray with a silicone baking mat. Spread the sugar on the bottom of a heavy bottomed saucepan and cook over a medium heat until it begins to melt around the edges. Drag the melting sugar into the centre of the pan with a heatproof spatula then stir gently until all the sugar is melted. Cook until the liquid is a deep amber colour, then remove from the heat and stir in the chopped almonds.
Pour the praline in an even layer over your baking mat and leave to cool and harden. Once completely cool, blitz in a blender to a coarse powder. The praline will keep for up to a week if you want to make it in advance.
For the chocolate ganache
180g crème fraîche
280g good quality dark chocolate, finely chopped
Warm the crème fraîche in a small saucepan until it just begins to boil. Remove from the heat and add your chopped chocolate. Leave for a minute or so, then stir the mixture completely til smooth. It’s important to chop the chocolate nice and fine and to have the crème fraîche nice and hot or the ganache could split. Set aside to cool.
For the praline & vanilla creams
180g crème fraîche
60ml double cream
30g golden caster sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
One quantity praline, as above
1tbsp Frangelico or other liqueur
In a stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment, whip the crème fraîche, cream, sugar and vanilla on medium speed until glossy, stiff but still shiny. You don’t want to overbeat.
Weigh 180g of your cream mixture into a bowl and stir through your blitzed praline. Set aside.
For the vanilla cream, add the Frangelico to your remaining crème fraîche and cream mixture and stir to combine. Set aside.
To assemble the marjolaine
Slice both your meringues in half lengthways so you have four rectangles of approx. 30cm long by 11cm wide.
Cover a tray with cling film and place one hazelnut meringue on top. Spread 180ml of the chocolate ganache onto the meringue, then top with a chocolate meringue. Put the remaining chocolate ganache in the fridge for the next day. Spread over all the vanilla cream then top with a hazelnut meringue. Spread over all the praline cream then top with the last chocolate meringue. Wrap the cling film round the whole thing nice and tight and pop in the fridge overnight to set.
The next day get your ganache out the fridge and warm slightly until it has a spreadable consistency. Remove the marjolaine from the fridge, take it out of its cling film wrapping and place on the plate or board you want to serve it on. Spread the top and sides with your ganache then return to the fridge to set.
The marjolaine is best served at room temperature. To get the neatest slices possible, use a serrated knife, running the blade under hot water between each slice for a super smooth finish.
Enjoy on its own, or with a small scoop of vanilla or coffee ice cream.