On my first trip to Sweden in 1998 I fell in love with prinsesstårta (PRIN-sess-TOHR-tuh). The spongy layers of cake alternating with jam, vanilla custard and whipped cream topped with a thin layer of bright green marzipan had me hooked from the first bite. But it wasn’t until recently that I really started to wonder about this cake and it’s origins. Is it Swedish? Why is it called princess cake? Why is it typically green and how is it made?
So the search began for more information on prinsesstårta. Jenny Åkerström is credited as the originator of the recipe. Åkerström was a Swedish home economics guru at the beginning of the 20th century and was even an instructor to the three Swedish princesses, Margaretha, Märtha, and Astrid, daughters of Prince Carl (brother of King Gustaf V). She published a four volume series of cookbooks called Prinsessornas Kokbok: Husmanskost och Helgdagsmat (Princesses Cookbook: Home Cooking and Holiday Food). The first edition came out in 1929 with the princess’ portraits gracing the cover. With it’s great success came eighteen reprints with revisions up through 1952.
I wasn’t able to find any definitive information about why the books were called the princess cookbooks or why the princesses agreed to have their images on the cover other than the fact that Jenny Åkerström was their teacher and the princesses were seen as role models. Their education included child care and cooking which was innovative at the time. In a feminist sense, formal domestic training highlighted the professionalism required to manage a home and children. Perhaps ‘domestic princess’ is the pre-cursor to today’s elevated ‘domestic goddess’ status.
- Princess Astrid who married Crown Prince Leopold and became the queen of Belgium. She tragically died in a car accident at age 29.
Being a preservation gal at heart, I couldn’t resist going online and finding a first edition of the Prinsessornas Kokbok. I am now the proud owner of a lovely, vintage set of the cookbooks and can definitively report that the original edition does not have a recipe for a cake anything like the prinsesstårta that is so popular today. So I enlisted the help of hembakningsrådet (the Swedish home baking council) who had access to several editions of the Prinsessornas Kokboks. The recipe doesn’t appear in the 1937, 1945, or 1952 editions, but there IS a recipe for Grön Tårta (green cake) in the 1948 edition and hembakningsrådet confirmed it is the prinsesstårta recipe as we know it today. For whatever reason the recipe was dropped from the 1952 edition, but the name Grön Tårta explains the green color.
As far as the name of prinsesstårta, it’s certainly more appealing than “green cake.” The official Swedish baker’s association (Sveriges bagare och konditorier) states that the cake obtained the name prinsesstårta because the princesses loved the cake so much. And they weren’t alone. It quickly became popular in Sweden and Finland. Every year around 500,000 prinsesstårtas are sold in Sweden. The third week in September is officially prinsesstårta week. For every prinsesstårta purchased in Sweden during this period 10sek ($1.50) is donated to Crown Princess Victoria’s Fund that benefits chronically ill and disabled children and adolescents in Sweden. Prinsesstårtas that are topped with a gold crown are part of the fund-raising effort.
Aside from all of the historical background, I was curious how prinsesstårta is made. The dome of cream is certainly impressive and I wondered how it was accomplished. In searching the internet I found a variety of recipes and methods. Some of the recipes had odd ingredients from buttercream to soaking syrups and some of the methods were as complicated as laying strips of cake into a bowl, adding the various layers and then inverting everything. That just seemed waaaay too complicated. So I headed to my fabulous local bakery, Conditori Tessina (the same place that makes my favorite rye bread), where the long-time owners Bosse and Ulla Fehrm graciously let me pop in at 5:30am one morning to see how they assemble a prinsesstårta. Ulf was the kindhearted baker who let me stand over his shoulder while he whipped up three of the cakes.
First of all, a sponge cake is sliced into three even layers. I have got to get one of these handy saws. The cake is built up out of several layers. There are often slight variations among bakeries. At Conditori Tessina they start with the sponge cake, then a layer of raspberry jam, vanilla custard, another layer of sponge cake, more vanilla custard, and a generous mound of stiffly whipped cream over which the final layer of sponge cake is loosely pressed into a dome.
After applying a very thin coating of whipped cream it’s time for the marzipan. The traditional color is green but you can find all sorts of variations such as the blue in the photos. Pink is quite common. For Halloween I’ve seen orange, red at Christmas, and yellow at Easter. The trick is to get the marzipan in an even, thin layer. They have a mechanized roller to get it perfect at the bakery. I don’t know if a pasta machine would work well for a home cook otherwise you would need some splendid hand-rolling capabilities. After laying the marzipan over the cake it is shaped by hand and trimmed around the base. The final touches are a dusting of powdered sugar and a pink marzipan rose with leaves. It took Ulf about 10 minutes to assemble these three cakes but he’s been doing it for 20 years so cut yourself some slack if you are giving this a try at home.
My brief peek into the back-of-house at a bakery was a real treat. I nearly skipped home with the birds singing brightly at 6am. Not only was Prinsesstårta demystified, but I smelled like powdered sugar the rest of the day which was much better than the enchilada smell I used to carry around from my first job as a waitress at El Sol Mexican Restaurant (an ironically windowless establishment).
It must be said that not all prinsesstårtas are created equal. Of course I am partial to Conditori Tessina but my father-in-law, who is a great lover of Prinsesstårta, confirmed that the one I shared with him from Conditori Tessina was certainly one of the best he has tasted. So there you have it. A biased, and an unbiased opinion of the excellence at Conditori Tessina. Many thanks to them for sharing their skills. Perhaps together we have demystified prinsesstårta and helped to provide a guide for those of you in the far reaches of the internet world who wish to undertake making a prinsesstårta at home. If you are so inclined, best of luck to you in your endeavor. As for me, I’m feeling pretty lucky to be in the Conditori Tessina neighborhood.
Prinsesstårta (adapted from Vår kok bok)
For the sponge cake:
1 cup (225g) sugar
1/2 cup (62g) flour
1/2 cup (80g) potato starch flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
For the vanilla custard:
1 cup (240ml) heavy cream
4 egg yolks
3 tablespoons potato starch flour or 2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla sugar or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the assembly:
2 cups (480ml) heavy cream, whipped
10 ounces (300g) marzipan
green and yellow food coloring
powdered sugar for dusting
purchased marzipan rose and leaves for garnish or extra marzipan and red food coloring to make your own rose and leaves
Make the cake
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Thoroughly butter a 9″ x 2″ (2 liter) round baking pan. Toss in enough breadcrumbs to cover the bottom and sides of the pan and shake them around to ensure all surfaces are covered (the same as you would typically do with flour when baking a cake, you are just using breadcrumbs instead).
2. Place the eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat on high speed until light colored and fluffy.
3. Blend the flour and baking powder together and carefully fold them into the egg and sugar mixture until thoroughly blended. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and bake in the lower portion of the oven for about 40 minutes or until golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake cool slightly in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.
Make the vanilla custard
Place the cream, egg yolks, potato flour, and sugar in a small saucepan and whisk together (do not use a steel whisk as it can turn the custard grayish). Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. If cooking the custard with potato starch flour you need to use the custard shortly after you make it. If using corn starch the custard can be prepared a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
Prepare the marzipan
Knead the marzipan with your hands to soften it up and add the green and yellow food coloring sparingly until you have achieved a bright, spring green. Flatten the marzipan into a disk. Place it between two pieces of parchment paper or on a smooth surface dusted with powdered sugar and roll it into a thin, even circle ideally about 1/32″ (just under 2mm) thick but do the best you can to thin it out. Keep in mind the circle has to be large enough to cover the entire cake. You can dust the marzipan and work surface with powdered sugar if need be to prevent sticking.
Assemble the prinsesstårta (It’s helpful to refer to the pictures above)
Once the sponge cake has cooled completely, slice it into three layers keeping the top layer a bit thinner than the others. Start to assemble the prinsesstårta by spreading a thin layer of jam onto the bottom layer of the sponge cake. Add a generous layer of vanilla custard by either piping or spreading it over the jam. Add the next layer of sponge cake and another generous layer of vanilla custard. Whip the 2 cups (480ml) of heavy cream until stiff and pile a generous, fluffy mound onto the last custard layer. Add the final layer of sponge cake and gently form it into a dome shape over the cream being careful not to squish too much cream out of the sides. Spread a thin layer of cream over the top to even out and seal the surface. Gently lay the thin marzipan sheet over the top of the cake and use your hands to help define the shape. Trim the excess marzipan from the bottom of the cake by using a pizza or pastry wheel or a very sharp knife. Dust the top with sifted powdered sugar (you can use a tea strainer) and garnish with a pink marzipan rose with leaves. The cake needs to be refrigerated until serving time and any leftovers need to be refrigerated as well. Ideally the cake should be eaten the day it is made.