Sarah Bernhardt cakes
As my husband Oddur is Icelandic, I’ve had the pleasure to discover Iceland in all its splendor, especially around Christmas time, when local traditions come to life. I am so enchanted by Icelandic folklore, where fantasy meets reality. Christmas preparations are as important as the festivities themselves. Friends and family gather to bake, create and enjoy anything relating to Christmas. One of my favourites rituals for children is the ‘Shoe in the window‘. On the night before December 12th, Icelandic children put one of their shoes in the window. That’s the night the very first Yule Lad (jólasveinn) called “Stekkjarstaur” comes to town from the mountains. According to Icelandic folklore the thirteen jólasveinar live with their father Leppalúði, their hideous mother Grýla, and the much maligned jólaköttur (Christmas cat). This is the Icelandic version of father Christmas, instead of one, they have thirteen of them. They are much cheekier than Santa Claus! The shoe stays on the window sill until all the Yule Lads (all 13 of them) are in town. Each jólasveinn leaves a little present in the shoe. Only well-behaved children will receive these goodies. The naughty ones get a potato instead. We have pulled the potato trick a few times on our kids, just for fun. You should have seen the look of relief when they found the real goodies tucked away in the shoe!
My mother-in-law Jóhanna and her best friend Hrafnhlidur bake traditional cakes called Sarah Bernhardt every Christmas. Originally a special festive treat from Danmark, it has become a must-bake in most Icelandic homes during the holidays. Legend has it the Danes were so mesmerized by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a cake was created and named after her. There are a few versions, but these almond based meringues covered in a coffee chocolate cream frosting, dipped in dark chocolate, are simply exquisite. Hrafnhildur was kind enough to share her lovely recipe. I just love their crunchiness, to be eaten cold from the freezer. They are exceptionally delicious, I love how you can make so many and store them in the freezer, ready for your guests at any time of the day.
Ingredients: (makes about 40-50, depending on size)
Preheat the oven 180°C/ 350°F
For the meringues:
4 egg whites
230 g (2 and 1/3 cups) icing/ confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
250 g (2 cups) ground almond
In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites (I use a pair of electric whisks) on a high-speed until frothy – try to keep the whisk position as horizontal as possible. Add the sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking. You should add the sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. When the egg whites form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes), gently fold in the ground almonds. With the help of two slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites (you can also use a pastry bag with a large round tip) onto the parchment-lined baking tray. The meringues should be about 4-5 cm large/ 1-1.5 cm high (there are no rules, you can make them any size you want!). I like them ‘macarons’ sized, but they can be smaller if you wish.
Bake for about 10-12 minutes on 180°C/ 350°F. Leave to cool for 8-10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. When cooled store in freezer for 15-20 minutes (on a plate covered with cling film).
For the cream:
300 g (1 and a 1/4 cup) unsalted butter (room temperature)
250 g (2 and 1/2 cup icing) confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
3 egg yolks
3 tbsp instant coffee powder (mixed with 1.5 tbsp hot water to dissolve)
3 tsp cocoa powder
Dissolve the instant coffee with 1.5 tbsp hot water. Set aside to cool. Mix the sifted sugar with the butter. Whisk the egg yolks till light and fluffy, the gradually add in the butter mixture. Pour in the dissolved coffee gently, then add the cocoa powder. Mix well to form a smooth and thick cream/ frosting. Cover with cling film and refrigerate.
300 g/ (2/3 pounds) dark chocolate, melted (for dipping)
Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a heat-proof recipient. Melt over boiling water for a few minutes until chocolate is completely melted. (You can also use the microwave for those who prefer).
Take out the meringues from the freezer and cream from the refrigerator. Spread the cream (about one and a half tsp) over the base of each meringue (see photo). It should look like a small dome. Use the spoon or a palette knife to smooth the surface. Place in a container and return to the freezer for 15 minutes so they can harden.
After 15 minutes of freezing, take out the cream covered meringues (they should be hard by now) and dip each one in the melted chocolate so the cream side is entirely covered. Make sure the chocolate is not too warm. Leave to set.
Line a large tin/ container with parchment paper and place the meringues inside. Cover with paper and close lid tightly. Keep in freezer (they can keep for up to a month). They should be eaten cold and taken out 5 minutes from freezer before serving. Perfect with tea or coffee.
A very interesting article and a wonderful recipe, like always… Thank you for sharing!
Thank you! Mimix
I love your recipes, and also the articles, but this one is exceptionally insightfu:-)
And the pictures are soooo beautiful!! I’m leaning now with a new Canon camera, to improve my food photography skills… It’s so much fun and inspiration to review your pictures.
Thank you so much!!
Thank you so much! My husband is the photographer, I am very lucky to work with him. We make a good team:) I hope you will enjoy this recipe! Happy Christmas! Mimix
I love hearing about the Christmas traditions in other countries! Your blog is wonderful – I’ve bookmarked many of your recipes, but these little cakes just made it to the top of the list. Thank you!
Oh thank you Trish! Enjoy this recipe:) Happy holidays! Mimix
I am for sure going to make these!!
Enjoy! Happy Christmas! Mimix
I adore your beautiful blog with your wonderful recipes and incredible photography and can’t wait to make these delicious looking meringues. As they look quite small, I guess these are a different size to the 5cm x 1.5cm measurement in your recipe?
I would love to read more of your family traditions.
Bonjour Sue! Thanks so much for your lovely comment:) In these photos, the meringues (excluding the cream and chocolate) are about 4-5 cm in width and 1-1.3 cm in height . The ones I have had in Iceland are a tad smaller. However I like them in this size, a bit bigger, more like ‘macarons’. There are no rules really, it’s how you like them that matters most:) Enjoy the recipe! Mimix
The shoe tradition is charming and fun for the children at the same time. I love the potato to “reward” the naughty children.
In Italy, on January the 6th, a sort of witch brings candies for the good children and coal for the naughty ones.
Lovely, lovely shots.
These look scrumptious! I wonder if I’m brave enough to try making them?
i love all those traditions that are so different from mine!
Love love this recipe it is similar to macarons. I can taste them now so delcious
Bonsoir Rowaida! Yes they are very similar. I love the coffee and chocolate flavours, and they taste so crunchy and good straight from the freezer. Perfect party finger food! Happy holidays! Mimix
A lovely post. One question: must you whip the egg whites in a glass bowl?
Could you not use a stand mixer instead? I so look forward to your posts.
These little morsels will be a perfect ending for a small holiday party I am planning–had every thing decided except the dessert! Serendipity, I say.
Bonsoir Jan! I am quite ‘military’ about meringue whipping, so I always whip them in a glass bowl. This technique has never failed me. So I would say, yes, it is better, but you can certainly use a stand mixer.
I am also planning a little Christmas party at home this coming Saturday and I just made 50 cakes tonight. They will be stored in the freezer until then. Hopefully I won’t be stealing them all week! Best, Mimix
I adore reading about your family’s traditions for the holidays and how your traditions come from many different places. I think it’s important to appreciate your culture and the food that represents it!
I so enjoy learning new Christmas traditions. 🙂 My family is from Denmark and there are so many lovely traditions from there that I treasure. Your Iceland one is delightful. 🙂
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Mimi – these cakes look delightful. Of course, the photos are always amazing, and I loved hearing about your holiday traditions. I think these little treats are definitely going to be part of mine.
Oh yes this sounds delicious. And it looks so tasty, too. And thanks for sharing the Icelandic traditions. 🙂
Thank you for this reminder 🙂 I grew up in Sweden and my mom and grandmother used to make these as well…all year around pretty much. Think I will make a batch for Christmas this year. Haven’t had them since I was a kid.
These are beautiful and would be the perfect gift for someone special! Thank you for sharing the recipe!
That dark chocolate coat looks so moorish!!
What an interesting tradition…and thank you for a divine recipe. I shall be making this soon!
These little cakes sound soooo good! I would love to try making them. And what a lovely story about Icelandic Christmas traditions. Happy holidays!