Reine de Saba is a buttercream-frosted chocolate cake. / Flickr photo courtesy of SweetOnVeg
Reine de Saba is a buttercream-frosted chocolate cake. / Flickr photo courtesy of SweetOnVeg

By Carol Guensberg, JAWS member

Millions of Americans have cooked with Julia Child, guided by her groundbreaking cookbooks and TV show; that was the premise of fledgling cook Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia” blog and the 2009 film it inspired. But only a fraction cooked with the late culinary icon in the flesh, an experience akin “to fielding for Hank Aaron or scatting with Ella Fitzgerald.”

That’s how I described my own brief, exhilarating turn in the kitchen with Child, in a 1993 Milwaukee Journal article. I was the newspaper’s food editor then, and Child, 80 or so, was still gamely promoting the understanding and enjoyment of good food, French and otherwise. She’d come to town at the invitation of the American Institute of Food and Wine’s local chapter and had agreed to preside over a cooking demonstration for 120. Child’s physique no longer was as robust as her spirit, so “the French chef” was to provide commentary while chapter co-founder and cooking school owner Jill Prescott demonstrated technique. But just hours before class time, a raging bronchial attack flattened Prescott like a pâte brisée. (That’s pastry dough to you, ma chère.) So a handful of us who’d expected to serve as behind-the-scenes lackeys, each responsible for a particular dish, were thrust into the spotlight beside Julia, as she asked us to call her. What joy! What terror!

I was in charge of Le Gâteau Victoire au Chocolat, a fussy, flourless chocolate cake. I melted chocolate in a metal bowl over hot water and, buoyed by Julia at my side, finished the batter in no time. “It’s always so much better when there are two of you in the kitchen,” she’d said then.

I smoothed the batter into a pan and slid that into the oven. I turned around and — presto, change-o — produced one of the eight big cakes I’d baked the night before for audience samples. “You can sprinkle this with powdered sugar or pipe on whipped cream,” I’d advised, relieved to have survived my turn in the spotlight.

Then, somehow, a pastry bag filled with whipped cream appeared near my hand. Panic struck: My technique was on par with a kindergartener’s. I asked Julia whether she’d like to do the piping. “No, dearie,” she declined. I squeezed out a few whipped-cream slugs before Julia’s assistant came to my aid. Julia, who’d endeared herself to home cooks by once salvaging a roasted turkey that had fallen to the floor, made some similarly encouraging remark that I couldn’t hear over my own heart’s pounding.

The cake was luscious, straight out of “Julia Child’s Menu Cookbook” (1991). But my favorite chocolate cake comes from her “French Chef Cookbook,” first published in 1968. I have a much later paperback edition that I’d sheepishly pulled out of my purse during a 1991 lunch with the author and Prescott. Its spine broken, it fell open to the recipe for “Reine de Saba,” or Queen of Sheba cake. Myriad chocolate splotches spattered the page. Julia seized the book, trilling with approving laughter. “This is Simca’s cake — best to Carol,” she penned in red ink, giving a nod to Simone Beck, one of her co-authors on the classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

The recipe calls for ground almonds; I usually substitute chopped toasted pecans. It calls for a single-layer cake; I typically make two, mortaring them together with more chocolate buttercream or orange buttercream frosting. It calls for rum; when I have a suitably relaxed schedule, I pour that or a glass of wine with which to toast Julia. Bon appetit!

Reine de Saba

(Chocolate, Rum and Almond Cake)

This recipe is adapted from Julia Child’s “French Chef Cookbook,” 1981 Bantam paperback edition of the 1968 cookbook published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

Serves 6 to 8

1 stick (1/2 cup) plus 1/2 teaspoon butter, softened (divided)

3 tablespoons flour

2/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels or 4 ounces semisweet baking chocolate, broken into small pieces

2 tablespoons dark rum or 1 tablespoon instant coffee dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water

2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar (divided)

3 eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

Pinch of salt

1/3 cup ground almonds

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 cup cake flour

Chocolate-Butter Icing (see below)

Set rack in middle level of oven; preheat to 350 degrees F. Prepare 8-inch round cake pan by rubbing interior with 1/2 teaspoon of softened butter, then roll the flour around so that entire bottom and sides are covered with a thin layer; knock out excess flour.

Place the chocolate and rum in a small, lightweight saucepan. Fill a slightly larger saucepan with water; bring it to a simmer and remove from heat. Set the chocolate pan in the hot water and stir with a rubber spatula until chocolate begins to melt, then set it aside. It will be almost melted and smooth when you return to it later.

Set out an electric mixer and 2 1/2-cup mixing bowl. Measure remaining ingredients before you start preparing the batter.

Combine the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and, either by hand or with electric mixer, beat until soft and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks.

Place egg whites in clean, dry mixing bowl. Using the electric mixer and clean, dry beaters, whip the eggs at low speed just until the egg whites begin to foam. Then add the cream of tartar and salt, and gradually increase beating speed. As soon as the egg whites hold their shape in a soft mass, beat in the 2 tablespoons of sugar and continue beating for a moment. The egg whites are done when they hold their shape on a rubber spatula, dropping off into a little point with curling tip. The texture should be smooth and shiny; do not overbeat. Set aside.

Stir chocolate until smooth and creamy. (You may have to reheat the water if the chocolate has cooled too fast. If the chocolate has turned granular, beat in a few drops of warm water.) Stir the chocolate into the butter, sugar and yolk mixture. Stir in the almonds, almond extract and flour.

With a rubber spatula, stir in a fourth of the beaten egg whites to soften the batter, then scoop the remaining egg whites on top of the batter. Still using a rubber spatula, rapidly and delicately fold in the egg whites by cutting straight down to the bottom of the bowl, drawing the scraper toward you against edge of the bowl, turning and lifting it out; you thus bring a bit of the batter up over the egg whites each time. Continue rapidly, revolving the bowl as you go, until egg whites and batter are blended. The whole process should not take more than a minute.

Turn the batter into the prepared cake pan, tilting pan in all directions to run batter up to rim so cake will bake evenly and not bulge in the center. Bake about 25 minutes or until cake has puffed to top of pan and so toothpick inserted near the edge — not the center — comes out clean. The center should move slightly when pan is shaken. Cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan, turn a rack upside down over cake, and reverse the two to unmold cake on rack. Remove pan and let cake cool for 2 hours before icing. (Cooled cake may be wrapped and frozen.)

Chocolate-Butter Icing

1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels

1 1/2 tablespoons dark rum or strong coffee

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Melt chocolate in the rum or coffee. Beat in the butter, a tablespoon at a time, until perfectly smooth and of spreading consistency. If necessary, place the bowl in a slightly deeper bowl of ice water and stir until it thickens sufficiently.

Ice the cake and decorate it with slivered almonds. The cake may be frozen; refrigerate it first to set the icing, then wrap and freeze.