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I’m not a baker. I bake on occasion. There’s a difference. While I love to cook, baking is a little more like work to me. I have to pay close attention and, often, math is involved. That pretty much sucks the fun out of anything for me. Having said that, if I’m going to bake, then I’m going to put my spin on the item – within the confines of the chemistry involved, naturally.

And, so, the venerable French gateau, Reine de Saba, a.k.a. Queen of Sheba cake, gets a little twist when I put it together. This is a simple, single layer chocolate cake draped in a mirror-smooth chocolate glaze.

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It’s hard to mention this cake without saying that it got its popularity when Julia Child added it to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her game changing collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

Other than chocolate, the basic recipe uses rum or coffee and ground almonds to flavor the cake. For me, using roasted hazelnuts makes the cake more aromatic. Hazelnuts and chocolate are a natural. That’s the stuff of Nutella, remember. So, I ditched almonds in favor of hazelnuts, also called filberts. Now, I have to tell you that getting them ready for the cake is a bit of a tedious affair. But, it’s totally worth the effort, and I’ll give you step-by-step instructions. Not to worry.

Instead of coffee or rum, I used my favorite amber beverage, Maker’s Mark bourbon. Is it crucial to the cake? Not a bit. But, I like knowing it’s there. And I cut the sugar back a little. I find that cake recipes do fine with a little less sugar. See? I can’t even leave the chemistry alone.

Remember, this is a cake named for a queen, so I decided to garnish it with some edible gold leaf. I gilded whole toasted hazelnuts and made a few chocolate leaves and then gilded those as well.

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And, finally, I totally wrecked the glaze. I’m not kidding. It’s supposed to look as smooth as melted chocolate. I don’t know what happened. Students have made this cake for years in my French cooking classes without a miss. Look at the mess I made:

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Does this grainy, separated disaster look worthy of a Queen of Sheba to you? No, I didn’t think so. The good news, though, is that I’ll show you how to go from that:

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To this:

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Now that’s what a glaze should look like. Fixing it was super easy. And I didn’t have to start over.

Have you made this cake before? If not, I hope you give it a try and let me know what you think.

Queen of Sheba Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Butter & flour an 8-inch round cake pan

4 ounces dark chocolate

2 tablespoons bourbon

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The bourbon is Maker’s Mark, and the chocolate Pound Plus dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s. I’ve used it for many years with terrific results.

3 eggs, separated

Pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1/3 plus 1/4 cup white sugar (the original recipe calls for 2/3 cup sugar)

1/3 cup toasted, finely ground hazelnuts

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OK, here’s the best way to get rid of the skin on the hazelnuts. I saw a chef do this on Julia Child’s show ages ago. It looks convoluted, but it works.

Put about 2 cups of water and 3 tablespoons of baking soda in a pan and bring it to a boil. Dump in your whole, untoasted hazelnuts and cook them for about three minutes.

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It’ll bubble like a witch’s brew.

And the water will turn a murky black.

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Dump the nuts into a bowl of ice water.

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Now you can use a paper towel or your hands to rub the loosened skins off of the hazelnuts.

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Place dry nuts on a cookie sheet and roast them in a 350-degree oven for about 7 minutes or until they’re golden brown.

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I grind them in a coffee mill. Just make sure you don’t turn them into butter.

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1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract

When it comes to vanilla paste, I use Nielsen-Massey, which I always buy at a deal at HomeGoods. It’s not always stocked, so I grab a few when I find them.

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1/2 cup cake flour

Melt chocolate over low heat, then stir in the bourbon. The mixture will stiffen, don’t worry. Set aside.

If you’re afraid on the direct stove method, then you can melt your chocolate in the microwave. I prefer to keep an eye on it on the stove.

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In a medium bowl, beat egg whites with pinch of salt and the cream of tartar. When they’re beginning to hold their shapes, add the 2 tablespoons of sugar, a little at a time. Beat to soft peaks and set aside.

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This is how soft peaks should look when whipping egg whites.

In another bowl, beat the butter and the sugar until fluffy.

Add the egg yolks and beat until well blended.

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Beat in the melted chocolate/bourbon mixture (warm it slightly if it’s too stiff), just until smooth.

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Add the ground hazelnuts, vanilla paste and mix well.

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Add the cake flour in two batches, mixing well between batches. About 1 minute. Don’t over mix.

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With a rubber spatula, stir in 1/4 of the beaten egg whites to soften the batter. Drop the remaining egg whites into the batter and fold gently until well blended.

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Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top. Drop it on the counter once or twice to break up any air bubbles.

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Bake for about 25 minutes until a knife comes out nearly clean. A little batter sticking to the knife is fine because you want a moist center. Don’t overcook the cake. Err on the side of undercooking.

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Cool cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges, unmold cake onto a cooling rack and brush off any crumbs. Cool before pouring on the glaze.

Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream

5 ounces dark chocolate

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon bourbon

In a small heavy pan, heat the cream almost to a boil.

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Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth.

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Stir in the butter until smooth.

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Even before adding the butter, I could see that this wasn’t going smoothly. It looked grainy. The way I fixed it was by heating about 1/4 cup or so of heavy cream just to the boil, then I removed it from the heat and added about 3/4 of the grainy blend and quickly mixed it. Magic happened. You can see that it immediately became smooth:

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Add the bourbon and stir to blend. Don’t use a whisk or stir too quickly because you don’t want to create air bubbles. The idea is to get this glaze as smooth as possible.

Place the cooling rack on a cookie sheet, then slowly pour the glaze onto the cooled cake, gently smoothing the top until the sides are completely covered.

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To set the glaze, place cake in the fridge for about 10 minutes.

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You can serve it plain or garnish with chocolate leaves.

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You can see that the cake has a moist, dense interior. The glaze is almost chewy, and the whole cake is heavily scented with the toasted hazelnuts.

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Queen of Sheba Cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Butter & flour an 8-inch round cake pan

 

4 ounces dark chocolate

2 tablespoons bourbon

3 eggs, separated

Pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1/3 plus 1/4 cup white sugar (the original recipe calls for 2/3 cup sugar)

1/3 cup toasted, finely ground hazelnuts

1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract

1/2 cup cake flour

 

Melt chocolate over low heat, then stir in the bourbon. The mixture will stiffen, don’t worry. Set aside.

 

In a medium bowl, beat egg whites with pinch of salt and the cream of tartar. When they’re beginning to hold their shapes, add the 2 tablespoons of sugar, a little at a time. Beat to soft peaks and set aside.

 

In another bowl, beat the butter and the sugar until fluffy.

Add the egg yolks and beat until well blended.

Beat in the melted chocolate/bourbon mixture (warm it slightly if it’s too stiff), just until smooth.

Add the ground hazelnuts, vanilla paste and mix well.

Add the cake flour in two batches, mixing well between batches. About 1 minute. Don’t over mix.

With a rubber spatula, stir in 1/4 of the beaten egg whites to soften the batter. Drop the remaining egg whites into the batter and fold gently until well blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and smooth the top. Drop it on the counter once or twice to break up any air bubbles.

Bake for about 25 minutes until a knife comes out nearly clean. A little batter sticking to the knife is fine because you want a moist center. Don’t overcook the cake. Err on the side of undercooking.

Cool cake in the pan for 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edges, unmold cake onto a cooling rack and brush off any crumbs. Cool before pouring on the glaze.

 

Glaze

1/2 cup heavy cream

5 ounces dark chocolate

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon bourbon

 In a small heavy pan, heat the cream almost to a boil. Remove from heat and add the chocolate. Stir until melted and smooth. Stir in the butter until smooth. Add the bourbon and stir to blend. Don’t use a whisk or stir too quickly because you don’t want to create air bubbles. The idea is to get this glaze as smooth as possible.

Place the cooling rack on a cookie sheet, then slowly pour the glaze onto the cooled cake, gently smoothing the top until the sides are completely covered. To set the glaze, place cake in the fridge for about 10 minutes.

You can serve it plain or garnish with chocolate leaves.