Recently, ClassicFM put one of their content editors, Lizzie Davis, to the task of baking the incredibly difficult opera cake. At the end of the article, I was ready to jump in and inflict delicious torture on myself . A quick skim of Will Torrent’s recipe and a search revealed that ground almonds are a crucial ingredient in the cake. It simply would not do to prepare a dish with nuts around my highly allergic sister. As it has been reported, the price of EpiPens is still too damn high and I would like to keep her around for a little longer, so it was time to look for an alternative. An hour of Googling later and the Hungarian Rigó Jancsi cake emerged as the answer to my wild daydream. A two layer chocolate sponge cake encasing a fluffy layer of chocolate rum mousse and a thin smear of apricot jam with a glossy covering of chocolate ganache sounded like a perfect alternative to the challenging opera cake. This cake, as an added bonus, has a rich history behind it that is just as scandalous and delicious as the actual pastry.
1) Rigó Jancsi was a famous violinist for his time, but little information is available on his life and repertoire. Most of the pieces in the playlist below are either Hungarian Romani standards or selections from composers who were utilizing Hungarian stylistic elements at a time when there was not a clear distinction between Hungarian Romani music and Hungarian folk music.
2) I, like Lizzie, had no idea what I was getting into. As a gracious act on my part, tips will be sprinkled throughout so you will not flip pans and bowls over in frustration during this process. Let’s start with tip #1: plan your shopping trip when you are not suffering from heat exhaustion and your ingredient list is clearer than mud.
3) There were two attempts to make the sponge cake with a different recipe. Both attempts were unevenly baked in a jellyroll pan that is so old, that was most likely used to make hardtack during the Civil War.
Hit play on the playlis(z)t* and gather your ingredients for this sponge cake recipe while I introduce the tempestuous lovers of our story. Le Chimay will present the Princesse de Caraman-Chimay, Clara Ward. Clara was born in 1873 with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father, Captain E.B. Ward, was a self-made Michigan millionaire and had holdings in steel, lumber, iron, and silver. Although he died when Clara was 2, he made sure both his wife and daughter were taken care of. In 1890, the young Detroit heiress was married off to the much older Prince Marie Joseph Anatole Élie de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay. At this point, I would pause the playlist and let the mixer take over the soundscape for the necessary fifteen minutes. Once you have a pillow-like egg and sugar mixture, press play again and begin gently folding in the dry ingredients. The American public was overjoyed at the news of their new American princess, but her reception among the royals was lukewarm. Members of the Belgian court thought King Leopold was too fond of her and gossip spread like wildfire. Her and the Prince fled to Paris in 1894, in an effort to escape the negativity. Gershwin’s An American in Paris serves, at least in this story, as a musical representation of the impact the princesse made on the Parisian scene.
While the chocolate sponge cake batter rises in the oven, it is time to introduce our other main character, Rigó Jancsi. He was a well known Hungarian Romani violinist, who toured Europe and America with his “gypsy orchestra”, a popular choice of entertainment for the wealthy at the time. As evidenced by the poster, he would have been familiar not only with Romani songs, like Gyertek ide budapesti ciganyok but classical compositions inspired by Romani musical elements, such as Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.
Ward and the Prince are dining at a Parisian restaurant in 1896 when she locks eyes with her future second husband. Ward is soon swept up in her own Fantaisie tziganesque (Hungarian fantasy) with the dashing violinist . A whirlwind courtship, by first hungarian dances, took place and it isn’t long before Ward and Rigó are married and blissfully in love (Sarika, Sarika, kis szentem). Their scandalous affair inspired not only tabloid stories, but the entire reason for this blog. It is unclear whether Rigó collaborated with pastry chef to make the cube shaped chocolate cake as a surprise for Ward, or if a pastry chef named the cake after the violinist as an ode to their love story.
Ward has fully embraced the bohemian lifestyle at this point. Her mother cuts her off from her inheritance and she is denied access to the money afforded to her from her first marriage. Rigó continues to travel and perform with his orchestra while Ward tours the cabarets of France and performs her poses plastiques, a solo version of a tableau vivant. Her outrageous behavior of suggestive posing for photographers and live audiences alike kept Ward and her husband on the lips of journalists from 1896 to 1898. An alternating selection of Hungarian inspired pieces by Liszt, Brahms and Hubay represents Rigó’s career while the tunes associated with the Moulin Rouge and Folies-Bergère illustrate Ward’s performances. After Scenes de la Csarda No. 14, it would be a good time to cut the now harden top layer into two inch squares and whip together the chocolate mousse using this recipe. This is where I must offer tips #3 and #4. My 3rd tip is: if you must make a mousse, prepare it on a cooler day and not one where the temperature rivals Hades. The 4th tip would be to use only a tablespoon of rum extract and to halve the recipe. I found I had an excess of mousse for the amount of cake I had and the rum flavor was overwhelming.
As time wore on, money woes and infidelity plagued the unlikely union. The Czardas Obstine, Mikor a penze elfogyott, and Scenes de la Csardas No.5 ushers in the chilling of their love and the cake. Finally, sometime before 1904, their marriage and the good times come to an end. The Rákóczi March is a composition popularized by János Bihari and although it is no longer the Hungarian national anthem, it remains a favorite of the Roma people. Usually, this song is used for weddings, which works since Ward meets and marries her third husband shortly after ending her relationship with Rigó.Now is the time to kick your feet up (or kick the bowls and pans to make this frustrating pastry, I’m not here to judge) , serve up your cake square, and enjoy the two different interpretations of this source of national pride by Berlioz and Lizst with your nationalistic cake.
*I know, it is a bad pun, but it had to be done.