By Sarah Khalkho
Recently, I posted a meringue topped chocolate cake on my Instagram account and the crowd went crazy. Everyone was tickled by the idea of putting a meringue crown atop a cake. It definitely helped that the cake looked nothing short of a showstopper, which had nothing to do with my effort or skill.
The inspiration behind that creation was Kvæfjordkake.
Verden Beste to every Norwegian, or, World’s Best.
Kvæfjordkake is a dish bought (literally) from the Danish and sprinkled with a bit of innovation. During 18th century in Harstad, on the island of Hinnøya, stood Café Alliance. One of the finest bakeries in town, it was founded in the 1920s by Hulda Ottestad and her sister who were from Kvæfjord. In the 1930s, Hulda expanded the pastry offerings by purchasing recipes from a Danish pastry chef. One of these was kongekake or king cake. Since the original recipe called for an excess of expensive almonds, Hulda modified it to contain less. Soon, it became a town favourite.
The cake went on to achieve a cult status amongst Norwegians thanks to extensive magazine features written on it in the 1970s. Kvæfjordkake’s superiority was cemented in 2002 when it won a poll by an NRK radio show Nitimen and was crowned Norway’s national cake.
What warrants such a strong sentiment towards it? That might be in part due to the cake’s simplicity and the genius of bringing two heavenly confections together – cake and meringue. Soft, buttery sponge cake is cradled underneath a layer of meringue which pulls double duty and is both shatteringly crisp and pleasantly chewy. The cake is then neatly sliced in half and sandwiched with droopy whipped cream spiked with custard and in some cases, topped off with fresh fruit. Kvæfjordkake is dramatic in appearance and positively homey in flavor. It benefits from the presence of likable heavyweights who all bring something to the dessert and elevate it to superior status.
It is a cake which is greater than the sum of its parts.
And I am especially intrigued by one part in particular – meringue. Meringue on top of cake would seem revolutionary but Kvæfjordkake’s existence points out that it is hardly so. People have been loving, and eating, this combination since a long time.
The case for having meringue instead of frosting on top of cake is strong. It checks off all the boxes. It is easier and faster – because the cake and meringue get baked together, all you have to do after is cool the whole shebang and dive straight in. There is no faffing around with frostings and decorating. The meringue cracks, swells, and dips resulting in a dramatic outcome. You don’t have to sit and try make the cake look pretty, the meringue does that job for you, with flair. The textural contrast meringue offers is worth noting as David Tamarkin, digital director of Epicurious points out here – “Cake is usually a soft-on-soft affair,” he says. The meringue topping “gets crisp on the outside and chewy-creamy in the middle, like a warm marshmallow.”
Not to mention, the lack of frosting or icing is a plus for frosting haters, who would rather have the cake.
The biggest take away from Kvæfjordkake for me, and should be for you, is the ingenuity of putting meringue on top of cake. It’s something we all should be doing more often than we currently are.
How Does a Meringue Work?
Meringue is at its most basic just egg whites given a mad whipping. What starts as a translucent liquid transforms first into froth and then into the whitest smoothest glossiest foam all by the magic of whipping, and a little help from supporting actors.
Egg whites are 90% water and 10% protein. When whipped, the proteins disrupt then expand to take more space. As they do so, the water attracting amino acids (proteins) scramble to find and protect the love of their life: air. They form a film around air bubbles to keep them from popping and link with other couples because strength in unity, right? But it is hard to survive in a harsh world with no aid.
Enter stabilizers. Sugar and acids like vinegar, lemon juice and cream of tartar all help the lovers – air and protein, to stay together, ensuring a meringue that won’t flop on you.
How to Make the World’s Best Cake?
Kvæfjordkake or Verden Beste
The recipe is adapted from Nevada Berg of North Wild Kitchen, a blog celebrating Norwegian food and cooking. Find the original recipe here.
For the Cake:
- ½ cup unsalted butter (112 grams), softened at room temperature
- 1/3 cup castor sugar (70 grams)
- 4 egg yolks
- 4 tablespoons milk
- 1 ¼ cups all purpose flour (150 grams)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
For the Meringue:
- 4 egg whites
- ½ cup castor sugar (100 grams)
- Handful of slice almonds (for topping the meringue)
For the Custard:
- 2 egg yolks
- ¼ cup sugar (50 grams)
- ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons milk (200 ml)
- 2 tablespoons cornflour
- ½ a vanilla pod scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the Whipped Cream:
- 1 cup (240 ml) whipping cream, cold
- Prepare the custard by whipping the yolks, cornflour and sugar in a medium bowl till pale and smooth. In a large saucepan, pour in the milk along with the vanilla and heat without bringing to a boil. Remove from heat and very slowly (this is key to avoid scrambled eggs!) drizzle into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
- Once all the milk is incorporated, pour the entire mix back into the saucepan and bring it back on the stove, whisking constantly (important) till it thickens up and leaves a trail when you lift the whisk. It will take around 10-15 minutes. Strain the mixture into a bowl and immediately cover with cling film touching the surface of the custard and cool.
- For the cake, first preheat oven @ 165 degree C and line a baking tray/pan (ideally 8×12 inches) with parchment paper.
- Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer till pale and fluffy. Add in the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add in the milk in three parts, beating after each addition here as well. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt. Ditch the mixer and fold the dry mix gently into the wet. Transfer to the prepared tray and smoothen out.
- For the meringue, in a clean bowl start whisking the egg whites. Slowly drizzle in the sugar and beat till glossy and stiff. Spread the meringue over the cake batter. Sprinkle the almonds and bake for around 25-30 minutes till meringue is completely crisp and the cake is baked through.
- Whip the cream till soft peaks and fold in the custard till well combined.
- Once cake is cooled, slice in half. Invert one half on a serving platter with meringue side facing down. Dollop the whipped cream mixture and sandwich it with the other half of cake, meringue side facing up.
- Done! The cake tastes best on it second day, cold straight from the fridge.
Tips and Tricks for World’s Best Cake:
- I would firmly suggest you bake it in a sheet pan or tray. A cake tin has sides which are too high and will result in an overly browned (or burnt) meringue while the cake batter stays uncooked.
- If your oven has a convection setting, here’s your chance to use it. This will ensure that the whole cake is evenly cooked with no burnt spots.
- If you have a small oven with no convection (like me) some precaution will be needed. I did two tests before nailing it in the final test and both times either the cake layer or the meringue layer got burnt. Here’s how to remedy that: only use the bottom heating element and slide in the pan/tray in the top most slot so the cake is farthest away from the heat source. Low and slow is the name of the game.
- Egg whites detest fat so make sure every utensil coming in contact with them while you make meringue is extra clean and completely grease-proof.
- Whipping cream is the easiest thing to do and I still mess it up most days. Use the fattiest cream you can find. Purez whipping/double cream and Amul whipping cream are what I go for. Keep everything at its coldest.
- I ended up using only some of the custard + whipped cream required. This isn’t an issue, and it just means I have extra custard concoction that I can pair with apples for the rest of the week. That said if you would rather not have any leftovers, try halving the recipe.
Make it your Own: Substitutions and Swaps
- In any baking recipe, if you don’t have unsalted butter, you can easily swap with salted butter but don’t forget to omit any extra salt called for.
- While a traditional Kvæfjordkake is served with strawberries in between the cake layers, or just plain, I encourage you to go off script. Use other tart fruits in season like kiwis, kinnow or pineapple during winter and cherries, peaches, mangoes or plums during summer.
- Bananas also offer a soft and creamy texture (like in this version here). If you are feeling lazy, skip the custard and whipped cream and serve as is. Or swap the pastry cream for a fruit curd! I’m dreaming of a lemon curd version stuffed with strawberries. Yum.
- You could even switch up the base, making a chocolate cake in place of the vanilla. Of course, it wouldn’t be Kvæfjordkake then but it will still be amply delicious.
About the Columnist
Sarah Khalkho is an enthusiastic lover of dappled sunlight, flaky pastry, and vintage ceramics. Her fridge is always overstocked with butter and her shelves with cookbooks because she believes one can never have enough of both.
Read the author’s previous article on The Allure of Chocolate Cake here. She also gives her Vegan Chocolate Cake recipe!