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Wednesday
Nov122008

Royal Dilemma: Why is the Princess Cake Green?

Why is the Princess Cake Green?
Princess Cake shown is from Miette in San Francisco; photo credit Frankie Frankeny.

Some of you may trouble yourselves mysteries of the natural universe: What is the meaning of life? If a tree falls in the woods, can anybody hear it? Why on earth is Paris Hilton famous?

But we Cake Gumshoes choose to ponder a much bigger (and more delicious) mystery: why is the princess cake green?

First things first though. For those of you not acquainted with the princess cake (or princess torte), we'd like to clarify that we're not talking about the "Princess Cake" that has a severed Barbie doll stacked atop a dome of frilly buttercream (though that one has its moments). No, we're talking about the Princesstårta, a cake which hails from Sweden, where it was invented in the 1930s by cookbook author Jenny Åkerström, who is said to have made it in honor of Sweden's three princesses at the time--Margaretha, Märtha and Astrid. While it's not as common in bakery cases as say, Red Velvet, it's not an exceedingly rare cake either--most urban areas will have at least a couple of bakeries that offer the sweet confection, which is made of alternating layers of light, airy cake, thick pastry cream, and jam, all topped with a sweet jacket of marzipan--often in a dome shape. But perhaps the most striking thing about this cake is how it's nearly always green.
Princess Cake
Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, famed Los Angeles restaurant Scandia offered a chocolate-topped version back in the day (which, with the help of pastry chef Chris Jarchow, we made it recently; see above); some bakeries will offer an off-white or pink version. However, it seems to us that most frequently--or at least frequently enough for us to have noticed-- it's an attractive and very signature pistachio tone of green.

So what gives?

Unfortunately, this proved to be quite the challenge. Here's a summation of our epic journey to discover the truth:

First Stop: The Library

 

First, we hit up the library, where we consulted the serious tome of a book The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg, in which we found the following passage:

"I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I do not have a definite answer as to why is the marzipan on top of a Princess Cake traditionally colored green. This is a question I have been asked time after time, and believe me, I have tried to find out. It would at least make more sense to me if the cake were flavored with mint or pistachio. Princess Cakes are often made with other colours..."

 

Our buddy over at ReTorte referenced Friberg's quote too, adding that "My fancy French pastry books do not even mention Princess cake..my only theory is that, as with a lot of stuff in the pastry world, it's green because of tradition. They do A LOT of stuff just out of tradition, even though it makes no sense otherwise!"


Larsen'sSwedish Cultural Center

 

Princess-ish cake from Larsen's

Second Stop: The Experts
We figured if anyone would know, it would be the good Nordic population of Seattle!
Unfortunately, the mystery only deepened with a call to the Swedish Cultural Center, where they had not a clue as to why the green-hued cake persists; however, they did point us in the direction of Larsen's in Ballard as a spot to pick up a particularly delicious one.
While the employees at Larsen's were friendly, unfortunately they were unable to shed further light upon the cake's color. "Maybe it was the princess' favorite color," one employee muses; "maybe it was the colors of her wedding flowers" adds another, referencing the fact that it's frequently topped with a pink flower.
Last-ditch: The Internet
Just when we were beginning to despair, we found a very informative bulletin board on chowhound.com that answered some of these questions--one user's comments in particular were very helpful. Turns out, the confection's invention may hold the answer.

Original princess cakes
Remember how that cookbook writer invented the recipe for three princesses in the 1930s? Well, as it turns out, "it appears that Åkerström had not one, but three different princess cakes, one for each of the princesses. They were very elaborate cakes, not terribly suited to the home baker. Astrid's cake most closely resembles the princess cake in its current form." (Cakes pictured, above). As it turns out, the article continues, "Annika Larsson, a baker at the Grillska Konditoriet in Stockholm, is credited with combining features from the three cakes and creating the princess cake that has become a tradition--that is to say, the green one. It appeared in Finland not long after it became popular in 1930s Sweden and has remained a traditional cake ever since, particularly for graduation and end of school year parties."
While this doesn't completely answer the question of why the cake is green, it does shed some light on the subject and leave it open to some guesswork. Perhaps when Annika was combining the best aspects of each cake, she simply preferred the green hued one as a matter of personal preference. Perhaps she had a surplus of green dye and it was done for more practical reasons. 
Of course, we like to think maybe it was something truly poetic: perhaps green was a color caught on with the Swedish audience because it represented the hope of spring, like the first gentle blades of grass coming up in the cold, dark winters.
But whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: the Princess cake is certainly iconic, and we certainly feel happy whenever we see the green-hued confection turn up on our table.

 

P.S. Wanna try to make the Princess Cake? A fantastic recipe can be found on Tartelette, as well as some seriously beautiful pictures!

 

 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (22)

Hey, great to see this post up! I was wondering when I'd see it after the email you sent me a while back. I have never actually HAD any princess cake, and we never made it in culinary school, something which now disappoints me greatly!

November 12 | Unregistered CommenterWandering Coyote

Gosh! I even pressed publish too quick and you had already commented! I just updated the pic. It turned out to be easier said than done. :-) I hope you get to try it.

November 12 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

I didn t know anything about princess cake. All I know it looks great and yummy :) thanks for the info :)

November 12 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

I had that very same Miette princess cake for my birthday this year. They use fondant instead of marzipan. It was still amazazazazing.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

I rarely crave sweets for breakfast, yet, here I am wanting a slice of that lovely princess cake to go with my crappy cup of coffee.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterHeidi Robb

I love miette . It is such a cute little boutique patisserie.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterVeron

So we will never really know why? I just love the way you took upon you to find this mistery! It was a great and informative post! Now can you explain the next big question? Why is Paris Hilton famous?

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterClumbsy Cookie

I mentioned your noble quest to my husband. His response:


"That's just how it's supposed to be! Why must they question the wisdom of cake?"


You have been warned.

November 13 | Unregistered Commentersanna

Bakers in SF love this cake. It really seems to be in all the bakeries be they Italian, Asian, Hipster... what have you... and yes they're always green.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterEB of SpiceDish

Cakespy: Ah, the wonders of Google Reader! Love the pictures!

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterWandering Coyote

Snooky: you've got to try it--it's very unique!

Rachel: Bitchin'! I love Miette so much it almost hurts. Their aesthetic is just perfect.

Veron: I concur!

Heidi: YEA! That means the job was done right!

Clumbsy: I guess you could say we become obsessed.

Sanna: Mr. Sanna is a wise man--I'm just hoping that ninjas don't come attacking us now because we've been nosing about in places we oughtn't...

EB: It's a lovely one--I can see why!

Wandering: Thanks! My friend Chris and I made the chocolate topped one. It took a LONG time but was worth it.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

Oh, what a nice and funny text, I really enjoyed reading it. I'm from Sweden and had no idea it was that famous, but I have wondered why it's always green, so now I can sleep well at night! ;)

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterTilda

Somewhere in the not too distant past, I saw a picture of a princess cake and wondered about it as well. Being the lazy sort, I just googled it, didn't find much and lost interest. Thanks for re-peaking my appetite!

Those cakes look like heaven so now I shall have to try and make a Tara-friendly version of the princess cake! Forgot to tell you, loving the new sidebar on your site! I have a suggestion for a future post: spotted dick and other weird English desserts. I just wanna know who thought beef tallow in cake would be a good idea, that's all! ~Tara

November 13 | Unregistered Commentermama4life

Cute blog!

November 13 | Unregistered Commenterjascamille

How interesting! Those cakes look so good! I want to go bake one now.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterReeni

Fascinating detective work! I don't think Princess cake is popular in my area. I'm going to start keeping my eyes peeled for it and asking questions. If I learn anything new, I'll come here as fast as my fingers can type in your URL.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterDana McCauley

Fascinating detective work! I don't think Princess cake is popular in my area. I'm going to start keeping my eyes peeled for it and asking questions. If I learn anything new, I'll come here as fast as my fingers can type in your URL.

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterDana McCauley

I always love a good culinary history lesson. Only when we know our past, can we move onto bigger and better things....in this case the Princess cake! It looks divine! You have a persistent and investigative nature and taught us all a thing or two!!!!

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterNazarina A

Wow, that is amazing! I never knew that it was a hybrid cake! 3 huh. I wonder how long it originally took to make all three?! No thanks!

THanks for all the interesting facts!

November 13 | Unregistered CommenterJ.Danger

I like to imagine the answer is something simple like, "because green looks so nice with pink" or "because no princess wants a great lump of brown on the plate in front of her".

: )

November 14 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

a wild and crazy swedish mystery indeed. our local market, granville island market, has a bakery which always has a few of these peculiar green domes in their glass cases, with blobs of bright-hued flowers piped on top in a rather child-like fashion. many many times i thought of buying one of them for sheer entertainment value. now i can make my own! thank you for the story and the recipe!!!
miette's little version is freaking adorable. i visited their shop in san francisco a few years back. adorable, adorable style... ! :)

November 14 | Unregistered Commenterlyndsay
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