Cakes so delicious, presidents ask for them by name. Now you can bake up your own royalty-ready desserts.
BROOKE HERMAN is a food writer in metropolitan New York.
Basic to Beautiful Cakes
By Roland Mesnier and Lauren Chattman
Three quick facts: President Clinton avoids wheat; he’s allergic. Nancy Reagan has a major aversion to cheesecake. The Bush family looks forward to raspberry jam layer cakes at their annual summer cookout. There are countless more tidbits—all giving readers an inside track to the politically-inspired culinary inner workings of life behind the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Yes, in Roland Mesnier’s Basic to Beautiful Cakes, you will find extensive directions for making intricate confections, but you’d be hard-pressed to not get sucked into the stories from this former White House pastry chef along the way. After 25 years in Washington D.C., which spanned the final year of the Carter Administration up until the midway point of the younger Bush’s term of office, Roland Mesnier created numerous desserts and collected an endless supply of food-related tales. He willingly shares them and entertains us in his newest book with Lauren Chattman, their follow-up to Dessert University.
In a time when discussing political parties is as taboo a subject as using three sticks of butter to whip up a single cake, Roland Mesnier defies convention and tackles the hot button issues, with nary a mention of democrats or republicans in the process. He’s wordlessly clear on both: politics don’t matter when there’s dessert involved; and he’s French, so he sure loves his butter.
The book begins with a lovely introduction by way of his childhood. The tone for easy storytelling starts with a memory of his family in France. They had little money. Not enough for an oven and certainly not enough for bakery-bought cakes. But a few times a year, his mother pieced together enough money to treat her family to her stovetop-cooked genoise. Partly as a tribute, and partly because he still believes it to be one of the most delicious cakes, this cookbook features two, with many variations.
One, the Simple Coffee Genoise, sounds scrumptious, but once you learn that it’s one “Mrs. Clinton” adores, it seems almost necessary to give it a try. (Incidentally, there’s something about this book that makes it seem necessary to sample a slice from every First Lady’s choice dessert.)
This is the kind of cake that doesn’t require a lot of work or time—you’re simply required to use a double boiler and turn on your mixer. This one-pan cake bakes in 30 minutes, can be frozen for up to two weeks (it defrosts in a matter of minutes) and can be served simply with dollops of whipped cream.
Or you can take it to the next step and turn it into a layer cake filled with mocha buttercream. I wasn’t planning to, so take this as a warning: Once the really quick sponge is in the oven baking and your house starts to smell of heaven and espresso all rolled into one, you start thinking. You say to yourself, that wasn’t so hard. What’s a few more steps in the name of flavor and presentation?
Know this. It’s totally worth it, but it’s not time- or mess-free. The English Custard Coffee Buttercream is amazing, but because the method is similar to pastry cream (you’ll need to cool it completely before adding to whipped butter) and requires you to strain wet coffee grounds, you would be best served making the frosting a day ahead. However, once the cake is split, brushed with a coffee syrup, sprinkled with walnuts and frosted, it’s hard to imagine that you’ll ever regret your decision. And it’s just as easy to see how this confection wins the title of “Mrs. Clinton’s absolute favorite.”
The genoise is just one of the cakes that lets you build upon a base. Some, like the Apricot Soufflé Cake, offer very similar variations, like an Apricot Grand Marnier Sauce, a Honey Meringue and a Strawberry Compote. Others, take the Banana Bundt Cake for example, provide escalating levels of elegance. Once one is baked, you can choose from finishing it with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar perfect for breakfast, cream cheese frosting and grated chocolate when in need of a more formal sweet or mango sauce and tropical fruit when looking to change an everyday Bundt from bordering-on-ordinary to extraordinary.
Another, which I’ll admit, I was very tempted to pass over in exchange for the more exciting and challenging offerings on the following pages, was the Perfect Yellow Cake. My argument, who needs another yellow cake? Mesnier’s argument back? It’s a building block, with which you can head in any direction. He’s used this simple batter to whip up White House wedding cakes, easy backyard barbecue desserts and ice cream sandwiches.
I chose to use the buttery, vanilla-tinged cake to make a Cherry Almond Trifle, which Mesnier often presented at holiday parties. Like the other desserts in this book, there are many steps and it’s to your advantage to make this production over a couple days, baking the cake and whipping up a batch of pastry cream the night before. And, while even experienced bakers may hold their breathe as they trim the 1 1/2” yellow cake into 5 layers, they’ll soon find the round is sturdy enough to handle maneuvering.
Your other proud moment comes out at the end. This trifle, you see, is not of the traditional stack-in-a-glass-dish-and-spoon-out variety. Instead, the entire thing is assembled in a cake pan, then unmolded and smeared with whipped cream. You actually cut this one into wedges to serve. To get it to hold its shape, you must layer the cakes with jam before cutting into squares, dousing with almond-liqueur and tossing into the pan between layers of gelatin-laced pastry cream. It’s a multi-step testament to many baking basics and it’s the kind of dessert that makes it tempting to whisper into the ears of strangers at a party: Hey, I made that one.
While this book boasts an obvious All-American feel, it would have suffered a loss if Mesnier had not included his internationally-inspired desserts. From a classic Croquembouche and a praline-based Paris Breast, two desserts assembled from cream puffs, to the German-born Hollander Cake made with puff pastry (all treats with numerous variations), you’ll find your overseas fix. Oh, and don’t let the pictures intimidate you. Instead, just before serving, place your version next to the book's page—it’s an easy bet they’ll be twins.
Whether you’re hungry for something fruity, craving chocolate or really just eager to say, “President and Mrs. Carter enjoyed this dessert when they hosted Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin,” you’re sure to find your match. The recipes are written clearly and concisely, the steps manageable and the results stunning. But Basic to Beautiful Cakes is aptly named. The beginning recipes are often simple. Know, however, that this is a cookbook for those who love to really stretch their baking and pastry muscles. Once the delicious, but average Joe-looking, cakes are transformed to beautiful, you’ve often done the amount of work fit for a king, or um, a president.
- Hardcover: Simon &
- 291 pages
- Recipe Index: Back
- Images: Color—in two
- Not to miss recipe: Coffee
Genoise with Mocha
- Extras: Ingredient
breakdown, political history
and presidential information
- Price: $30
- Click here to purchase