THE FRENCH LOVE to name dishes for colorful per- sonalities, both contempo- rary and historical. They've been doing it for centuries. Reine de Saba, French for Queen of Sheba, for example, is the name given some of the most delicious French chocolate cakes and desserts. All contain generous amounts of butter and almonds or other nuts.
Sheba, we are told in I Kings 10:2, "came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones."
Some authorities say she came from the part of Arabia that is now Yemen. She wanted to see how wise King Solomon really was and to discuss trade with him, at a time when Israel was at a key position on the major caravan route known as the Incense Road.
Others believe Sheba came from Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). The royal house of Abyssinia claimed to be descended from a son born to the Queen after an affair with King Solomon. Black Jews in Israel, who came from Ethiopia, also claim descent from this royal affair.
Whether she came from Yemen or Ethiopia, she would have been a dark, rich beauty. Imaginative French chefs thought of her when creating new, sumptuous chocolate desserts.
Unlike most French cakes, but like many American ones, the Reine de Saba cakes should be moist inside and therefore are baked for a relatively short time. Because of their moistness, they need no filling.
There are several versions of the queen's gateau. Some opulent ones are topped with chocolate cream frosting. Others are baked in a ring mold and served with whipped cream in the center. Still others are accompanied by a smooth custard sauce. All versions are fine when served plain and are perfect for a festive menu. GATEAU REINE DE SABA (8 servings)
Prepare this for lovers of chocolatey, buttery cakes, rich in almonds. If you prefer, omit the frosting and sprinkle the cake with a little powdered sugar before serving. Butter and flour for pan 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, in cubes 3/4 cup blanched almonds (3 1/2 ounces) 1/4 cup all-purpose flour 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter 3 egg yolks 2/3 cup sugar 4 egg whites For the chocolate cream frosting: 1/3 cup whipping cream 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Butter an 8- to 9-inch round cake pan, about 1 1/2 inches deep. Line the base of the pan with foil or parchment paper and butter the foil or paper also. Flour the pan and foil or paper.
Melt the chocolate in a small saucepan above hot water, over low heat. When the chocolate is soft, stir until smooth and remove it from the pan of water. Let it cool but do not let it harden. In a food processor or food mill, grind the almonds to a fine powder. Sift the flour and mix it with the almond powder.
Cream the butter until very soft. Beat in the cool chocolate. Beat in the egg yolks, one by one, then 1/3 cup of the sugar. Continue to beat until the mixture is smooth.
Whip the egg whites until stiff. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and continue beating at high speed until the whites are very stiff and shiny but not dry. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Quickly spoon the remaining whites over this mixture. Sprinkle the almond mixture on top and fold all together lightly and quickly, just until there are no white streaks in the batter.
Transfer immediately to the prepared pan and bake in a 350-degree oven 25 to 35 minutes or until a cake tester or pick inserted into the cake about halfway between the edge and the center of the pan comes out dry, but the center of the cake is still slightly soft.
Let the cake cool in the pan about 5 minutes. Slide a thin knife carefully around the sides of the cake. Turn the cake out onto a rack, carefully remove the paper and let the cake cool completely. The cake can be kept, covered, in the refrigerator for 4 days; or it can be frozen.
To make the frosting bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat and immediately add the chopped chocolate. Stir quickly with a whisk until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Let cool completely but do not let the mixture harden. Beat the mixture in a mixer at high speed for about 3 minutes or until its color lightens.
Cream the butter in large bowl until very soft and smooth. Gradually add the chocolate mixture, beating constantly until the mixture is smooth.
Spread the frosting on the sides and top of the cake and smooth with a long metal spatula. If desired, swirl the frosting on top. Chill 2 hours before serving. The frosted cake can be kept for 2 days in the refrigerator.
Tips: If blanching your own almonds, be sure they are dry before grinding them. Milk can replace the cream in the frosting. FLOURLESS "REINE DE SABA" (8 servings)
This lighter, easier-to-make version of the cake is less buttery and has a smaller quantity of almonds, but this leaves it actually richer in chocolate. It has a brownie-like crust and a smooth, moist interior. For special occasions, serve the cake with whipped cream or with the vanilla sauce below. Butter for pan 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, in cubes 2 tablespoons water 1/2 teaspoon instant coffee powder or granules 1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter 1/2 cup blanched almonds (about 2 1/4 ounces) 2/3 cup sugar 3 tablespoons cornstarch 3 eggs, separated For the vanilla custard sauce: 2 cups milk 1/2 vanilla bean, cut lengthwise almost in half 5 egg yolks 5 tablespoons sugar
Butter a 9-inch round cake pan, about 1 1/2 inches deep.
Melt the chocolate with the water, coffee and butter in a large heatproof bowl set in a pan of hot water over low heat. Stir until smooth. Remove the bowl from the pan of water. Let the mixture cool but do not let it harden.
In a food processor grind the almonds with 3 tablespoons sugar to a fine powder. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the cornstarch and 4 tablespoons sugar and mix well. Stir the almond mixture into the melted chocolate. Add the egg yolks and beat the mixture vigorously with a wooden spoon until smooth.
Whip the egg whites until stiff. Gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating at high speed until the whites are very stiff and shiny but not dry, about 1/2 minute. Fold about 1/4 of the whites into the chocolate mixture. Spoon this mixture over remaining whites and fold all together lightly but quickly, just until there are no white streaks in batter.
Transfer immediately to the prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees about 25 minutes or until a cake tester or pick inserted in the center comes out dry.
Slide a thin knife carefully around the sides of the cake. Turn the cake onto a rack and let cool. The cake can be kept, covered, in the refrigerator for 4 days; or it can be frozen.
To make the sauce, bring the milk with vanilla bean to a boil in a heavy-based sauce pan. Remove from the heat and leave in a warm place for 10 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean.
Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is smooth and light in color. Pour half the hot milk onto the yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Return to the saucepan, still whisking.
Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sauce thickens slightly. To check if it is thick enough, remove from the heat, dip the spoon in the sauce and remove it; the sauce will stick slightly to the spoon. Run your finger across the spoon--if your finger leaves a clear trail in the sauce on the spoon, and this trail doesn't disappear immediately, the sauce is thick enough. Another test is to check whether the sauce has reached 165-170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If the sauce isn't thick enough, heat it another half minute, stirring, and check again. Do not cook the sauce too long or the egg yolks will curdle.
If the sauce isn't smooth, strain it immediately. Pour into a bowl and let cool, stirring occasionally.
Serve cold in a sauceboat, to accompany the cake. NO-BAKE QUEEN OF SHEBA CAKE (6 to 8 servings)
This dessert, based on Parisian chef Jacques Cagna's recipe, is simple to prepare and involves little heating and no baking. If you want to savor it as it is served in the finest of French restaurants, accompany it with the custard sauce in the preceding recipe. Butter for pan 3/4 cup walnut halves 12 ounces semisweet chocolate, in cubes 9 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, cut in small pieces 5 tablespoons sugar 4 egg yolks 5 egg whites Optional custard sauce (above)
Butter a loaf pan of 1-quart volume. Arrange half the nuts in a row down the center of the base of the pan. Chop the remaining nuts coarsely.
In a heavy-based saucepan, combine the chocolate cubes with the butter and half the sugar. Stir constantly over low heat until the chocolate and butter melt and the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat.
Stir in the yolks, one by one, then the chopped walnuts.
Whip the egg whites until stiff. Gradually beat in the remaining sugar and continue beating at high speed until the whites are very stiff and shiny but not dry. Fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture. Pour this mixture over the remaining whites and fold all together lightly but quickly.
Transfer to the pan, being careful not to move the nuts. Chill at least 5 hours or until firm. The dessert can be kept for 3 days in the refrigerator; or it can be frozen.
Before serving, dip the pan in hot water and slide a thin knife around the dessert. Dry the base of the pan and turn out onto a serving dish. Serve cold. To serve, cut in slices. Serve with optional custard sauce. graphics/illustration: Queen of Sheba