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A Shot in the Dark

The story of my grandmother's Rigó Jancsi — a chocolate cake with scandalous Hungarian roots — and my many attempts to recreate it.

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Humans are the only creatures who tell stories, and for many of us, we tell stories with the food we make and share. Rigó Jancsi, otherwise known as Hungarian chocolate cake, is a dessert that tells a beautiful story of late 19th century romance, passion, and adventure. But it also tells another story for me, personally — of my Grandma Betty, her baking, and the love of an artform she passed on to me.

In 1896, violinist and Hungarian gypsy Rigó Jancsi performed in a Parisian restaurant, where Prince Joseph de Caraman Chimay and his wife Clara Ward, the Princess de Caraman Chimay were dining. Story has it that Clara was seduced by the talented violinist, fell in love, and left the Belgian prince to be with him. Some sources claim the dessert is named after Rigó Jancsi because he worked with a pastry chef to create it to surprise Clara, while others state that the pastry chef named the cake after the violinist following his purchase of it for Clara.

Less than 40 years later, Betty Ward, née Elizabet Hamvas, traveled with her family from Hungary to the U.S. in 1930 at the age of six. And while I don’t remember growing up with many traditions from her home country, or even learning the story of the debonair Hungarian violinist until I was in my late twenties, I will never forget her Hungarian chocolate cake.

I only remember her making it once in my lifetime, during a large Ward-MacDonald-Hamvas family reunion one summer when her brother Lee and his family came to visit her little white house with green shutters on Hawley Drive. The house and yard had been full of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and more, while she was in the kitchen, baking, as always.

When she served it that night after dinner, I was so excited. I had spent many summers up at her house outside of Schenectady, New York, learning how to bake cookies and make pies. So this chocolate cake with a mocha creamy filling and swathed in a dark chocolate glaze was exotic to me. But, as a twist of the tale, I didn’t like the cake at all. Why? Because it wasn’t the typical sweet chocolate cake most Americans are familiar with, and I was 8 years old. What kid really likes bittersweet chocolate and coffee? Not me.

I sat there at the table, glumly scraping off the only bit I deemed edible — the glaze — and quietly complained to my Uncle Steve sitting next to me. “It doesn’t taste right,” I pouted. He laughed.

Decades later, and after Betty had lost her fight with Parkinsons, I tried making the cake myself. I had grown up, and my taste for deep dark chocolate and coffee had grown exponentially.

The first time I tried ended in tears and disappointment as the chocolate sponge was none-too-spongey and stuck to the parchment paper in the pan. I remember tearing bits and pieces off, nibbling on them and furious that the cake didn’t turn out even remotely right.

I shared the failed baking story with my father and Uncle Larry a year later around my family’s dining table over the holidays. They both laughed and told me that even my Grandma Betty didn’t get it right the first few times — though they never minded. Any dessert, “failed” or otherwise, tested in advance of my grandmother’s regular bridge club meetings meant a treat for the kids.

“Trust me,” my father said. “It was torture for us because it was done in stages and we would be able to smell and see it, but never touch it until after dinner.”

The thought cheered me and gave me the boost of confidence I needed to try again. And while my second attempt still wasn’t quite right a year later, I had completed the dessert and knew what areas I wanted to improve upon. Progress was made.

So now here is the cake, made for the third time, and hitting all the right notes. The cake is light and spongey. The filling is thick and full of chocolate and coffee. And my favorite part as a child — the thick, sweet chocolate glaze, is just like how Betty made it.

She’d be proud of me.

Rigó Jancsi (Hungarian Chocolate Cake)

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A cake truly for the grownups in the room, Rigó Jancsi is the perfect dessert to pair with an after dinner coffee. The cake is light, the filling is a blend of coffee and dark chocolate, and the glaze on top sweetens the deal — but just a little bit. This cake is best when served the day it’s made, and comes together fairly easily in about 2 hours and 3 steps.

A few tips: The baking pan(s) you use make a huge difference. My grandmother’s recipe calls for a 15 x 10-inch jellyroll pan; essentially, a rimmed baking sheet. However, I found that the cake dried out too much. Using 2 9 x 13-inch inch pans (or 9 x 9-inch if you’re cutting the recipe in half), doubling her recipe and dividing the cake batter between 2 pans yields a fluffier cake with slightly taller layers.

Also, do NOT RUSH the cake batter. Set up your ingredients in a neat and easy to access order (mise en place), and don’t skimp on sifting the confectioners sugar or cocoa! Those ingredients have a tendency to clump, which can be murder in this batter made up primarily of egg whites. The cake is spongey because of the whipped eggs whites, so folding ingredients into them gently is a must.

Ingredients

For the cake:
10 eggs, separated
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
½ cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the filling:
2 cups heavy cream
¾ cups sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted
½ cup instant espresso powder
4 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the glaze:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
¼ cup boiling water
2 cups confectioners sugar, sifted
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350°F and position a rack to the center. Spray 2 9 x 13-inch cake pans with nonstick spray and set aside.

Whip the egg whites with the salt until stiff. Add the sifted confectioners sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Fold in the cocoa until fully incorporated.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until thick. Then fold the yolks into the cocoa mixture. Add the vanilla extract.

Divide the cake batter between the 2 prepared cake pans, spreading the batter as evenly as possible. Bake for 20 minutes. When the cake layers are finished, they will be a light golden brown and will have pulled away from the edges of the pan.

Cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then transfer to wire racks to cool fully before filling.

For the filling, combine the heavy cream, sugar, cocoa, instant espresso and vanilla, mixing until everything is fully incorporated. Then mix on high until the filling thickens and is smooth and fluffy.

Spread the filling onto the top of one cake layer, then top with the second layer. Chill for 1 hour.

For the glaze, melt the chocolate and butter together, stirring to combine. Mix in the boiling water, confectioners sugar, salt and vanilla extract on low speed. And then once combined, turn the mixer up to medium until the glaze is smooth and glossy.

To finish assembly, trim the edges off the filled cake, then smooth the glaze on top of the cake. Chill to set the glaze.

Before you serve the cake, remove it from the fridge about an hour ahead of time. Slice the cake into small squares.

Serves 24.

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