I studied pastry in Paris in the early 1980s, and I took my culinary education very seriously: I religiously sampled every dessert that the city had to offer, which is quite a few. I’m still holding on to a few of those extra pounds today, but more important, I’m holding on to the memory of my favorite of those many desserts—Marquise au Chocolat, that satiny-smooth, deep chocolate confection, usually made in a loaf shape and often edged with tender ladyfinger cake. The dessert is a real mainstay of the classic repertoire, but I’ve noticed it showing up recently on menus of several trendsetting restaurants.
Over the years I’ve been refining and adjusting the recipe for marquise to get it just how I like it. I came to realize that marquise isn’t really one dish, but rather three separate components: a rich chocolate truffle-like filling, delicate ladyfingers, and a coffee-infused cream. Each component has its own quirks and technical challenges, and each component is crucial to the delicate balance of power.
Give classic ladyfingers a crunchy twist
Traditional marquise recipes call for vanilla-scented ladyfingers, but I like to add toasted, ground hazelnuts for the subtle flavor and the nubby texture they add to the delicate fingers.
The cake batter is based on a classic French biscuit, which means the yolks and whites are beaten separately (as opposed to a génoise, in which whole eggs are whipped to the ribbon stage). The ladyfingers get their spongy lift from a bit of baking powder and perfectly whipped egg whites. If the whites are too soft, your batter will be runny and impossible to pipe (as well as pancake-flat after baking). If the whites are too firm, they’ll become grainy and lose volume and you’ll also get flat ladyfingers.
Make a template for easier piping
The ladyfingers are the outer garment for the marquise so they need to be precisely the right size, attractive, and with no gaps between them. I’ve learned not to make individual ladyfingers but to make “prefab siding” using a template. Tracing the sides and bottom of the pan on a piece of parchment consolidates the work to one baking sheet. It also eliminates the guessing game of how many ladyfingers I’ll need to line the pan. The photos below show how I mark the template and pipe the sides.
Do your homework—prepare that mold. Recipes always tell you to prepare your pan before starting to make the batter, and in this case, you really need to obey the directions. Once the filling is made, it must go in to the mold immediately or it may start to separate or harden as it cools. I suggest lightly greasing or spraying the mold and lining it with plastic wrap. This keeps the marquise fresh and makes unmolding a breeze.
Use fresh eggs and splurge on the chocolate
The chocolate filling uses four yolks that don’t get cooked, so you should scrupulously check for freshness and cracks. If you see any cracks, don’t use that egg and select another one. Once the yolks are separated, keep them chilled until just before mixing. If you prefer not to eat raw egg yolks, you might try Fine Cooking contributing editor Shirley Corriher’s method for “pasteurizing” them. Combine the four yolks with 1/2 cup of the cream and 1 teaspoon of the sugar from the recipe in a small saucepan. Stir over very low heat, scraping constantly to avoid lumps. If the yolks start to thicken, pull the pan from the heat and dip it in cool water. Continue like this until the yolks have been heated for about 4 minutes. As long as the temperature was at least 140°F (very hot tap water), any salmonella bacteria that may have been present will be killed. Now use the yolks in the recipe as directed.
Select the chocolate carefully for this dessert—after all, it’s the star. I use a fine-quality bittersweet like Valrhona or Callebaut. Scharffen Berger is a relatively new premium brand you should look for, and Lindt is often sold in the grocery store and is fine in a pinch. The extra-smooth texture and slightly bitter tone of premium-quality bittersweet chocolate is a nice contrast to the buttery filling. A quick note here on the difference between bittersweet and semisweet: In general, bittersweet is less sweet than semisweet, but there are no industry standards, so one brand’s bittersweet may be about as sweet as another brand’s semisweet. Just taste and choose what you like—either will work fine in this dessert.
Learn to control the textures
When making the filling, the goal is a perfectly blended, perfectly smooth, dense but creamy mixture, like the center of a truffle. The way to get that is to have all the filling ingredients at exactly the right stage. Begin by melting the chocolate and keeping it warm. If the chocolate is too cool when you add it to the butter and sugar, the mixture will harden when you add the cream. The whipped cream itself really just wants to be whipped until it thickens slightly— you’re looking for body, not volume here.
Next, check that the unsalted butter is just barely soft. It should still be cold and give just slightly when pressed with your thumb. I combine the butter and superfine sugar with the paddle, not the wire whisk. I want the ingredients to blend but not to aerate.
Serve it up, with a new kind of sauce
The final component of the dessert is the sauce. You might be tempted to overlook this part, but I find that a little drizzle and pooling of this luscious sauce bring all the elements together.
Tradition calls for a cooked egg and cream sauce, crème anglaise. But my friend Steve Hunter suggested using a simple cream reduction that’s lightly sweetened and flavored with espresso powder. It can be made two days ahead, and the results are so spectacular that I’ve never used anything else since he gave me the idea. Adding a split vanilla bean while reducing the heavy cream is a more traditional flavoring and equally yummy, too.
Finally, pay close attention to the slicing technique. A well-sliced marquise makes a beautiful presentation. I always say that “the eye is the first to feast” (much to the mirth of the Fine Cooking staff. I guess I say it quite often…but it’s true). The marquise is easiest to slice when cold, but I think it tastes better at cool room temperature—smooth textures, mellow flavors—so you can slice and plate it up to about an hour before serving, just before you serve the first course of your holiday dinner.