Whenever we went back to Biarritz, when I was a kid, and were taken on one of our favourite outings, to the wonderful Dodin patisserie, I would always ask for the same cake: a 'Russe', or'Russian'. This wonderful cake, made of hazelnut or almond meringue, layered with butter cream that was either flavoured with coffee or hazelnut, tasted like a slice of heaven to me, with its combination of breautiful crunchy meringue and lusciously smooth flavourful butter cream. It's a cake you only ever find in patisseries in the South of France, and only in the south-west at that--you never see it in the patisseries of Paris, or anywhere else in France. So you could get it in Toulouse and Biarritz but not Marseille, for instance. I didn't know why it was called a 'Russe'. Later, I heard that originally it was made with the best almonds imported from Crimea. But now I think that it must have been in fact a kind of adaptation of a beautiful Russian meringue cake called 'Swallow's Nest'--and though I'm not sure who first devised it, I'd hazard a guess its origin might be in Biarritz, which was full of Russian exiles after 1917. Dodin's Patisserie has been going since the 19th century and though it lays claim to being the originator of the famous (and delicious)chocolate cake, the 'Beret Basque'(so-called because its shape ressembles the famous Basque headgear) it does not claim to have birthed the Russe, though its examples were always wonderful. (By the way, if you want to drool over some of Dodin's beauties, here is their website: http://www.dodin.eu/ )
Anyway to get back to my Russe, it's something that I not only loved in childhood but now too. But I always thought I had to wait to get back to South-west France to indulge in it again. I thought it would be one of those sorts of cakes that would be too difficult to pull off for a home cook and so each birthday in Australia, I'd put in a request for my second-favourite cake, the Gateau Moka. This is also a gorgeous cake--a Genoise sponge layered with coffee butter cream, and David, my husband, has made it superlatively well for many years. But a Gateau Moka is not easy to make too far ahead of time and transport and as my birthday was going to be in Sydney this year, I knew I'd have to think again. I remembered seeing the 'Swallow's Nest' cake in the Russian cookbook we bought in Moscow and thought, how about that, and then started thinking, that sounds a bit like a 'Russe'--and then David said, well, meringue's much easier to make ahead of time, why don't I have a go at a Russe? He made me describe it and started looking up recipes--and then made his own version which turned out spectacularly well and which proved a huge hit at the birthday party!
Here's his recipe for a beautiful 'Davidov' which I think I'll dub his version of the 'Russe'! And it shows that a home cook can indeed pull off a Russe as well as any patissier--all my siblings, who'd tasted the 'real' Russes, agreed that it reproduced exactly the look and texture and flavours we all loved at Dodin's!
The various bits of the Davidov cake can be made well ahead of time--several days ahead in fact. If you do that you need to conserve the meringue in an airtight tin and the coffee butter cream in the fridge. As the butter cream will harden in the fridge, you'll need to warm it up slightly when you are assembling the cake, or you'll break the meringue. This cake will serve up to 15 people. (It did at the party anyway!)
Ingredients for meringue layers and individual meringue rosettes for decoration: 10 egg whites, 400 g castor sugar, 2 tablespoons cornflour, 150 g hazelnut meal. You will also need, for decoration on last meringue layer, some crushed roasted hazelnuts.
Method: Beat egg whites till stiff, add sugar bit by bit, beating well after each addition till you get a beautiful glossy meringue. Mix cornflour and hazelnut meal together, fold into meringue mix. On one greased or baking-papered tray, pipe some meringue rosettes for decoration; on another two or three, the meringue layers(this one had three layers). Bake in a slow oven(150 C) for an hour or so, till done(biscuit-coloured and reasonably dry.)
Ingredients for coffee butter cream: 6 egg yolks, 450 g butter(David used a mixture of 300 g unsalted, 150 g salted, but you can use just unsalted if you like), 2/3 cup castor sugar, 1/2 cup hazelnut syrup(or light corn syrup, or pure maple syrup--David used the hazelnut syrup--Monin from France which can be used to flavour coffee etc), coffee essence or make your own as David did with 2 tablespoons instant coffee and two tablespoons boiling water--it should be a thick gooey mixture--you can also use a small amount of strong espresso).
Method: Dissolve the sugar in the syrup in a pan on stove. Take off stove and let cool a little. Meanwhile beat egg yolks till pale and foamy. Little by little, mix the warm(but not hot)sweet syrup into the egg mixture. When you have incorporated it all, cut the butter into small pieces and add to the mixture, beating in well so butter melts and makes a thick cream(you can make this in the food processor if you have one.) The cream can now be used if you are putting together the cake or it can go in fridge till you put the cake together. (Remember to warm it before use.)
Putting cake together: Put the first layer of nut meringue on the plate, spread with some of the butter cake. Layer the next round of meringue, repeat, till you have used up the meringue layers and most of the butter cream(but keep some for the top and maybe the sides if you want. On the last layer, spread the rest of the butter cream, and decorate with the meringue rosettes and crushed roasted hazelnuts.