So OK, this is a slow project. But let me tell you, this is a challenging pastry. I’ve done it maybe seven times now and I’m still not happy with the results. I’m starting to see why there are so few recipes for this pastry in English.
There are several technical issues with the cake. First, it calls for two batters, baked in alternate stripes, right next to each other. Both are fussy: meringue and ladyfinger. One traditionally calls for low heat, the other for high heat. Formulated and baked just right, they coexist in beautiful harmony. But therein lies the rub. If you’ve ever seen a cardinal slice, you know the layers have a fluted appearance. Like so:
So far that presentation has eluded me. The Baking with Julia recipe, which I’ve pretty much decided to abandon, calls for a meringue-ladyfinger combo that’s baked at low heat. Both batters are extremely light — especially the ladyfinger batter which is virtually pure egg foam. Here they are on my first attempt:
Here’s how they baked up. Not bad, but flat. This has a lot to do with the 300-degree oven temperature, which is quite low for ladyfinger batter which needs a heat blast to puff well.
Convinced I’d made a mixing mistake, I kept after the recipe. However that second batter really vexed me. It needs to be whipped, but not over-whipped, since both lead to disaster. Here’s an under-whipped version (not so bad, but you can still see how difficult it is to pipe such a foamy, liquid-ish batter in straight lines).
Over-whipped, things are worse. In this one the ladyfinger stripes were actually lower that the meringue stripes. No good-ski.
After five or so attempts I couldn’t figure out how to get a ladyfinger to puff at 300 degrees. So I switched over to the Nick Malgieri ladyfinger batter recipe, which calls for higher heat: 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The batter felt a lot better. It was a bit thicker and piped nicely. My first try seemed auspicious…
…but the higher heat caused the meringue to over-cook. Dang.
Next I’m planning a full-on Malgieri. The ladyfinger batter seems to work well (save for the big holes on top, which I hope to remedy). Logic dictates that the meringue — which I assume is formulated for higher heat tolerance — should work well too. But we’ll see.
Once I get the layers solved I’ll turn my attention to the slicing, an issue no one seems to want to talk about. Cardinal slice filling, as you may know from reading the recipe, is flavored whipped cream. How do you cut a three-layer pastry, filled with ultra-light whipped cream, into perfectly clean slices? A stabilizer and a freezer are no doubt the answer. Stay tuned!