Icelandic Christmas Dessert – Sarah Bernhardt Cakes

Last year during the Christmas season, I was home on maternity leave. I had a lot of time to bake long and complicated desserts. The dessert that was absolutely worth the time and trouble was the Sarah Bernhardt cake recipe. From the moment I read its description, I knew I had to try it.

It has an almond macaroon base, a chocolate cream filling, and then the whole thing is dipped in chocolate. You typically eat them cold, so they have a nice crunch to them if you eat them straight from the freezer.

These traditional Icelandic cakes actually come from Denmark. Supposedly, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt was visiting Copenhagen so the pastry chef Johannes Steen made this cake in honor of Bernhardt’s visit in 1911. It is now considered a staple of Icelandic Christmas celebrations.

There are a variety of different recipes online. I think I have read through just about every single one – Martha Stewart even has one (but with bad reviews). I ended up choosing to make Mimi Thorisson’s recipe from her website Manger. If you haven’t checked it out before, do so. The photos are gorgeous – I would love to be invited to stay in her home one day! She lives in beautiful country house in France, she is stunning, and her husband takes all the beautiful photographs. Mimi married an Icelandic man and ended up getting this recipe from Hrafnhlidur, Mimi’s mother-in-law’s best friend. All of the photos are from Mimi’s Manger website.

Ingredients: (makes about 40-50, depending on size)

Preheat the oven 180°C/ 350°F

For the meringues:
4 egg whites
230 g (2 and 1/3 cups) icing/ confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
250 g (2 cups) ground almond

In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites (I use a pair of electric whisks) on a high-speed until frothy – try to keep the whisk position as horizontal as possible. Add the sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking. You should add the sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. When the egg whites form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes), gently fold in the ground almonds. With the help of two slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites (you can also use a pastry bag with a large round tip) onto the parchment-lined baking tray. The meringues should be about 4-5 cm large/ 1-1.5 cm high (there are no rules, you can make them any size you want!). I like them ‘macarons’ sized, but they can be smaller if you wish.
Bake for about 10-12 minutes on 180°C/ 350°F. Leave to cool for 8-10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. When cooled store in freezer for 15-20 minutes (on a plate covered with cling film).

For the cream:

300 g (1 and a 1/4 cup) unsalted butter (room temperature)
250 g (2 and 1/2 cup icing) confectioner’s sugar (sifted)
3 egg yolks
3 tbsp instant coffee powder (mixed with 1.5 tbsp hot water to dissolve)
3 tsp cocoa powder

Dissolve the instant coffee with 1.5 tbsp hot water. Set aside to cool. Mix the sifted sugar with the butter. Whisk the egg yolks till light and fluffy, the gradually add in the butter mixture. Pour in the dissolved coffee gently, then add the cocoa powder. Mix well to form a smooth and thick cream/ frosting. Cover with cling film and refrigerate.

300 g/ (2/3 pounds) dark chocolate, melted (for dipping)

Break the chocolate into pieces and place in a heat-proof recipient. Melt over boiling water for a few minutes until chocolate is completely melted. (You can also use the microwave for those who prefer).

To assemble:

Take out the meringues from the freezer and cream from the refrigerator. Spread the cream (about one and a half tsp) over the base of each meringue (see photo). It should look like a small dome. Use the spoon or a palette knife to smooth the surface. Place in a container and return to the freezer for 15 minutes so they can harden.

After 15 minutes of freezing, take out the cream covered meringues (they should be hard by now) and dip each one in the melted chocolate so the cream side is entirely covered. Make sure the chocolate is not too warm. Leave to set.

Line a large tin/ container with parchment paper and place the meringues inside. Cover with paper and close lid tightly. Keep in freezer (they can keep for up to a month). They should be eaten cold and taken out 5 minutes from freezer before serving.

Here is the link to Mimi’s website and the recipe:



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