Photo by Tara Striano
While on a recent press trip to Basque country, I stumbled out of a tour bus with a group of fellow writers. We quickly went shopping for polvorones, ogling the pastries and cookies at the counter of the store. A white block of something which looked like meringue caught our eye. The shop owner didn't offer much in the way of explaining what the history and construction of this "pastel ruso" (Russian cake) were, simply saying it was meringue with butter. This begged a, "¿Disculpe?" Butter? I needed to verify that my Nicaraguan Spanish wasn't breaking down and I was misunderstanding her Spanish Spanish accent. Could this be real? Meringue and butter? It sounded very odd, but we were game to try.
The shop woman took a block of pastel and wrapped it in orange-and-white parchment. We found an empty park bench and unwrapped it. It looked so simple, yet we were perplexed. And then a first crumbly, buttery, confecioners sugar-dusted bite explained everything: it was sublime.
This recipe is an adaptation of the pastel ruso. Instead of a dry meringue, I've opted for a chewy pavlova-like version. The butter between the layers is an approximation of the original: softened butter is whipped with an egg yolk and confectioners' sugar, then spread generously between the layers. The result: a light, crisp, chewy meringue with inexplicably creamy, lightly sweetened swirls of butter.
- For the Meringue Layers:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 2 cups (about 14 ounces) granulated sugar
- 4 teaspoons cornstarch
- 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons white vinegar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- For the Sweet Butter and Assembly:
- 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
For the Meringue Layers: Adjust oven rack to upper-middle and lower-middle positions and preheat oven to 275°F. Grease 3 (9-inch) round cake pans with 2 tablespoons butter. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and tap out excess. Line bottoms of pans with parchment paper rounds.
Combine sugar and cornstarch in small bowl. Beat egg whites, vinegar, and salt on medium low speed until frothy, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium high, and, with mixer running, slowly add the sugar-cornstarch mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. When finished, continue mixing until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 2 minutes longer. Add vanilla and beat just until combined.
Spread an equal amount of meringue in prepared cake pans. Bake until dry and crisp, about 1 hour, rotating and alternating pans halfway through baking. Shut off oven, prop open with wooden cooking spoon, and allow meringues to sit in oven for 1 hour.
For the Sweet Butter and Assembly: Meanwhile, prepare the butter spread. Beat the butter, 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl with mixer on low speed, about 1 minute. Once confectioners’ sugar is combined with butter, increase speed to medium and beat until mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Carefully invert 1 meringue onto a plate and remove and discard parchment. Place the meringue, top side up, on a serving plate or cake stand. Spread with half of butter mixture. Repeat inversion method with second meringue, arrange on top of butter mixture, spread with the remaining butter mixture, and top with third meringue. Sift remaining 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar over meringue. Serve.
3 (9-inch) round cake pans, parchment paper, electric mixer, sifter