In my family the celebration cakes of choice were elegant, restrained, fruit-filled sponges from a Chinese bakery. As a child I hated them. They were ethereal and airy, barely sweet, and frosted only with a light whipped cream. To my Americanized palate, they were more fruit salad than dessert. What I craved were tooth-achingly sweet chocolate cupcakes with swirls of dense buttercream, confetti cakes with frosting from the tub, and domed rosette-covered cakes with a whole damn Barbie sticking out of them.
But sometimes, if it was my mom's turn to bring the cake, I'd get lucky. She'd stop by Schubert's Bakery in the Richmond or Ambrosia Bakery in the Sunset and pick up a princess cake. Underneath the perfectly smooth lurid green marzipan dome, there'd be three layers of genoise striped with raspberry jam and pastry cream, all slathered with a healthy coating of whipped cream. The princess cake was a happy medium, with components similar to those of a Chinese bakery cake but enough sweetness and pomp to register for me as a capital-D Dessert.
The princesses in question are Margaretha, Märtha, and Astrid of Sweden. Born around the turn of the 20th century, they attended a Stockholm home economics school run by Jenny Åkerström, who, in 1929, published a four-volume cookbook titled Princesses Cookbook: Home Cooking and Holiday Food. The 1948 edition contains the first known recipe for grön tårta, or green cake-an alleged favorite of the young royals, which explains why it's most commonly known as prinsesstårta.
Although princess cake hails from Sweden, it's iconically San Franciscan, found at bakeries across the city. (Epicurious digital director Maggie Hoffman, who lived for years in the Mission, had no idea that the Swedish princess cake she'd eaten so many times had its roots in literal Sweden.) Would-be prospectors from Scandinavia first arrived in the Bay Area during the Gold Rush, and immigration boomed during the first decade of the 20th century, with SF's Swedish population nearly doubling between 1900 and 1910. Their legacy can be felt in San Francisco to this day, from Cafe du Nord-an historic music venue in the basement of the Swedish American Hall-to the Swedish pancakes at Sears' Fine Foods. As for those princess cakes, Schubert's Bakery sells around 150 of them a week.
I miss these cakes-they're as hard-to-find in New York as they are ubiquitous in San Francisco-and every time an occasion rolls around, I toy with the idea of making one from scratch. If you want to try your hand at baking one of your own, know that you're in for a project, but you're in good hands with this recipe from ScandiKitchen Fika & Hygge by Brontë Aurell.
You'll start by making the sponge layers-which contain no chemical leaveners, relying only on thoroughly whipped eggs. The recipe calls for forming the batter into three 8" circles on parchment-lined baking sheets, but you could certainly use three cake pans instead. While the cakes are in the oven, make your pastry cream. Schubert's spikes theirs with kirsch, but that's optional. When the pastry cream is thickened and cooled, spread a layer of raspberry jam on top of a trimmed cake layer, top it generously with pastry cream, and repeat, crowning your layers of berries and cream with the third cake round. With the top layer in place, spackle the whole thing with whipped cream. This is not the time for pillowy, loose whip-you need to whisk until the cream holds stiff peaks to be able to achieve the princess cake's hallmark dome.
While you could use store-bought marzipan for your outer layer, making your own means that you can dial in the sweetness and color of your choosing. Green food coloring is traditional, but pink, yellow, marbled-go wild. Starting with almond flour (opt for blanched if you want your food coloring to really pop) makes quick work of the process. More difficult is rolling out the marzipan into a large, even circle and transferring it, without sticking or tearing, onto the cake. A liberal sprinkling of powdered sugar can help.
As for decorations, marzipan roses and leaves often make appearances on princess cakes, as do chocolate curls and delicately piped filigree-but really, you can choose with your heart. However you spruce it up, this is a cake that's fit for a princess-no Barbie required.