by Heather Harris Brady
This is the story of a cake, a gypsy and a badass Michigan heiress named Clara Ward. It was right around this time of year, in 1896, when Clara left her prince for the gypsy violinist Rigo Jancsi.
Clara, heiress to a lumber and mining fortune (with ties to Ludington, Leland and the Upper Peninsula), was a perfect example of Edith Wharton’s Ambassadors and an early adopter of the “being famous for being famous” approach (nothing is new). Born in Detroit on Fort Street, educated in London, and married at 15 to a middle-aged Belgian prince rich in title but poor in funds, Clara later acknowledged that she accepted the arrangement only to get out of further schooling. She became the toast of Europe, a favorite of King Leopold and a thorn in her proper mother-in-law’s side. During a ball she wore garters with the Chimay coronet and little gold bells, and put them on display. When the queen told her she was dragging down the family’s name she had said name and crest tattooed on her arm.
So, with things uncomfortable at the Chimay castle she and her prince traveled, enjoying the good life. Escoffier created two dishes in their honor, poulard Chimay and oeufs a la Chimay. In November 1896, while the prince and princess were enjoying a lovely meal in Paris a gypsy violinist caught Clara’s ear with the Rokoezy March. Rumor has it she slipped him her diamond ring and a few days later Clara skipped town with Rigo. I’ll including the rest of the story below the recipe for my fellow history buffs, but if you’re ready to get cooking yourself here we go!
Traditionally this cake is chocolate mousse between two layers of cake and it is cut into the neat, perfect squares. I’ve modified this recipe from Susan Derecskey’s Hungarian Cookbook. It’s light yet rich, chocolately without being super-sweet. Considering how non-traditional Clara was, I think she’d approve of me breaking the rules here and turning it into four layers – one layer, perhaps, for each of Clara’s husbands…
Rigo Jancsi, Makes one large 5” x 14” torte, about 14 servings
For the cake:
- 6 eggs, separated
- 6 T. granulated sugar (vanilla sugar if you have it)
- 3 T. sifted dark cocoa
- 4 T. sifted all-purpose flour
For the filling:
- 4 T. sifted powdered sugar
- 3 T. sifted dark cocoa
- 1 pkt. unflavored gelatin softened in 2 T. cold water
- 2 c. heavy cream
For the glaze:
- 3 oz. dark chocolate
- 1/3 c. heavy cream
- 1 t. butter
Preheat the oven to 400. Whip the egg whites until stiff and set them aside.
Beat the egg yolks, gradually adding the sugar, until thick and lemony.
Fold in the cocoa powder. This got a little awkward, some of the cocoa stuck to the bowl but keep going!
Fold in 1/4 c. of the whipped egg white to lighten the batter, sift the flour over the top and fold that in.
Then fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Grease a jelly roll pan, line it with parchment (I was out so I used foil) and then grease the lining. Pour in the batter.
Bake it for about 15 minutes. While the cake is baking make the glaze. Combine the chocolate and cream in a bowl, melt together until smooth and then stir in the butter.
Peel the paper off while the cake is hot, then cool it completely while you make the whipped cream.
Mix the cocoa and sugar. Stir the gelatin to make sure it’s dissolved. If it’s not warm it slightly in the microwave. Start whipping the cream and add the cocoa mixture.
Drizzle in the gelatin and whip until stiff.
Cut the cooled cake in half (the short way) and then cut each half in half. I’m building my torte on a larger pan first. Once it’s cold and firm I’ll move it to a serving plate.
One of my layers tore a little bit so it’s going on the bottom.
Top the layer with 1/3 of the whipped cream.
Now keep going, two,
When you get to the top finish the last layer with glaze.
When the torte is firm (at least three hours in the fridge), move it to a serving plate and slice it at the table if you want to be dramatic. Serve it cold in 1″ slices.
The rest of Clara and Rigo’s story!
Clara spent Christmas 1896 in a mud hut visiting her future gypsy in-laws, where she promised to marry Rigo as soon as she could. Although her mother pretty much cut her off, she still bought Rigo an expensive violin, exotic pets, and baubles (including a bracelet made from a pair of garters King Leopold gave her). She added Jansci under the Chimay tattoo and he reciprocated by getting her portrait tattooed on his arm as well.
Clara, ever the saucy vixen, told the press that she didn’t know why she left her husband other than that while she liked him well enough she never loved him – and that she did say goodbye when she left! Since they needed to make money now the inheritance spigot was off Clara and Rigo took to the stage. Her photograph, tattoo on display, was also a popular and lucrative money-maker. But, their relationship was rocky and ended before two years were up. Clara took up with a porter and Rigo found other wealthy ladies susceptive to his charms. I’ll put some of my research up on my Pinterest board if you’d like more details – the gossip around this couple is almost as good as the cake!