Queen of Sheba Cake (Julia Child’s Reine de Saba Gateau)

Posted on 17 September 2020

This voluptuously moist French pastry-shop chocolate gateau has just enough structure to qualify as cake, but otherwise could pass for a chocolate truffle for 12.  A shiny glaze doubles down on the chocolate, making sure that no part of your palate escapes the wave of deep dark flavor. Prepare for a totally immersive chocolate experience.

Julia Child wrote that Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) was the first French cake she ever ate, and she devoted her 100th show of The French Chef to this recipe way back in December 1965. First aired on WGBH-TV in Boston, this seminal cooking series went nationwide, catapulting Julia to culinary icon, and then on to her current status as single-name legend.

My mom, who preferred baking pies, nevertheless loved making this cake. She scribbled down notes while watching this episode and soon made this dessert her own. In fact, “Queen of Sheba” is what I visualize up on the marquee when I reminisce about my mom. Maybe it’s also because she recalled with a smile that one of her grade-school teachers truly believed my mom was the reincarnation of a Persian princess.

Black Magic Cake still tops my chocolate cake list for special occasions. Yet sometimes we yearn for a denser, richer, more intense French gateau. We slice it thinly, but then always come back for seconds. A glaze replaces frosting, and a halo of crushed honey-roasted almond slices from Trader Joe’s makes an easy decoration.

Julia slightly altered the recipe in The Way to Cook (1989), cutting back a bit on sugar, replacing some of the sweetened chocolate with unsweetened, and decorating with chocolate leaves. I prefer the original, of course. After all, it comes by way of a Persian princess.

Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) Cake
Cake Batter

  • 2/3 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, or 4 ounces bittersweet baking chocolate, broken into bits
  • 2 tablespoons strong coffee made of espresso powder dissolved in hot water (or 2 tablespoons dark rum)
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • Scant ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch salt (I omit if using salted butter)
  • 1/3 cup almond flour (or finely ground blanched almonds)
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (I substitute 2 teaspoons vanilla)
  • ¾ cup bleached cake flour
  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease and flour an 8” x  1½” round cake pan, or grease and line with wax or parchment paper.
  2. Microwave the chocolate and dissolved coffee (or rum) in a small bowl until the chocolate starts to melt. Stir until smooth, and set aside to cool.
  3. Cream butter and 2/3 cup sugar in a large bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks.
  4. In a small bowl, whip egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and then beat on high. When whites start to hold their shape, beat in 2 tablespoons of sugar until the whites get shiny and form soft peaks, which should happen quickly. Do not overbeat.
  5. Stir chocolate mixture to make sure it is smooth. (If it has set up and gotten granular, add a few drops of warm water and stir until smooth.)  Mix chocolate into the butter, sugar and egg yolk mixture. Stir in almond flour, vanilla and flour.
  6. Using a silicone spatula, sir in a quarter of the beaten egg whites to soften the batter, then quickly fold in the rest of the egg whites.
  7. Turn batter into the pan, then sway the pan back and forth until the batter reaches the rim and the top gets level.
  8. Bake for about 25 minutes in the center rack of the oven. Cake is done when it has puffed up to the top of the pan, and a toothpick tester comes out clean only from about 2½” to 3” in from the edge of the pan. The center should still be moist, and will continue to bake a bit when it comes out of the oven.
  9. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then loosen edge with a knife and turn out the cake.
  10. Let cool 2 hours before glazing. You can freeze the cooled cake and glaze when defrosted.

Chocolate Glaze

  • ½ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, or 3 ounces semisweet or bittersweet baking chocolate
  • 1½ tablespoons strong coffee (or rum)
  • 6 tablespoons softened butter
  • Crushed toasted almond slivers or slices (or Trader Joe’s Honey Roasted Sliced Almonds)

Microwave chocolate in the coffee or rum until soft, then stir until smooth. Add the butter and stir until it has melted and the glaze is smooth. If necessary, place in the freezer or over cold water until thickened enough to spread. Decorate with crushed almonds.

If you wish to freeze the glazed cake, refrigerate first until glaze is set.

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