It's a Sugar Riot!: Sampita

It's a little eerie how website algorithms can often discern what will interest you, beyond what you could possibly figure out for yourself. Amazon tells me which books I might want to read. Netflix recommends foreign films and documentaries for me to watch. And recently The New York Times told me exactly what I wanted to bake.

A few weeks ago I was reading the newspaper online and one of the articles recommended to me at the bottom of the page was this one, about a dessert from Montenegro called Sampita. The story and photo were so captivating that I had to make it right away. As in that very evening.

To be honest, what caught my attention about Sampita was that it just seemed bizarre. It's basically a sponge cake covered in a massive amount of marshmallow, topped with grated chocolate. The article colorfully described it this way: "At first glance, it could be any white-topped European layer cake, until you cut into it and see that it’s mostly a riot of rich sugar. It’s a simple pleasure, sweet and gooey and compelling with strong coffee and rigorous dental hygiene."

The recipe is quite simple. To make the sponge cake, you beat egg yolks with sugar and vanilla until fluffy and pale; incorporate milk and oil; and fold in flour, baking powder, and salt. You pour the batter into a parchment-lined 9-inch by 13-inch pan and bake. The batter rose beautifully and the cake looked terrific.

To make the marshmallow topping, you beat egg whites with vanilla and salt until they hold stiff peaks; add hot sugar syrup; and beat until cool. (When I made this recipe, I was absolutely irate that there was no specific temperature or sugar stage provided for the sugar syrup, but only the description that the syrup should be cooked "until it becomes visibly thicker, with slower, bigger bubbles, 5 to 7 minutes after it comes to a full boil." I used a thermometer and cooked it to 240 degrees. I'm glad I got it in the right neighborhood, because now I can see that the recipe was subsequently modified to specify 235 degrees, or soft-ball stage.) You spread the meringue over the cake, add some chocolate shavings, and put it in the refrigerator for at least three hours.
I left the cake in the fridge overnight and the following morning I was able to cut the sampita into relatively clean slices. The sponge cake layer was substantially shorter than it had been the night before -- I'm not sure if this happened because it was compressed by the weight of the marshmallow (after all, marshmallow doesn't weigh that much), or if this resulted from marshmallow syrup seeping into the cake (since the article mentions that this is a "crucial" part of the dessert).

Sampita tastes exactly like it looks -- like a huge heap of sugary marshmallow on a moist vanilla cake base. It is very sweet, and not something I would recommend eating on a regular basis. But there was something exuberant about this dessert, and I kept thinking that it would probably be a big hit at a child's birthday party (and you could even add some food coloring to the marshmallow layer if you wanted to make it extra festive). I'm glad The New York Times directed me to this recipe -- I never would have discovered sampita otherwise!

Recipe: "Sampita" from the New York Times.