By DM Testa
While watching Great British Bake-Off contestants struggle with the Prinsesstarta or Princess Cake, a Swedish sponge cake layered with custard, jam, marzipan, and mountains of whipped cream, (yes, please!) I discovered this was a favorite of three sisters from the Swedish Royal family. Even better, there’s a cookbook named after them so of course, I wanted to know more.
Their mother, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark, had progressive ideas on raising her daughters, one of which was “the monarchy is not an entirely secure occupation.” She insisted that Margaret (b.1899), Martha (b.1901) and Astrid (b.1905) learn to fend for themselves. Once a week, the sisters were responsible for the family’s meals, including budgeting, shopping, and preparing the dishes. Each princess took a nursing course and spent four months at a hospital, getting up at 5a.m. to sweep before starting rounds, a habit which served them well later on.
During World War I, Margaret stayed in London. According to newspapers, she kept “the royal household in a constant state of trepidation,” driving her own car in a “manner that would do credit to a racing driver,” even motoring up the steps of Park House. As the war progressed, Margaret took her nursing skills to a Harrogate hospital, becoming a favorite of wounded soldiers. In May 1919, she married Prince Axel of Denmark.
Next to come to London was Astrid who arrived at St James Palace with her mother in tow. Rumors swirled over “a prospective marriage to that seemingly incorrigible bachelor, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII)” but Astrid already loved another.
In Stockholm, she’d met Leopold, Crown Prince of Belgium and they carried on a lengthy written correspondence. Eventually an engagement was announced but Belgians remained skeptical because Astrid initially had refused three of his proposals in as many weeks. When the steamship carrying Astrid arrived at Antwerp, the shipyard overflowed with thousands eager to see the girl who’d candidly admitted: “I love him, but am afraid to become Queen.”
Astrid waved to them from the ship’s railing while Leopold watched nervously from the dock below. As she stepped onto the gang plank, the crowds fell silent. Nearing the base, she ran to Leopold, threw her arms around him and kissed him. Cheers erupted when he broke royal protocol to kiss her back.
Married in November 1926, the couple would have three children. Eight years later, Leopold ascended to the throne and Astrid became queen, championing causes including formal education for women. But on August 29, 1935, tragedy struck.
On the last day of their vacation the couple were driving in the Swiss Alps. Astrid pointed to something and Leopold took his eyes off the road. The convertible veered down a steep slope, crashing into a tree.
“Astrid!” rang out and witnesses found Leopold cradling her lifeless body.
Her death devastated many with middle sister Martha profoundly affected. Among the looming shadows of World War II, Martha would help raise Astrid’s offspring along with her own three children from her marriage to Crown Prince Olav of Norway.
In 1939, the couple toured the United States, meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt before returning to mobilize Norway forces. On January 26, 1940, Martha publicly encouraged Norwegian women to join the war effort. Three months later, Germany invaded Norway.
The Norwegian government ordered Martha and her children to evacuate to Stockholm but their presence put Sweden’s neutrality in jeopardy. President Roosevelt sent the USAT American Legion to Petsamo, Finland to retrieve American nationals, refugees and Martha’s family. It would be the last neutral ship to leave Petsamo.
At the Roosevelts’ invitation, Martha’s family temporarily lived at the White House, putting a face to the millions displaced by Hitler. Actively involved in supporting the troops, Martha worked in American Red Cross hospitals and accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt to rallies.
In August 1941, Martha attended the Atlantic Charter meetings along with President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. A year later, she provided the inspiration for the president’s Look to Norway speech.
“If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let them look to Norway.”
At war’s end, Martha returned to Norway, dedicating herself to rebuilding her shattered country. She died after a lengthy battle with cancer in April 1953. Although never officially Norway’s Queen, she’d long been “the Queen in people’s hearts.”
This left Princess Margaret. Although she also had three children, “Tante Ta” (Aunt Ta) remained actively involved in the lives of her nieces and nephews. She passed away in January 1977, the last of three fascinating sisters whose lives encompassed romance, royalty, and of course, fabulous desserts.
The Princess and The President – https://www.norwegianamerican.com/the-princess-and-the-president/
Princess Cake – https://www.swedishfood.com/princess-cake
Author Info : Denise Testa & Winston the Great Baking Pyrenees
Throwing “you probably won’t nail it on the first try” warnings to the wind, I decided to make a Prinsesstarta in honor of this blog. But my cookbook contained three recipes with a different version for each sister (Margaret/Caramel, Martha/Coffee, and Astrid/Fresh Fruit,) none of which resembled the GBBO cake.
Perhaps the baking gods and Mary Berry were trying to tell me something?
The princesses overcame far greater adversities than this so I buckled down and scaled back to cupcakes. It worked.
If anyone else has tried the Prinsesstarta, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line on Instagram @vintageknickers.