Le diplomate was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, an emblem, to its very name, of what is commonly known as bourgeois cuisine.
As in the case of le financier, the term designates simultaneously a profession, a sauce and a pastry, whose common point is that they are rich, perhaps even too rich, for a reasonable appetite. The invention of Auguste Escoffier, itinerant codifier, the diplomate sauce, for instance, according to the Repertory of his faithful Gringoire, consists in chopped truffle, combined, to make it simple, with a viscous marriage of 'noble rot' and molluscs: indeed its base is no less than an 'essence of mushroom and oyster juice' fish fumet, first tied in, then reduced, then butter and cream are added, and yet it remains very digestible, if one is to believe its patented defenders.
The homonymous sweet does not owe its name any more to diplomate pudding, which Gingoire defines with his usual lapidary eloquence as a 'cold cabinet pudding', decorated with frills, and with the so-called diplomate cream, in its composition. The latter is a simple stiffened ' English cream', a bit stiffer than the bavaroise, and it's to this fortuitous collusion with the then hostile or competing powers of France that it owes its name. It may be useful to add that diplomate cream contains liqueurs or coffee, not without an excessive preference for the first of the two. And yet the custom is to delete this last information, even though no one knows the reason for this collective blank.
Le diplomate which concerns us here is composed of only three elements—spoon cake, diplomate cream and fruit—and these are disposed very simply as follows: a layer of cake, hidden under a layer of cream, which in turn is hidden by a layer of fruit, and this is repeated once or twice.
Traditionally the cake used is spoon cake, which despite its appearance got its name because for the first four centuries of its inscription in the history of French cooking it was spoon-moulded. Its name has nothing to do with a certain popular expression which it never fails to evoke*; nevertheless, the fact that in pastry spoon cake is often imbibed with alcohol, kirsch in particular, does not plead in its favour and it remains without doubt that, in the opinion of those in the know, the diplomats of this sort 'are quite pathetic'. It was clearly established by historians that the split between the name and the pastry goes back in fact to the eve before Napoleon's defeat, when the cake which was to serve as a base to the future diplomate was given by Carême, the elongated, reduced and flattened shape which was inspired by Talleyrand, so that he could dip them in his glass of Madeira, which would not have been possible in its first form.
As if the presence of spirits both in the cake and in the cream was not enough of a lack of taste the fruits used as a third component of the sweet are also dipped in spirits. Indeed the common diplomat only uses dried or candied fruit; and at a time where industrial production of those goods can be badly manipulated, their mediocrity is again underlined by this third adjunction of spirits that was supposed to attenuate it.
By counting on ignorant judges' indulgence, if it is easy to make a diplomat, given the simplicity of its very basic piling up scheme of calibrated preparations, yet it is also true that the dessert does not present a great culinary interest. That is why it had been banished from the good tables of France and Navarre, as well as of any self-respecting fine food-shop, and it's probably one of the only traditional French pastries not to have ever had any popular roots. Neither its pretension, which is contradicted by its gustative and technical mediocrity, nor its heaviness, a candied embodiment of self-conceit, can allow you to forget that the diplomat is void of himself and in that, conform to the only taste which gave it a reason for existing, which is now obsolete; this taste, which is undissociable from the thrusting bourgeois ideals of a bygone epoch, was that of the shameful embellishments of colonial expansion.
And yet le diplomate survives, here and there, under the guise of destructured recipes found on sites for housewives in quest of a certain quality of life, or worse still, as a monstrous aberration, but a real one, in the deep confines of the colonies. It is with pride that a Rumanian, or is it a Bulgarian pastry-shop, presents itself to the world, surrounded by the doubtful aura of a cake composed of two juxtaposed uneven half-circles, submerged in different dappled creams, respectively fluorescent or brownish: le diplomate and the 'richard ' ** have merged to become a cake called 'cocktail ', which is sold under the banner of an asinine Anglophony... Can the French traditional diplomate fall any lower, well the precise measure of its downfall would entail quite a perilous documentary adventure along the farthest of outposts according to French good taste which are China, Africa or South America, all of which, one can be almost quite sure, that they have met with as repugnant a form of le diplomate as the one found in Eastern Europe. Given the gastronomic horror that one would be condemned to affront at the term of this survey, it's doubtful that candidates would be numerous.
There's no inevitability in this discomfiture. Le diplomate's very definition is nothing but the combination of three elements: cake, cream and fruit, which can be found in the majority of French desserts; the specific use of the diplomate cream, one which is stiffened, perfumed, and with added spirits, is not shocking to a purist, as long as the proportions remain measured, and the choice of the savours refined and original; as for the construction's simplicity it can call for invention, or act as a reminder of humility. In short le diplomate's fiasco should be considered as a pretext for a vivifying and healthy recreation more than as a subject for maceration.
As for the first element, a very simple almond cake would be just fine. Both mellow and savoury, once imbibed with syrup or rather almond milk, it would produce an agreeable textural contrast with the other elements. The diplomate cream would be much more interesting if it was lightened up and given an added stiffness. It can be perfumed with a bit of alcohol; yet in this case it would be better to choose an old refined amber rum from Martinique, whose perfume only will penetrate the cream, without the heavy relents of alcohol. These small modifications would be enough to give le diplomate a bit of vitality, but the essential part is how to work the fruit. An apricot jelly, or even a simple orange zest marmalade, would make it a delicious dessert. Yet it would be an error to hamper gustative experimentation by exclusive prescriptions: the ideal would be to use only fruit in season, the best pick of the moment, and to renew these fruits all along, which is not the case in the traditional, heavy and stolid diplomat, which is alien to the notion of freshness itself. The raspberry, the fig or the mango would all be glorious, each in its own way; as for the pineapple, it would have to simmer awhile in sugar so that its natural acidity wouldn't alter the diplomate cream's firmness beneath it; but it would become a feast with a bit of quince tenderised and candied with a bit of vanilla from Tahiti.
Finally at the moment of putting it together, one should limit oneself to two layerings, and then pour a fine layer of cream on the whole, in order to cover the cumulative structure and to give more elegance to the edifice. Fresh fruit of the same type as those of the filling can be used to decorate the top of the dessert. Although they must be cut and arranged with skill and a sense of aesthetics, their function is not only decorative: the contrast between the taste of the natural fruit and the taste of the fruit that's been modified is indeed stimulating for the perception and enrichment of gustative sensations. Of these refinements depends the pleasure, re-enforced by the surprise factor, for it is not given to everyone, be it only once in his life, to appreciate the freshness, the imagination, nor even the good taste of a diplomat.