In her new pâtisserie cookbook, Gâteau - The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes, award–winning American food writer, Aleksandra Crapanzano, explores how Parisians shop and bake. Here she offers baking insight and tips as well as two great recipes.
I have written a dessert column for the Wall Street Journal for close to a dozen years, and so it is no wonder, I suppose, that I want both to debunk the great myth that Parisians return home after work and whip up a batch of impossibly delicate macarons or, say, layer a millefeuille, and also to shine a spotlight on the brilliance of French home baking because the classics are, in fact, brilliant.
Many of the recipes in this book date back, in some form or another, hundreds of years, some even to the Middle Ages.
They’ve stood the test of time because they are inratable – foolproof.
French are less wowed by novelty
Whenever I return to France, one of the things that immediately calms me in some inexplicably profound way is the immediacy of the French connection to their history.
They are simply less wowed by novelty and more interested in eating what they know and love, and they appreciate it being made well and with skill.
This is true throughout the country but, in Paris, there is a playful irreverence mixed in, and an ease with pivoting and changing things up.
Paris is where home cooks and chefs alike borrow confidently from all regions of the country and, for that matter, the world.
Outside Paris, France remains deeply differentiated by region
Identity is still profoundly linked to the land. And the gifts of the land, region to region, are notably different – from the Agen prunes grown in the Aquitaine to the walnuts of Périgord and Grenoble; from the apple orchards of Normandy to the golden mirabelle plums of the Lorraine; from the great lavender fields of Provence to the spicy piment d’Espelette of the Pyrénées.
Nearly every French person I know has a kind of agricultural map of France imprinted on their minds.
And Paris – in drawing the young from every corner of the country – has, for centuries, adopted the best of these regional specialties.
Inspiration is never far
Needless to say, shopping for food in the French capital is taken very seriously indeed. All the same, Parisians love shortcuts.
Walk into, say, La Grande Epicerie de Paris, the great gourmet supermarket in the seventh arrondissement, and you will see shoppers buying prepared puff pastry and freshly ground almond flour, not to mention jars of exquisite fruit suspended in sugar syrup and tender frangipane still a touch warm from the mixer.
You will find dried fruit of every variety, and orange rind crystallised, candied and dipped in chocolate.
And you will encounter a multitude of sugars, from raw to rock, from the lightest of powders to the moist grittiness of a dark Demerara. Inspiration is never far.
Why cake, you might ask?
Although Marie Antoinette didn’t actually bark, “Let them eat cake,” the French do have a thing for cakes.
Even madeleines, financiers and bouchons are all considered little gâteaux, as are nut tortes, savoury cakes and celebratory bûches de Noël.
A French cake will, by and large, have less sugar, as nuance is prized over sweetness.
A bit of salt will bloom the flavours. A cup of yoghurt might add a moist backstage tang. Vanilla is used sparingly. The pure taste of apples is rarely masked by cinnamon. And the pucker of a lemon cake is not undermined by a thick blanket of frosting. Chocolate is most always dark and bittersweet.
Gluten-free cakes abound but are rarely named as such. They simply reflect an appreciation for nuts, toasted and ground, in baking.
Parisians tend to be avid tea drinkers. Think of Mariage-Frères, Palais des Thés and the teas of Fauchon and Hediard. Simple after-dinner infusions of verbena or mint perfume many a cake.
Parisians are highly likely, when baking, to reach for a handy bottle of Calvados, Armagnac, Cognac, eau-de-vie, Poire Williams or crème de cassis and to add a splash – more to impart a depth of flavour than an overt hit of booze.
Rose water and orange blossom water add delicate floral notes, as do the buds of chamomile and lavender.
The French sometimes macerate fresh fruit in a little leftover white wine to serve alongside a slice of cake, but crème fraîche is more or less de rigueur.
A cake may be lightly glazed or dusted with cocoa or confectioners’ sugar, but rarely heavily iced.
These modest cakes have a timeless, understated elegance. No wonder they are classic.
Gâteau au Yaourt à la Farine d’Amande (yoghurt cake)
Almond flour has been a pantry staple in Paris for as long as anyone can remember. It happens to be less expensive than it is here (USA) and, perhaps because of the turnover, usually quite fresh.
In the States, it’s still seen primarily as an alternative to flour for people with gluten sensitivity or for the health conscious, who like it for its protein content.
Almond flour provides texture and taste, and it keeps a cake moist, as almonds are naturally high in fat. It’s for this reason that I use less oil than in an all-flour yoghurt cake.
Almond flour and yoghurt keep the cake moist; Photo: Simon & Schuster
The downside is that almond flour cakes don’t rise quite as high.
Made with equal portions of flour and almond flour, however, lets you capture the best of both worlds. This cake is light, tender and moist and lasts for days.
Like the classic yoghurt cake, it plays well with spices, extracts, liqueurs, syrups and floral waters. Here I’ve added sliced almonds to the top, for crunch.
2 large eggs, at room temperature
245g whole yoghurt
200g granulated sugar
24cl vegetable, canola or grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon almond extract or 2 teaspoons dark rum
1 teaspoon orange blossom water, optional
Zest of a lemon or orange
210g almond flour
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
1.5 teaspoons baking soda
1.5 teaspoons fine sea salt
125g all-purpose flour
36g sliced almonds, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Butter and flour a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan, or a longer French loaf pan, or line it with parchment paper.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, yoghurt, sugar, oil, almond extract, orange blossom water and zest until smooth. Add the almond flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and whisk thoroughly until completely smooth. Sprinkle the flour onto the batter and fold it in with a rubber spatula until no streaks of flour remain.
- Pour the batter into the loaf pan, then sprinkle the top with the sliced almonds, scattering them over the entire surface.
- Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean. (If your oven runs hot, start checking after 35 minutes.)
(Concorde Chocolate Meringue and Mousse Cake)
Once everything is made, layer the meringue disks and ganache then refrigerate for at least 6 hours; Photo: Simon & Schuster
Chocolate meringue disks
6 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
200g granulated sugar
50g almond flour
Dutch processed cocoa
- Put two oven racks equidistant from the top and bottom of the oven and preheat the oven to 225F (110C). Line two 18 x 13-inch baking sheets with parchment paper. Trace three 8-inch circles on the parchment at least 3 inches apart. Two circles will be on one sheet and the third on the other. Flip the parchment ink side down, then liberally butter the top side.
- In a stand mixer or using handheld electric beaters, combine the egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt and beat on medium speed until fine bubbles form. Increase the speed to medium-high and whip until soft peaks form. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar and whip until the meringue is stiff and shiny, but not dry – for another 2–3 minutes.
- In a small bowl, mix together the almond flour and cocoa powder. Sprinkle half of the mixture over the egg whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold to integrate. Repeat with the rest of the cocoa mixture, folding just until combined. Scrape the bottom of the bowl to catch and integrate any stray streaks of almond flour.
- Using a piping bag or a small offset spatula, fill the circles with the mixture.
- Bake for 3-3 ½ hours, or until the meringues are firm to the touch. Turn off the oven, but don’t remove the meringues. Leave them in the closed oven for at least 6 hours and up to 12.
Whipped Chocolate (Mousse-Like) Ganache
50cl double cream and 280 grams dark chocolate, ie. Valrhona Caraïbe 66% cacao
- Bring 20cl of the cream to a boil and immediately pour over the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to melt for a minute, then whisk to create a smooth ganache. Set aside to come to room temperature. This shouldn’t take more than about 10 minutes. If it gets too cold, it will start to solidify, which you don’t want. If that happens, warm it up just a tiny bit—just enough that it stirs easily.
- In a stand mixer or using handheld electric beaters, whip the remaining cream until you see soft, but structured, peaks. Stir a third of this whipped cream into the ganache to lighten it, then fold the remaining ganache into the whipped cream with a rubber spatula. Use immediately.
Making chocolate curls is too time-consuming to do at home. Instead, I like to use a mandoline to cut fine slices of chocolate off a bar. These shards are more, shall we say, industrial-chic than delicate, but let’s not get precious about it.
Use at least 200 grams of dark chocolate if you want to cover the entire cake and still allow everyone to sneak a few shards before dinner. Alternatively, dust the cake with cocoa, then confectioners’ sugar.
- Take 3 chocolate meringue disks
- Lay the chocolate meringue disks on a sheet of parchment. Cover each with a third of the ganache. Then stack them, one on top of the other, on your cake plate. The surface will be ganache.
- Scatter this with an abundance of chocolate curls or shards.
- Create a tented dome with aluminium foil over – but not touching – the cake and refrigerate it for at least 6 hours and up to two days. Let it sit at room temperature for about 20-30 minutes to allow the ganache to soften a bit before bringing it to the table.