For me, the sensation of living in a foreign country bears a remarkable resemblance to that of becoming a parent. Despite your well-intentioned preparations, the moment it happens is the moment you realize just how clueless you truly are.
I cannot begin to recount the dopey things I’ve said and done to date. In the small, impossibly quaint village where we reside, I’m guessing I have been the subject of a conversation or two at the local bar. And that’s ok. Making rookie mistakes – of both the cultural and language type – is an indication that I am putting myself out there, ready to learn. And learn I have.
That time I told the attendant at the farm store I was looking for “poulet”? I think that eyebrow may now be embedded in the crown of his head.
“Infirme” is not the same as “malade”. You want to “caresser” a cute dog, not “embrasser.” (Although frankly, I’m not above hugging a darling pup!) Parking in front of anyone’s house is rude, even if it’s the only available space on the block. And that tiny little path behind your garden? No one uses it. Unless…you decide to feed the chickens (those would be les poules, NOT poulet) in your pajama shorts. Bonjour!
While playing the role of town idiot may seem like a full-time job, I’ve also been busy in the kitchen, testing recipes for my new book, French Cakes.
Which brings me to another learning opportunity. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW MANY DIFFERENT CAKES THERE ARE IN FRANCE? A veritable rabbit-hole of research, I think I may be farther from finishing this thing than when I began. The idea seemed simple enough: choose one cake to represent each of France’s 96 mainland departments, test them, get Bitna to take some amazing photos, and voila!
Then things got complicated. Everywhere I turned, another time-honored, “my grandmother made this for me as a kid” recipe emerged. And nearly every single one called to me. Each week, I had a new cake obsession, much to the initial glee and later, exhaustion, of my family.
Enough self-depreciation. I’m in awe of all I’ve learned these last nine months. Now let’s eat some cake.
The Breton looooooove their butter. So it stands to reason that my favorite cake from this region keeps things simple in order to showcase the quality of this revered, regional product. This version is more akin to a rich, giant shortbread. Other recipes include leavening, which gives the pastry a more cake-like texture. If you have access to good quality, French “demi-sel” butter, you may substitute it for the butter and fleur-de-sel.
250 g (18 T) unsalted butter, room temperature
5 g (1 t) fleur-de-sel
250 g (1.25 c) vanilla sugar
(or 250 g granulated sugar, plus the seeds from 1/2 a vanilla bean pod)
6 large egg yolks, plus one for glazing
300 g (2 c + 2 T) pastry flour (or all-purpose, if that’s more convenient)
Preheat oven to 325° F. Line the bottom of an 8″ cake pan with a circle of parchment. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter, salt, and vanilla sugar until soft and fluffy. Add the six egg yolks, one at a time, and beat until the mixture is pale yellow and creamy (about 2 minutes on high speed.) Add to flour and mix on low speed until evenly incorporated. Do not overmix.
Turn the finished dough into the prepared pan. Using your palm and fingers, press the dough evenly into the mold. In a small bowl, beat the remaining egg yolk lightly with a fork. Use a pastry brush to evenly coat the dough with a thin layer of egg yolk, being careful not to get the yolk on the sides of the pan (it will burn.) Using the tines of a fork, create a decorative lattice pattern on the top of the dough.
Bake the pastry in preheated oven until evenly golden, about 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool until you can comfortably pick up the pan with your bare hands. With one hand on the pastry, invert the pan, releasing it from the pan. Turn the pastry right-side-up onto a plate. Enjoy it now, while it is warm, or later. This cake keeps well, and is lovely to have on hand for guests.
One for the Road
Dan and I have just posted one last travel excursion for 2018. It’s a tour of the Pyrénées, from the ancient Cathar ruins to the beaches of the Costa Brava. So if you are interested in an active, off-the-beaten-path culinary road trip this fall, we’ve got one in the works. Eight guests, 11 days, 7 wineries, and countless regional food specialties away. From Gateau de Voyage du Pays Cathare to the famous Spanish tieilles of Sete, to Milhassou au potiron, we’ll keep you well-fed, and will balance it off with daily hikes and cultural excursions.
Hoping you are all happy, well, and basking in a bit of spring sunshine.