A good meal in a nice restaurant is a wonderful thing, but when there is the possibility of replicating a restaurant dish at home, I find the experience all the more intriguing. This happened for me last year at a small French bistro in San Francisco called Fringale. On that night I ordered the Gateau Basque, a traditional dessert from the Basque region in the south of France. When it arrived, there was nothing on the plate except for a unassuming piece of the cake dusted with powdered sugar, but it tasted so fantastic. A good Gateau Basque is deceivingly simple, but when you eat it, you discover dimensions you never expected.
From that moment, I was hooked. I knew before the check was paid, that I would have to try and recreate that taste for myself once I was back home. My first attempts went quite well. I began with this recipe from Fringale founder and Basque-native Gerald Hirigoyen. Since then, I’ve tried several recipes, making adaptations and changes here and there all in the pursuit to perfect this amazing cake.
The Butter Issue
One of the earliest observations I made was that sometimes the cake would come out tall and airy with a flaky crumb, and other times, it came out dense and heavy. Preferring the former to the latter, I wondered what I was doing differently each time. It didn’t take long to realize it was the butter – or more to the point, how I was handling the butter – that was culprit.
As it turns out, the baking powder isn’t the only leavening at work here. Since Gateau Basque is more like a short crust dough than a typical cake batter, some of the lift actually comes from the butter. Here’s how: Unsalted butter is comprised of fat (~80%), milk solids (~1%) and water (~19%). We all know that water and oil don’t mix, but when butter is in it’s solid form, some of the proteins in the milk solids help to contain the water. When the butter is heated, the water separates and eventually evaporates and forms steam. In pastry and shortcrust dough, layers or bits of solid butter become encased by the dough. When the cold solid butter meets the hot oven air, the water in the butter quickly converts to steam and lifts the dough leaving pockets of air.
Problems occur when butter is allowed to soften or melt before the pastry gets into the oven. The water and oil begin to separate. The water gets into the dough, and the oil sinks. You end up with a heavier cake that feels as though it was soaked it in butter. This is what causes greasy pastries as we discussed in this post on making croissants.
When I realized this is what was happening with my Gateau Basque, I doubled my efforts to keep the butter as cold as possible, and this made all the difference. The first thing I did was to store the greased baking dish in the freezer until it was time to assemble the cake. This way, when I line the pan with dough using my warm hands, the cooled dish helps keep the dough cold. I also made sure the butter was good and cold from the start. One technique is to cut the butter into smaller pieces and allow it cool in the freezer for about 5-10 minutes. The smaller pieces of butter will take less time to break up than the full stick.
Over mixing the dough can also warm the butter. You’ll want to use a gentle hand here. Just mix it enough to bring it together and then wrap it up and let it rest in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. I also return the dough to the freezer after rolling it out and once again just before I put the assembled cake into the oven. You can use either pastry filling or fruit preserves. Which ever you choose, make certain it is fully cooled before assembling the cake.
After making these changes and being mindful not to let the butter melt, my Gateau Basque has consistently been light and flaky. If you do the same, I’m sure you’ll have similar success. Hopefully, you will come to enjoy this wonderful cake as much as I do.
Gateau Basque Recipe
This recipe is adapted from Zen Can Cook, a favorite food blog that I highly recommend. The sites author began his culinary training in the Basque region of France. The story of how he acquired the recipe is equally intriguing. Gateau Basque is commonly made with a vanilla pastry filling, but you can also use fruit marmalades such as cherry or apricot. If you do use the pastry filling, make certain to let it heat for a minute to cook off the raw flour taste.
Makes 6 servings
- For almond pastry
- 8 3/4 ounces (250 g) all pupose flour
- 4 1/2 ounces (125 g) sugar
- one 4 oz. stick (125 g) unsalted butter
- 1 ounce (25 g) almond flour
- 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 lemon zest
- 1/2 orange zest
- For pastry filling
- cherry marmalade
- 2 cups + 2 tbsp (1/2 liter) whole milk
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 1/2 ounces (100 g.) sugar
- 1 3/4 ounces (50 g) flour
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1 tablespoon rum
In a bowl add flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, almond flour and lemon and orange zest. Mix until it looks like sand. Add the egg and the almond extract and mix until dough comes together, do not overmix. Wrap the dough in foil and let it rest in freezer.
In the meantime prepare the pastry cream. Scrape the vanilla bean into the milk and bring to a boil. Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale. Add the flour and whisk until incorporated. Temper the egg mixture by slowly adding half of the hot milk to it while whisking. Place the rest of the milk back on the fire until it starts boiling. Now whisk in the egg-milk-mixture and continue whisking for at least one minute to cook off the raw flour taste. Turn off the heat and spread the mixture out on a large surface in order for it to cool rapidly.
Preheat the oven to 375’F and grease an 8 inch (20 cm) cake pan or pastry dish. Cut the dough in half, and place one half back into the freezer. Roll out the other half to a circle of about 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. Gently line the bottom and sides of the baking dish with the dough. Fill with either cooled pastry cream or cherry preserve.
Roll out the second half of the dough to about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Carefully drape it over the cake filling and and pinch together the edges of the two layers of dough to seal in the filling. Trim off any excess dough. Make a crisscross pattern on top and brush it evenly with an egg yolk diluted in a tiny bit of water. Bake it for 30 minutes or until golden brown.