Gâteau Basque

It goes without saying that having children takes a lot of sacrifice. One of them is financial. In our household, we loose one income to feed an extra mouth -- which I happily do, but still, the numbers do not lie. Finances do add up, and we could no longer spend any money buying pastries without some kind of planning, the way I usually would in a whim, without second thought, when we used to be DINKs.

That's what happened when I came across a glorious slice of Gâteau Basque at a beautiful place called The London Plane during an outing with the Tod. At $5.50 a piece, it was eye-wateringly expensive, at least for us. But that's when the adventure took a turn for the better.

I read up all I could about Gâteau Basque: how it is a cake, a pie, and a cookie rolled in one, how the pattern on the top crust gives a hint to the filling inside, where there is a museum dedicated entirely to Gâteau Basque. I even read about the whole history of the Basque region, the nationalism, the language, the people. After much reading, I came out feeling somewhat smarter than shelling out the $5.50.

Far from the smug-sounding name, making Gâteau Basque is really quite easy and fool-proof. All one need is two components: the crust (which is a version of pâte sablée) and the filling (which can be frangipane/almond pastry cream, plain pastry cream, black cherry jam, or combination of the above).

I happened to have a handful of overripe black cherries at home (about 2 cups), which I turned into jam by adding sugar (about 80% of weight) and the juice of one lemon. I pitted the cherries using the chopstick method and cooked until the jam reduces down to about half. Easy peasy. Next, I prepared the pastry cream, perhaps the most complicated component of the gâteau. If one fancies frangipane, all one needs to do is to add ground almond. Finally, the crust was the easiest. I didn't even have to use the mixer. I simply beat the butter and sugar by hand, added the rest of the ingredients, and rolled it into disks. The next day, I assembled all the components (the top crust actually broke apart, but in the picture you really can't tell, because the dough was so soft and easy to pinch together).

So forgiving, so humble, so satisfyingly delicious. I hope you will give this a try!

Gâteau Basque 

(recipe adapted from Dorie Greenspan, who seems to know everything there is to know about this cake)

1 8-inch round cake pan with 2-inch side, buttered generously (I made this using a springform pan, but if you have regular pan, line it with parchment and butter it generously).

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
Beat butter, light brown sugar and sugar until pale and fluffy, a good 5 minutes or so, by hand or with mixer. Add egg and beat some more. It will look quite lumpy but that's ok.
Add the sifted flour mixture into the butter mixture, drizzle in the vanilla. I found using wooden spoon is the best at this point. Mix just enough until a soft, cookie-like dough forms.
Divide the dough in half. Roll each into slightly larger than 8-inch disk in diameter, in between two sheets of parchment papers (or cling wrap). Chill the dough at least 3 hours or overnight. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead).

Pastry Cream Filling:
(this recipe makes 2 cups, you only need one cup for the cake, save the rest for another cake or better yet, eat them as pudding)

2 cups whole milk
1 plump, moist vanilla bean, split lengthwise, pulp scraped out
6 large egg yolks
½ cup sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch, sifted
3 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cold

Whisk yolk, sugar, and sifted corn starch. Set aside.
Scald the milk over medium-high heat until little bubbles start to form.
Take the pot off the stove. Ladle a bit of the hot milk into the yolk mixture and stir. Add more milk, bit by bit (a process called tempering) until the yolk mixture feels warm to the touch. When that happen, it is safe to add the yolk mixture into the rest of the scalding milk in a thin, steady stream, stirring the milk constantly.
Put the mixture back onto the stove. Switch to a whisk, over medium heat, whisk the mixture until it boils and thickens. It will really thicken to the consistency of pudding. When that happens, I'd back off from stirring for a second and see if there's a puff of steam coming out from the "pudding," which means the whole thing is really boiling.
Take off from heat, and plunk the cold butter onto the hot mixture. Stir quickly until all the butter is melted and incorporated. Cool the pastry cream down completely before using.

Cherry Jam Filling:
(my own rendition, feel free to use store-bought)

2 cups of pitted black cherries or other ripe cherries
1 cup of sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
A splash of almond extract (optional)

Cut cherries in half or quarter, if they are big. Put cherries and lemon juice into a pan and set them into boiling over medium-high heat. When the cherries are wilted and juice starts to come out, add sugar. Continue cooking until the mixture bubbles big bubbles (rather than small, frothy bubbles), and reduced to about 1/2, stirring occasionally. The big bubbles signifies that the mixture has cooked down enough to the gelling point (you can do the frozen-plate testing at this point: drizzle some jam onto frozen plate, and stick into the fridge for a few minutes. Then the jam looks like jello, the jam is done). Pour into container and cool down completely before using.

1 egg beaten with a bit of water, for glazing

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Set crusts aside on the kitchen countertop for a few minutes until it is pliable but still cold.
Put one crust on the bottom of the pan. Make a plate-shape with the dough with the sides about 1 1/2 inches high.

Pile in pastry cream and/or jam, as much as it can fit. I started with pastry cream on the bottom and simply dotted the top with a few chunky cherries from the jam here and there.

Top the cake with another piece of dough, pinch the sides together and make it as nice as you could (I promise, it will look good no matter what). Score the crust or decorate as you wish, and glaze it with egg.

Bake about 40-45 minutes until the crust is golden brown. Cool completely in a rack before attempting to dismount, least the whole thing cracked.
Nurse a slice with a cup of tea or coffee.

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