The author of Baking: From My Home to Yours says she pretty much ate gateau Basque morning, noon and night while she was traveling recently in the Pays Basque region of France.
"It's great with coffee or tea," she says. "It's great anytime."
What makes a gateau Basque so intriguing is that the cake has a clue as to what's baked inside. If filled with pastry cream, there's a crosshatch pattern on top. If filled with black cherry jam, another regional specialty, there's a Basque cross — a cross shaped like a rounded pinwheel — baked flat on top.
Greenspan learned how to make gateau Basque by happenstance. While driving along the winding roads in southwest France with her husband, she came across a road sign for the museum of gateau Basque.
"The idea that there could be a museum devoted to just a cake, it won my heart, of course," she says. "We followed the signs and there was a house and there was what I assumed a museum. And we're the only people there — we poked our noses around, and by the time we got back to the kiosk, the place was jammed. And it turns out ... it wasn't so much a museum as a baking demonstration."
The chef who ran the museum, Bixente Marichular, grew up in Basque Country, but he had worked in New York with a chef Greenspan knew quite well. He even told Greenspan where in Manhattan she could get the coarse sugar his recipe calls for.
But for her own gateau Basque dough, Greenspan mixes regular sugar and brown sugar — she says it creates the perfect consistency. She's no traditionalist when it comes to fillings, either: She has used blueberry jam, sweet cranberry relish and even lemon curd.
The cake's sturdiness impresses Norris — it's simple and compact, and the line of jam in the middle makes it very elegant when sliced.
After enjoying a sample, Norris says, "I mean no disrespect, but it tastes like what a Pop-Tart would taste like, if a Pop-Tart moved up in the world."
"A grown-up pop tart," Greenspan says with a laugh.
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 3/4 to 1 cup thick cherry jam or an equal amount of vanilla pastry cream 1 egg beaten with a splash of water, for the glaze
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and keep at hand.
Working in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and both sugars together on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until smooth. Add the egg and beat another 2 minutes or so, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The mixture may look curdled, but that's OK. Add vanilla and mix for about a minute more. Then reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in two or three additions, mixing only until they're fully incorporated into the dough.
Place a large sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper on your work surface and put half of the very soft and sticky dough in the center of the sheet. Cover with another piece of plastic or wax paper, then roll the dough into a circle just a little larger than 8 inches in diameter. As you're rolling, turn the dough over and lift the plastic or paper frequently, so that you don't roll it into the dough and form creases. Repeat with the other half of the dough.
Put the dough on a cutting board or baking sheet and refrigerate it for about 3 hours or for up to 3 days.
When you're ready to assemble and bake the gateau, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350. Generously butter a 2-inch high, 8-inch round cake pan.
Remove the layers from the refrigerator and let them rest on the counter for a couple of minutes before peeling away the plastic or paper. Fit one layer into the pan — if it breaks, just press the pieces together. If there's a little extra dough running up the sides of the pan, you can either fold it over the bottom layer or cut it so that it's even. Spoon some of the jam or pastry cream onto the dough, starting in the center of the cake and leaving one inch of dough bare around the border. Add more filling if you don't think it will squish out the sides when you press down on it with the top layer of dough. (I find that 3/4 cup is usually just the right amount, but if you're using a very thick jam, you might want a bit more.)
Moisten the bare ring of dough with a little water and then top with the second piece of dough, pressing down around the edges to seal it. If you'd like, you can work your finger between the top dough and the edge of the pan, so that you tuck the dough under a little. Because of the softness of the dough and the baking powder, even if you only press the layers together very lightly, they'll fuse as they bake. And, no matter how well you press them together, it seems inevitable that a little of the filling will escape.
Brush the top of the dough with the egg glaze and use the tips of the tines of a fork to etch a cross-hatch pattern across the top.
Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and let it rest for 5 minutes before carefully running a blunt knife around the edges of the cake. Turn the cake over onto a cooling rack and then quickly and carefully invert it onto another rack so that it can cool to room temperature right side up.
Serving: I think both the jam- and cream-filled cakes are best plain, but a little whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream are always nice on simple sweets.
Storing: Wrapped well, the jam-filled cake will keep for a day or so at room temperature. You can also keep the cream-filled cake overnight, but it will need to be refrigerated. However, because refrigeration can dry cakes, I think it's best to serve the cream-filled cake the day it is made.