We’re keeping it simple again this week, in our french-cake-a-week division, with a lovely gateau de savoie. This cake is, in truth, remarkably similar to last week’s genoise. The ingredients are nearly identical. The difference is that the eggs are separated, in this cake, this cake has less butter, and the cake is baked in a deep dish. Last week, I went on and on (and on) about how a genoise is like my favorite movie, L’atalante. This week we’ll continue the tradition, because I’d like to tell you about Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. (I promise not to ramble on about how the film is like a cake, but I have to tell you that one of the youTube comments on the trailer is “such a beautiful film, simple and deep,” which could be said exactly of a gateau de savoie, with one word switched.) L’atalante begins in the port town of Le Havre, and the town is (suprise!) the setting of Kaurismaki’s film. Le Havre tells the story of a former bohemian poet-turned-shoeshiner. He’s a man with a simple but pleasant life. But when his wife falls ill and he makes a new friend, his world is gently, subtly turned upside down. The characters are ordinary people; the lovers are older, they’re not glamorous; the story is slow and simple, but it tells of huge changes in the life of an old man and a young boy. The film is beautifully made, all sea-green and rusted red, with a style and grace reminiscent of much older films. Despite the perfectly professional technical quality of the film and the admirable attention to detail, it looks like they had fun making it – in some places it’s as though an old group of friends got together to shoot a movie. Similarly, though the film teeters on the edge of tragedy, and peers into some deep, dark places, it retains a lightness and a wry humor. I’d heard, once, that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage, and Le Havre ends with the salvation of a marriage. It’s a funny thing, but my reaction at the end of the film was that Kaurismaki was brave to end the movie the way that he did. I remember discussions, back in the days of endless talking, about the fact that comedies could never be weighty or substantial – they could never be great works of art. Only a tragedy could be considered high art; comedies are low, they’re light. I’ve always found that idea troubling. I think it’s actually more difficult to create something happy. It’s easy to be shocking, depressing, degrading. It’s the refuge of juvenile directors to make sad and disturbing films, and express scorn for anything joyful or pretty. And yet real life is a combination of joy and sorrow, of beauty and ugliness, and I admire anyone who can tell a story that shows this, with humor and taste, and just the right amount of sweetness. So, this cake is deep, and light, and subtly sweet. Because of its simplicity it makes a nice base for other flavors – for fruit and cream, or compotes, or liqueurs or syrups. The directions require you to bake it in “un moule profond.” That’s right, a baking dish deep and full of meaning. I don’t have a wide selection of cake pans, so I used a quart-sized souffle dish – about 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep. It worked perfectly! The recipe suggested that you make a ring of paper to help contain the batter, and I did, but it wasn’t really necessary. The recipe also stated that you could use the “parfum” of your choice, and suggested vanilla, fleur d’orange, lemon zest. I chose a bit of vanilla and a bit of rum, because that’s what I had. When I made the genoise I couldn’t resist adding a bit of salt, but I didn’t do that this time, instead I cheated by using salted butter! The cake has very little butter, though, which contributes to its lovely lightness. The recipe also says that you can substitute starch for half the flour. I assume they mean corn starch, but I didn’t have any, so I went for the all-flour option.
Here’s Mr McTell Got the Blues, by Blind Willie McTell, used to nice effect in Le Havre.
4 eggs, separated
3 1/2 T salted butter
1 t vanilla paste
1 t rum
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350. Butter and flour a deep cake pan – a ring mold is fine, or a one quart souffle dish. I used a round of tinfoil on the bottom, to help get the cake out at the end. You could use baking parchment if you have it, but I never do!
Combine the egg yolks and sugar. Whisk the mixture till it’s pale yellow, frothy, and mousse-like. 3-5 minutes should do it. You can hold it in a bowl of warm water, if you like. I held my very thick bowl over a slightly warm burner. It doesn’t seem to need heat at all, but some recipes call for the bowl to be warmed, so I tried it. Add the rum and vanilla, and whisk another moment.
Whip the whites till very stiff. Till stiff peaks form, as they say.
Back to the egg yolks… gently stir in the flour, a little bit at a time. Then very very gently fold in the egg whites.
Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan. Bake for about an hour, till the top is golden and springs back when you press it lightly.
Let it cool a minute, then take it out of the dish, and let it cool on a rack.