French cake a week – Gateau Alsacien or le schwowcbredel

jumping-lionIn which Claire, who speaks no French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.The other day we talked about Jean Renoir’s use of windows, and the way he creates scenes with an intimate yet public space, theatrical yet moving (in two senses of the word). I mentioned the film Boudu Saved from Drowning, which stars the remarkable Michel Simon. Well, as it happens, I’d never seen the whole movie all the way through – just a few scenes in film class. But it’s available on DVD, now, so we watched it last week!! It was so good! Thought-provoking, and beautifully acted and filmed. Full of wildness and grace and beautiful space. And the special features! O! The special features!! In recent American movies they’ll have a “making of” featurette, or a few interviews with the actors, and it’s always the same thing. “It was such an honor to work with [fill in name of major star}. She’s so…in the moment…she never does the same thing twice…it’s thrilling just to watch her work.” And then there will be a segment on the costumes, “It was just an honor to dress [fill in name of major star]. I mean she’s not even human! She’s like a mannequin. Just like a mannequin come to life. It’s just thrilling to watch her work in her clothes.” And then there’s a little segment about how much fun they had on the set. “The hi-jinks!! The practical jokes we played. What a good time we had making millions of dollars! Don’t you just wish you could be me! Don’t you want to get my face tatooed on your face?” But on Boudu Saved from Drowning, the special features are wonderful! There’s an interview with Michel Simon and Jean Renoir. It’s black and white, from 1967. They’re sitting in a cafe. Renoir is drinking a glass of wine, and Simon seems to be eating berries from a small, stemmed glass bowl. It’s so beautiful. Okay, maybe they are talking about how nice it was to work together, but I believe them! Their memories are so gentle and affectionate. (Maybe I do want to get Michel Simon’s face tatooed on my face!) And then there’s an interview with a filmmaker who has lots of fascinating things to say about the film, which makes you want to watch it all over again but pay attention this time!! And my favorite part is an interview with Eric Rohmer, the filmmaker, and Jean Douchet, the critic. This one is in black and white, too. The men are sitting side-by-side in a theater, facing the camera. They both seem nervous, they don’t know where to look. They fidget and cast sidelong glances at one another. Douchet has wild hair and a world-weary air, and he seems to have a cigarette glued to his fingers that he rarely smokes. Rohmer is delicate, with a slight beard and a shy, earnest air. And they hold forth on the film. They have so many ideas about the film, so many observations on the way it sounded and looked. They discuss sweeping themes and they remember each small, intimate gesture of the actors. They find significance in a bag of groceries hung in a window, in the summer heat, in salt spilled on a tablecloth. It’s beautiful to watch the way that they form grand, mythical theories about the film, and then shape their experience of the film to fit this mythology. They’re trying to seem cool and blasé, of course, this being the 60s, but they’re jumping and beaming with love for the film, so pleased with themselves for having discovered it as it unfolded before them, full of gifts that Renoir has hidden for them to discover. Wasn’t he clever to have made a simple film that’s about so much? Weren’t they clever to figure it out as they watched? This is the way to watch a film! This is a way to go through life! Noticing everything, maybe even things that aren’t there! Joyfully forming grand theories, talking about them with a friend, and building on them as the days go along. At one point they’re discussing sound in the film, and Rohmer says, with a shy glance at Douchet “…and we hear all the sounds of nature – the singing of the birds and such, which is wonderfully rich and well-worth analyzing.” This kills me!! Is he talking broadly about Renoir’s use of sound? Or is he talking about the singing of the birds – each bird with its own song, full of meaning that we can discover and share?

Gateau alcasien

Gateau alcasien


I like the way my French cookbook talks about cookies as if they’re cakes. I’m so confused by the recipes that I never know how they’ll turn out even as I’m making them, and it’s a joy to see them shape into this kind of cookie, or that kind of molded fruit and cream, or that kind of actual cake that I’d call a cake. My cookbook is very dry, each recipe is about 5 lines long, and they don’t take a lot of time to describe each step, let alone to editorialize about the recipe at all. And yet this particular recipe is full of charming asides. The cookies are to be cut in “bizarre and childish shapes.” It doesn’t go into further detail, so it’s really up to you!! And it finishes thus, “Et voila le gateau Alsacien, which one munches while watching the colorful candles on the Christmas tree.” Lovely! And I love the word schwowcbredel – talk about bizarre and childish!! We have some animal cookie cutters, so I decided to use an elephant, in honor of Babar, a lion, in honor of Duvoisin’s Happy Lion, and a balloon, in honor of The Red Balloon. The cookies contain marmalade, cinnamon, and orange flower water, which I’ve never cooked with before. It’s nice – floral but light and unexpected. I wasn’t sure the boys would like it, but they gobbled these down.

Here’s Edith Pilaf singing La Lulie Jolie

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup icing sugar
1 1/3 cup sliced almonds – ground quite fine (in a processor or blender)
1 stick salted butter
1/3 cup marmalade
1/2 t cinnamon
1 T orange flower water
1 egg

Egg yolk for glazing

Pour the flour into a large bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes, and add those to the flour. Work with your fingers until you have a crumbly dough. Then (with a spoon or your fingers) work in the sugar, then the ground almonds, then the marmalade, then the orange flower water and the egg. The dough will be sticky, but continue to work it until everything is well-combined. It helps to dust your hands with flour.

Wrap in foil and leave to chill overnight in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 375. Roll the dough to be about 1/4 inch thick, on a well-floured surface. Cut into shapes that are “bizarres or childish.” You can use cookie cutters, or try free-style with a knife. Transfer to a lightly buttered cookie sheet. Brush the top of each with a bit of egg-yolk.

Bake for about fifteen minutes until they’re golden and firm to the touch. Let cool, and then eat!!

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4 thoughts on “French cake a week – Gateau Alsacien or le schwowcbredel

  1. Re: ‘gateau’ meaning ‘biscuit’. I’ve noticed that the French actually say ‘petit gateau’ when they’re referring to biscuits, or cookies. However this term is also used to refer to the kind of little savoury biscuits they serve with aperitifs too. Can be a bit confusing the first time you’re offered a drink at someone’s house and you think they’re going to give you a sweet biscuit with your Pernod!

      • Sorry to disappoint you but it’s very rare to be offered home-made savoury biscuits with your apéros in France. More like shop-bought Triscuits. But people who like to cook often put an extraordinary effort into canapés served with drinks, so much so that there’s definitely an element of competition!

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