French cake a week – Gateau vatel

Gateau vatel

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. I’m woefully behind with my French-cake-a-week series! Last week I didn’t make a cake at all, because it took us all week to eat David’s birthday cake. This week, I did make a cake, but I’ve been so distracted by little Clio that I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it. So here we go! In honor of little Clio and the Frenchness of the cake, we’ll begin today by discussing one of my favorite movies, Cleo From Five to Seven, by Agnes Varda. Varda was a member of the famous Nouveau Vague, and, in fact, Godard and Anna Karina appear in the movie in a sweet little film-within-a-film. The film tells the story of two hours in the life of Cleo, and is very nearly filmed in real time. It seems very simple…Cleo is a pop star, and the progress of the film follows her day-to-day activities. But she’s waiting for news about her health, and everything she sees and hears, every conversation she has, takes on significance and weight. In the end, she meets a stranger in the park, a soldier from the Algerian war. They connect on a simple human level – they’re kind to each other – and though you’ve only known Cleo for a short while, you can tell that this connection will change her.

All of the recipes in my French cookbook are cryptic and brief, but this was the most perplexing of all. It calls for hazelnuts, and tells you to peel them, but that’s it. The cake has very little flour, so I assumed the hazelnuts should be ground, which is what I did. Otherwise you’d have a sort of hazelnut omelete! As it is, the cake is very nice. It doesn’t have any butter in it, so it’s quite light and simple, but it has a pleasant sponge-cake texture, and the subtle, unmistakable flavor of hazelnuts.

Here’s Sans Toi, from Cleo from 5 to 7.


1 cup hazelnuts
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup flour

2 T apricot jam
2 T sugar
1 T rum

6 T sugar
2 T water
1 T rum

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and roughly chopped

If you have a toaster oven, spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on the tray, and toast for about 5 minutes, till the skins are darkened and shrinking. If you don’t have a toaster oven, preheat the oven to 425, and pop the nuts in there (on a baking tray in a single layer) for about ten minutes. Wrap them in a clean dish towel, and set aside for about ten minutes. (I always forget they’re in there at this stage, and wipe my hands on the towel and send the nuts scattering all over the floor. Don’t do that!) Rub them in the cloth, and then in your hands, to remove most of the skins. Don’t worry about getting them completely clean. Discard the skins, and put the hazelnuts in a processor or blender. Blend until well ground.

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites till stiff.

In another large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the powdered sugar until they’re light, pale yellow, and pull away from the whisk in ribbons. Beat the flour in a little bit at a time, and then the hazelnuts. Fold in the egg whites.

Butter and flour a cake pan or bundt pan. Pour the batter in. Bake about half an hour, till the cake is puffed and golden, and springs back when you touch it lightly.

Let cool, turn out of the pan.

In a small pan over medium heat, combine the apricot jam, sugar and rum. When the sugar is melted, after a few minutes, drizzle the mixture over the cake so that it runs down the sides.

Melt the remaining sugar and water in the same pan over medium heat. Cook till the sugar melts and turns brown, and then add the rum. Drop a tiny bit in water…if it gets hard, you’ve gone too far, and you need to add a bit of warm water to soften it. It it just turns a little cloudy, but doesn’t harden at all…you’re perfect.

Take the pot off the heat, stir in the toasted chopped hazelnuts, and spoon evenly over the cake, letting some drop off the edges. Let the caramel cool before you eat it.

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