French cake a week – quatre-quarts aux amandes

Quatre-quarts aux amandes

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak french, bakes her way through a french cookbook from 1962. If you cast your memory back, you may recall that before hurricane Sandy and before the power outage and all that ensued, I was working on a little series we liked to call French-cake-a-week. And you may also recall that I’d gotten in the habit of introducing each cake by rambling on a bit about a French film. And of late the particular emphasis of these rambles seems to have been films made by French women, and in particular the pattern of establishing a new, different rhythm for films. These films consciously shift the emphasis of the narrative and the framing of shots from the traditional high drama “plot points,” to smaller, subtler moments – to the mundane and every day actions that create a truer story, and a more solid understanding of character. Perhaps the supreme example of this is found in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which happens to be not French but Belgian. It was made in 1975 by Chantel Akerman. The film is three and a half hours long, and it shows three days in the life of Jeanne Dielman, a housewife and mother. We see her walking to the store, cleaning her house, peeling potatoes, making dinner. In a traditional film, these would be the actions that were never filmed, and the shots that were considered unworthy of inclusion. They become the focus of this film, and Akerman has said that she doesn’t believe a kiss or a car accident should be higher in the hierarchy of images than the washing up. Akerman shot these scenes in real time – in long, uncut takes – “…to avoid cutting the action in a hundred pieces, to avoid cutting the action in a hundred places, to look carefully and to be respectful. the framing was meant to respect her space, her, and her gestures within it.” It feels strange, at first, to watch this film and see these oddly intimate moments of a woman’s life, played out in the time each action demands, but it becomes pleasurable in a new way – you come to enjoy her quiet, careful movements, the rhythm of her actions is nearly hypnotic, the stillness of the shots is unexpectedly mesmerizing. Jeanne Dielman also happens to be a prostitute, taking one client each day to support herself and her son. Her relations with the clients is shown to be as routine and ritualized as all of the other tasks of her day – just part of her chores and her housework. Until the last day – but I won’t spoil it for you! The film is a masterpiece of slow, quiet attention to gesture and expression. You come to value each action, and to appreciate the time that it takes, and the steady effort. You recognize it, of course, from your own life…you know how long it takes to peel potatoes, and how tedious it is, but the action becomes beautiful and fraught with drama, as you learn to watch for each subtle shift in movement and expression.

And this cake is a subtle shift from the last that I wrote about, which was a quatre-quarts, or pound cake. This one is very similar, but it has ground almonds, which add their lovely and distinctive taste and texture. The cake is still very simple, and would make a nice base for a more complicated dessert – for trifle, or cream and fresh fruit, or a soaking of rum. I made this cake the day of the storm, and I ate it for breakfast when the power was out the next day. You can see all the leaves Sandy left on our picnic table!

Here’s Jeanne, by The Smiths, which happens to be a song about housework!

1 3/4 sticks butter (14 T) softened
5 eggs – separated
1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup sliced almonds – finely ground (I added the 2 T of water to the food processor to help make them very fine)
1 t vanilla powder or extract
1 t baking powder
2 T water

Preheat the oven to 350. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl, and then stir in the flour and baking powder to make a smooth batter. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time. Then stir in the almonds. Beat the egg whites till stiff. Stir in a big dollop to lighten the batter, then fold in the rest.

Butter and lightly flour a cake pan. Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for about half an hour, till risen and golden, and till it springs back when you press on it lightly.

If you like, garnish with icing sugar and slivered almonds.

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