French cake a week – les sables de caen (with clementine zest)

Les sables au caen

Les sables au caen

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. Here at The Ordinary, we’ve fallen way behind in our French-cake-a-week series. O! The angry uproar from our cake-eating fans! Our mailbox is crammed with notes that say, “merde!” and “zut alors!!” Where is our cake?!? Well, fear not! Here it is! We mark our triumphal return with the spectacular … well, the spectacularly simple sables de caen. As you will recall, if you can remember that far back, we had gotten into the custom of writing about films by french women to accompany our french cake a week. This week, the film I’d like to tell you about isn’t really french, and isn’t by a woman. But it takes place in France, and it does concern a woman. It is, in fact, the very last five-minute segment of Paris, Je T’aime, a film comprised of many such segments directed by many different directors, including such notables as the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant. The film as a whole is very entertaining. Each segment is different, and some are light-hearted and amusing, some are stylish, some romantic, some heavy and dramatic, and one even involves a sexy french vampire. The last section, directed by Alexander Payne seemed completely different from all of these, and held a mysterious power – it felt like a gentle but powerful punch. It was very moving! In music and poetry, they speak of something called a “feminine ending” or a “feminine cadence,” in which a line, phrase or movement ends on an unstressed or “weak” syllable or note. Though it is called “weak,” the effect of such an ending is usually quite powerful, because it is unexpected and unresolved, it leaves you questioning and wanting more. Payne’s tiny movie felt like just such an ending. It was simple, sweet, thoughtful, a little sad, but ultimately uplifting. It was a story told by a seemingly very ordinary woman – a letter carrier from Denver – for her French class. She recounts her trip to Paris in a horrible french accent, and though it’s a very short narrative, and though nothing happens, by the end I was nearly in tears, I liked her so much, and I wanted to go to Paris more than ever. (The link above includes the whole narrative, which works on its own, but is probably better as part of the film as a whole.)

These little cakes are very simple, but quite delicious. They’re more like cookies, honestly, and I think they’d make nice Christmas cookies. They have a lot of butter, and precious little else! The recipe calls for orange zest or any flavoring you’d like, but I opted for clementine zest, because it’s a lovely mysterious flavor, and because that’s what I had! The recipe called for a large, round fluted punch, to cut the cookies. I happened to have ja tiny tart pan (about 8 inches) that I thought would work, but if you don’t have such a thing, you could use any cookie cutter you like, or even a juice glass of any size you like.

Here’s Clementine, by the Decemberists. I love this song!


1 2/3 cup flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 sticks (1 cup) cold unsalted butter
3 egg yolks, passed through a fine strainer
zest of two clementines
pinch salt

Pour the flour into a large bowl, add the salt, clementine zest, and powdered sugar and mix well. Grate in the butter, and mix with a spoon or your hands to make a rough crumbly dough. Add the egg yolks, and mix well, first with a fork, and when that becomes impossible, with your hands. It will seem, at first, as though it’s impossible to bring everything together without more moisture, but if you keep at it, it will all come together. When everything is incorporated, form into a smooth patty, cover in foil, and refrigerate for at least one hour.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 and lightly grease two large baking sheets.

Break off a big piece of dough, and roll it on a well-floured surface to be about 1/2 cm, which is about a quarter of an inch, I think. Then you can cut it in any shape you like. The book said to use a “punch” that was large, round, and fluted, so I used a small tart pan (about 8 inches across). Then the book says to cut it into four, and use the back of a knife to make a grid shape, which I did. The result was large fan-shaped cookies, that looked very pretty! I suspect most people don’t have a small tart pan, so you could use a small plate (it wouldn’t be fluted, but that’s okay!) Or just a drinking glass, and make smaller, round cookies. Any way you do it, they’ll taste good!

Bake for eight to ten minutes till they’re set, and just starting to get golden on the bottom. They’re quite soft, so you’ll need to let them cool for a bit on the baking sheet before you transfer them to a cooling rack.

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