In which Claire, who doesn’t speak french, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.
It’s the day after the orgy of soulless self-adoration and styleless glamor that is the Oscars! This seems an appropriate time to return to the practice of discussing female French film makers in conjunction with our French-cake-a-week recipe. It seems particularly fitting to discuss the films of Germaine Dulac, a woman who worked with remarkably energy and passion to create a “pure” cinema with which to express the inner workings of the human mind and soul. (I should say at this point that I haven’t seen any of the Oscar-nominated films, and that I used to enjoy watching the Academy Awards, and might still if we got any television reception and if they weren’t on way past my bed time.) Dulac was born in France in 1882. Her love for film developed as the art itself was in its infancy, and she had fervent hopes for the direction it would take as it matured. She believed in a cinema separate from literature or theater, one that would achieve its full potential power by focussing on movement and montage, and would not be confined by the restrictions of narrative. She began making films in 1915, and would continue working for nearly twenty years, shaping the evolution of cinema. Her early films were commercial and narrative, serial stories based on novels or scenarios that she or others wrote, but from the first she was more interested in the musicality of film – the ability of film to create rhythm and atmosphere that plays on the emotions of the viewer – than in the dramatic action or the story. Her films became increasingly abstract and dream-like as her career advanced. She used film technology to create “Interior life rendered perceptible through images, combined with movement–this is the whole art of the cinema. Movement, interior life, these terms are not incompatible. What is more active than the life of the psyche, with its reactions, its multiple impressions, its swells, its dreams, its memories?” She sought to express spiritual life “…cadenced by the rhythm of the images, their duration, their dramatic or emotional intensity, following the sweetness or violence which emerged from the souls of my characters.” In her 1922 film The Smiling Madame Beudet
, Dulac tells the story of a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, who escapes her unhappy reality with a rich and vivid fantasy life. Dulac shows her flights of fancy in beautiful sequences that illustrate the rich creative world we all have inside of us, that we can turn to at any time, no matter what our outward circumstances. I love this era of film, when it was so new, unknown and full of promise. I love the way that people wrote about film, thought about film, and talked about film with such passion and urgency. It was so important to them not to squander the magical possibilities of their new medium, not to let it take a wrong direction that would result in it becoming stale or dull. I wonder how they would feel about the movie industry today, as typified by Hollywood and the Oscars, which seems so cynical, bloated and mercenary. Later in her career, Dulac would write an article discussing French film in relation to Hollywood, but I think it could easily apply to any film made outside of the system – independent films, home movies, even – and, in fact, it could apply beyond film to any effort to express ourselves creatively, in art, or in our lives. “We may lack faith in ourselves, and that’s the cause of our trouble. Our so-called inferiority…leads us to seek perfection through the correction of our faults rather than through the development of our good qualities…Instead of seeking inside ourselves, having lost confidence, we look to the accomplishments of others…The time has come, I believe, to listen in silence to our own song, to try to express our own personal vision, to define our own sensibility, to make our own way. Let us learn to look, let us learn to see, let us learn to feel.”
This Galette Bretonne is a lovely cake. It’s a little like a giant shortbread cookie, a bit crunchy on the outside and soft within. It calls for “fruits confits,” and since I’m not a big fan of most candied fruit, I decided to use small pieces of quince membrillo
that I made at Christmas time. You could use any kind of dried or candied fruit you like. I think candied ginger would be nice, too! Or you could leave the fruit out altogether!
Here’s Space Boy Dream, by Belle and Sebastian, which is a nice expression of a flight of fancy.
1 3/4 cup flour
1 stick cold salted butter (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup sugar
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup membrillo, chopped into tiny cubes (or any kind of candied fruit you like)
2 eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 300.
Put the flour into a large bowl. Grate in the butter, and mix with your hands to form a coarse, crumbly texture. Add the sugar and baking powder, the membrillo and the eggs minus 1 tablespoonful, which you’ll reserve to coat the top. Mix everything well with your hands. Knead for a few minutes to make sure everything is well incorporated. You should have a sort of soft sticky dough.
I baked mine in a springform pan, but you could also just bake it on a cookie sheet. Either way, lightly butter the surface of your baking vessel.
On a very well-floured board with a well-floured rolling pin, roll out the dough to be about 1/2 inch thick and about 9 inches in diameter. Place it on your baking tray or in your pan. Using a fork with sharp tines, make a sort of plaid criss-cross pattern in the top. Brush the top all over with an even layer of egg.
Bake until firm and golden, about 40 minutes. Allow to cool, then remove from the pan, slice, and serve.