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.

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Millionaire shorbread with sea salt, rum, and meyer lemons

Millionaire shortbread with sea salt

Apparently there’s a woman who successfully sued nutella because they made her believe their product was healthy. She fed it to her daughter daily, with dangerous results. Well! I feed nutella to my son on a regular basis, but I don’t kid myself that it’s healthy! I know it’s got lots of sugar and fat. But I spread it on a sandwich made with unsweetened peanut butter and whole wheat bread. And I know those are good for him. I believe it’s important to find a balance. A little bit of sugar is okay if it’s part of a relatively healthy combination. Sugar whipped together with chemicals in candy is a very rare treat. Chocolate in a cookie, on the other hand, is a good reward for a meal well-eaten. Especially if it’s a cookie that we make together! I’m suspicious of processed foods. Even “healthy” processed foods. I’m not a fan or margarine, low-fat cheese, or sugar-free anything. These products remind me of the saying, “Americans will try anything to lose weight, except eating less food.” And the food companies will try to sell any kind of diet that involves products they can market to people trying to lose weight. Which, let’s face it, is probably a majority of Americans. I’d rather have a small amount of real butter or real sugar than a large amount of a substitute that tastes like chemicals. Everything in moderation. As long as you have lots of vegetables and fruits and foods with protein and vitamins, it’s fine to have something special and sweet once in a while.

Which brings us to millionaire shortbread with sea salt, rum, and meyer lemons. Let’s see. There are ground almonds in the crust! That’s good for you, right? A little? Well, you wouldn’t want to make these every day, but they’re ridiculously delicious, and I think we need to eat sweets like this every now and again (health permitting)! I cut them small, and I almost think of them more as candy than cookies. Let me tell you about them…they have an almond shortbread crust with some rum in it. They have a layer of caramel with meyer lemon zest & juice and a bit of rum and sea salt. And they have coarse sea salt sprinkled on top. I had fun making the caramel, but it was a slightly anxious time. I’ve made caramel in the past to spread over a cake. I wanted this to be a little harder, but not hard enough to crack anybody’s teeth. I thought I might have made it too hard, so I added an extra tablespoon of butter and milk. And it turned out perfect! I’ll have to try it again and see if I can repeat the feat.

Here’s Mississippi John Hurt with Shortnin Bread. He’s the best!

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