French cake a week – gateau aux amandes

Gateau aux amandes

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.Last week I rambled on and on about how much I like songs about ramblers. Specifically those of Robert Johnson. The truth is I’m fascinated by books and films about drifters and wanderers as well. Perhaps the fascination stems from the fact that I’m such a homebody myself, and I really can’t imagine what it feels like to be completely rootless. I’m so deeply entrenched in a routine, so deeply involved with my family, so fond of my house, and my garden, and my own bed. Sometimes I feel as though I’d like a break from my routine. Sometimes, in spring, I get the urge to leave town – to just go – with no plan and no purpose. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to just take off – no ties, no cares, no possessions or responsibilities. But I never feel that way for long, and I can’t imagine needing to be on the road, being uncomfortable in a room, or in one place for long.

Somehow the idea of a wild wanderer takes on more strange significance for me when the rambler in question is a woman. One of my favorite films on the subject, by one of my favorite filmmakers, is Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi. It’s a bleak but beautiful film that tells the story of Mona, a vagabond who travels through French wine country in the icy, lonely off-season. She’s a complicated, thorny character, and we learn about her through her encounters with others – some who are cruel and some who are kind. Some feed her and give her a warm place to stay, some reject her and the way she’s chosen to live, some abuse her. It unfolds slowly and beautifully at a quiet, deliberate pace, punctuated by moments of human interaction – brief pockets of time in which Mona finds food, and warmth, and conversation.

Gateau aux amandes

One of the ways in which people show Mona kindness is by feeding her, or preparing meals with her, but I doubt they make anything like this gateau aux amandes! In complete contrast to last week’s French cake, which was very mild and plain, this one is quite rich and sweet. It’s a no-bake cake, consisting of a layer of ladyfinger cookies surrounding a center of ground almonds, sugar and creme fraiche. It’s very delicious, but not for the faint of heart. I decided to try to make my own ladyfinger cookies, based on the knowledge that the batter is very similar to the gateau de savoie recipe, and based on some notes scribbled in my cookbook that I assumed were a secret recipe for biscuits cuiller. It’s quite amusing, really, how much of a fail this was! I can laugh about it now! The cookies are supposed to be piped onto a tray. I don’t have a pastry bag, so I used a spoon to make the finger shape. After two minutes, I looked in the oven and saw that everything had grown together into one big lake of batter. Ha ha ha!! How we laughed! So I decided to run with that idea, and I baked some on a small jelly roll pan. Then I cut out pieces the size of a lady finger cookie. Not the prettiest thing ever, but very very tasty! The recipe says to serve the cake with vanilla cream, but I think it’s sweet enough as it is. It’s nice cut into thin slices, served with fresh fruit, or a tart-fruit compote.

Here’s Claude Francois with Reveries. I love this crazy video! I want to be one of his soave back-up dancers.
Continue reading

French cake a week – galettes du vexin

Galettes du vexin

This morning, after walking the boys to school, I came home and sat and listened to the silence. I was still feeling sleepy – both boys had been up through the night, and then somewhere nearby a screech owl had been calling. So this morning, I had a lovely feeling of sinking into the silence. Our house can be so noisy when both boys are in full, loud, little-boy mode. It’s nice to rest your ears, from time-to-time. I love quiet moments – in films, in conversations, in music.

Of course, there’s no such thing as real silence in our life, and the more I listened the more I heard. Our house it attached, and I could hear small sounds from our only neighbors, two stories up. We live on one of the few big streets in town, and it was as close to rush hour as we get around here. (Which is more likely to mean lots of dogs walking by, than lots of traffic.) Our house is old, it creaks; the birds sing outside; appliances hum; people call to one another out on the street. If you’ve ever made a film, you’re familiar with the noisiness of rooms, because you’ve recorded “room tone.” You’ve recorded the noises that each room makes. And these noises fill in the wordless moments of the film, because pure silence would be shocking. It would seem unnatural, and you’d know you were watching a movie. A fact Godard demonstrates delightfully in Bande a Part. You can’t really tell from this clip, but it’s a beautiful scene. And maybe, sitting in the cafe with Anna Karina, at the next table, perhaps, somebody was eating these Galettes du vexin. These little cakes are like a moment of silence in the teeming dessert section of my french cookbook. In a chapter filled with sugar and butter and icing and creams and cookies and jams and rum, these are barely sweet enough to be called dessert. They’re more like buttermilk biscuits! Or even scones. They contain creme fraiche, which is lovely, and was very fun and easy to make. I was smitten with its beautifully creamy appearance. The little cakes are tender and mild. They seem very simple, but they have a distinctive flavor, if you take the time to discern it. It’s like listening to the silence! The more you pay attention, the more you notice.

Here’s Anna Karina singing La Vie est Magnifique.
Continue reading