Gâteau Basque

Gâteau Basque 

The first time you step off the plane (or train or bus) into the cool, humid air, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived in the wrong country by mistake. The landscape is the first clue, particularly if you’ve traveled here from other parts of Spain. Parched, arid plains have given way to close-knit, brooding mountains, cool and temperamentally presided over by rain clouds. The cities are tucked in between them, dark and close as well, huge apartment blocks challenged in height only by the aging black spires of the industrial infrastructure. There is no endless sun, no evening bullfights here. The people you encounter are quieter, more reserved; friendly yet enigmatic. Signs on streets and doorways mock your grasp of Spanish with their incomprehensible strings of letters containing multiple ‘k’s and ‘x’s, and words like kaixo and eskerrik asko filter their way into the conversation of those around you. And if all that weren’t enough, when you start talking to people they all ask you how you enjoyed your time in Spain. But, you stammer, I haven’t left Spain!  Yes, they reassure you, you have. You haven’t just crossed into another province of Spain, you’ve entered a place that is emotionally, intellectually, and linguistically its own country – Euzkadi, the Basque Country.

I was sixteen the first time I got on a plane and flew alone across the Atlantic to Spain. Waiting for me was a contingent of strange faces ready to begin my orientation to this new place, and a few days later I would meet the second contingent of strange faces that would provide me a home for the next year. I was about to fulfill a long-held dream of mine to live abroad and learn another language by becoming a high-school exchange student. The problem was that up until the day I left I didn’t have any idea where I was going. Although I had been registered with the exchange organization for nearly a year, up until my departure no one had been able to tell me anything about my future host family. They hemmed and hawed and stammered every time I asked for an update, but their message was always firmly the same: "don’t worry, we’ve got everything under control". The day I arrived in Madrid they were, for the first time, smiling, with audible relief in their voices. "We’ve found you a family. You’ll be going to the Basque Country."

The Basque Country? Did that mean that my fantasies of learning to dance flamenco, eating paella and drinking Sangria in ancient Moorish courtyards had just been squashed? I suspected so. I had read about the Basque Country once in an issue of National Geographic. It occupied about a paragraph in an article on Spain and mentioned that this ‘dark and industrial corner of northern Spain’ was best known for its ‘mountains, fervent separatism and magnificent cuisine’. It briefly hinted at how the Basques did everything they could to distance themselves from the symbols of the rest of Spain. As I mulled over this shortly before my arrival I didn’t really know what to think about the prospect of industrialism or separatism or the absence of flamenco, but at least the cuisine part had me intrigued.

As a matter of fact, as I later found out, it was cuisine that indirectly facilitated my placement in this very place. At the time I went to Spain I was halfway through my decade as a strict vegetarian, and the fact that I had indicated this on my exchange application had caused the organisation no small amount of trouble to find me a host family. ‘What are we going to do with a vegetarian?’ I still imagine all those Spanish families saying, quickly pushing my application to the bottom of the pile. Vegetarianism was, and still is I suspect, a rare occurrence in Spain, and identification as such tended to provoke anything from slight confusion (‘You only eat vegetables?’) to downright horror (‘But if you don’t eat meat you’ll die!’). Luckily, I had the culinary wisdom and flexibility of the Basques to thank for finally finding a home, as a certain family, upon being told of my plight (and my planned arrival in two days), immediately agreed to take me on for a year, vegetarianism and all. Later on, when I asked them if they’d been apprehensive of feeding a vegetarian for a year, they laughed. "We figured you would eat the same things we eat, just without the meat. It’s no sacrifice – everything here is good."

There are whole volumes I could write on the people, the landscape, the language, and the way of life in this fascinating place, and hopefully I’ll find ways of working in elements of these in future posts. Today, however, I’ll restrict myself to telling you a little about the food. I wondered for a long time what kind of recipes I could share from this place renowned for its cuisine. I actually did very little cooking there – that was the domain of Clari, my somewhat imposing host mother, and I dared not interfere where she so powerfully ruled. And, to be honest, the one time I did cook for them – some Ameri-Mex enchiladas I had been craving for months – it was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I probably should have expected it – Clari’s meals engendered passionate loyalty in the family – though I always wondered why such a skilled cook as she never felt tempted to step outside the boundaries of the familiar palate of Basque flavors (about as exotic as it got was an occasional bowl of spaghetti.) Obviously, Basques prefer their own food, and with good reason.

Our everyday fare was simple and rustic, but whatever it was, it always had extraordinary flavor. Never fewer than three courses, it encompassed a standard rotation of vegetables, fish and meat, most of it impeccably fresh and cooked with nothing other than olive oil and garlic. Sauces were limited to tomate frito (a sweet, oniony tomato puree) and mayonnaise, if they hadn’t been doused with garlic and that fragrant oil (or even if they had). Lentils and beans, simply cooked with a few aromatics, were a staple for me, as were bowls of garlic-soaked vegetable stews, vinegary salads, and melt-in-your-mouth fried potatoes, eggplant and zucchini. Second courses, which I simply bypassed in favor of more vegetables, were fish, fried or baked, or meat – cured pork loin and simply cooked beef being the most common. Dessert was expected after every meal, though it usually took the form of a yogurt or some fabulously pungent Pyrenean cheese and fruit, and for special occasions Clari would make her wildly-loved natillas, silky pots of eggy, vanilla-flecked custard. Tortilla española (Spain’s ubiquitous potato omelet) was the dish where Clari particularly shined (she was famous in town for her version), and everyone in the family looked forward to savoring the creamy, oniony just-set centers oozing out of their crisp potato-edged confines. This was one dish I did learn to make at Clari’s side, and the one hint I will give you to the secret of a great tortilla is to not skimp on the frying oil – I mean it, and you’d probably swoon if I actually quantified it. (I know I did.)

But I realized that in terms of recipes, Basque food is very difficult to pin down. What makes it great isn’t the complexity of preparation or the sophistication of flavors, but simply the quality of everything you can get there. Fish and seafood come in about a trillion different varieties and are so fresh they practically jump off your plate. Meat is so full of flavor it seems to come from a pre-industrial age*. Vegetables – the cornerstone of the cuisine – taste like they’re supposed to. With a little bit of garlic and oil, lemon or tomato, or the smokiness imparted from a piece of chorizo or roasted pimiento del piquillo, these things are transformed into one of the world’s great cuisines. It’s neither comp
licated nor intricate, but just like this now world-famous Basque cake, it’s fabulous – and certainly worth passing on the Ameri-Mex enchiladas any day.

*In case you’re wondering how I know this, I’ve been back twice since becoming a carnivore and tried to redeem myself by trying every meat/fish preparation I could get my hands on.

Gâteau Basque

This cake, as a matter of fact, is something I never ate in the Spanish Basque Country, though many confections I tried had strong similarities. This is an invention of the French Basques from the town of Cambo-les-Bains, but with the Basque passion for pastry-cream filled confections, it reflects tastes on both sides of the border (I actually found this cake listed on several Spanish websites, so it is known there too). One thing to keep in mind is that this is a cake with a wide variety of interpretations. While always distinguished by the presence of a filling, a Gâteau Basque can have a spongy cake or a crisp pastry exterior, and the filling can consist of pastry cream (plain or almond-flavored), fruit preserves (cherry is common, but other fruits can be used), or as you’ll find in this version, both. This particular recipe, flavored with almonds and rum or orange flower water, has been adapted from François Payard’s beautiful book, Simply Sensational Desserts.

Yield: 1 cake, enough to feed 10-12 people (the original recipe actually has you make 2 smaller cakes from the same ingredients; I combined them into one)

3/4 cup (90 grams) slivered almonds
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 grams) baking powder
1 scant teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
14 Tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) (200 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp dark rum or orange flower water
1 1/3 cups (340 ml) pastry cream (recipe follows), at room temp
10 oz (275 grams) low-sugar cherry preserves, or the same weight of fresh pitted cherries

For pastry cream:
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon extract
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch, sifted
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp (30 grams) unsalted butter

For cake:
Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground, about 45 seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the almonds. Gently whisk until combined and set aside. Place 3 eggs and the sugar in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the bowl (reserve the pod for another use) and whisk the eggs until thickened and pale. Whisk in the melted butter. Whisk in the dry ingredients and rum. Let the batter stand for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Butter a 9" springform pan. Dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. Put the pastry cream into a medium bowl and whisk it until smooth. Scrape half the cake batter into the pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Spread the cherry preserves over the batter. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2" plain tip with 1 1/3 cups of the pastry cream (reserve the rest for some other use). Pipe the pastry cream over the preserves, beginning 1/4" from the edge of the pan and piping a spiral toward the center in tight coils. Scrape the remaining cake batter over the pastry cream and smooth it into an even layer, covering the cream as much as possible. Lightly beat the remaining egg and lightly brush the tops of the cakes with the egg wash.

Bake the cake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before unmolding and cooling completely. Dust the top decoratively with icing sugar, if desired.

For Pastry Cream:
Line a shallow baking pan (such as a 9" square pan) with plastic wrap. Put the milk in a medium saucepan, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan, and add the bean. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Place the yolks in a medium bowl; whisk in the sugar mixture and whisk until the mixture turns pale yellow and is thick and smooth. Gradually pour half of the hot milk into the yolk mixture and whisk to combine. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Boil for several seconds, then remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until completely melted. Scrape the pastry cream into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap, placing it directly against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until needed, or up to 3 days. Remove the vanilla bean before using the pastry cream.
Makes about 2 1/3 cups


22 thoughts on “Gâteau Basque

  1. Melissa, thank you for sharing such a great story. As much as I adore Spanish cuisine, it’s difficult to imagine surviving as a vegetarian in Spain! I look forward to more posts (and recipes, especially the secrets of your host mother’s tortilla!) about the Basque region. I, also, didn’t have a Gâteau Basque when I was in the Spanish part of the Basque region, but now I know why (the word gâteau probably should have clued me into French origin of the dessert!). Do you think the cake/torte recipe would work if I substituted lightly cooked seasonal fruit for the preserves? Or even something like a ripe pear?

  2. hi melissa, your wanderlust, insatiable appetite for the story of food, fabulous recipes and beautiful photography never fail to inspire. also, this particular post is plain uncanny – i was thinking of making gateau basque just last week but was out of cherry preserves. the recipe i use is from pascal rigo’s the american boulangerie – very much more rustic in appearance than payard’s elegant rendition, it uses a homey pastry that’s a cross between biscuit and cake rather than a sponge batter. now, if only comparing written notes could be quite as gratifying as tasting the two versions side by side 😉

  3. hi Melissa! I’m so glad to know you could feel the spirit of this land. you described the Pais Vasco perfectly well, and though it is a land of serious people, not too friendly at the begining, but loyal till the end, you can have maybe the best food in Spain. it’s not well known,around the world, but as you said those green mountains and valleys look so misterious that makes you wanna go back some day…Besos

  4. Melissa,Wow, your site is AMAZING! Tonight was my first visit here, and I must say I am awestruck by these amazing stories, pictures and recipes. It’s a great combination of some of the things I love the most in life.I just bookmarked it, and will be checking in often to see what you’ve got cooking!

  5. I thought a cake might be appropriate right about now. It looks delicious, but where are the candles? HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!Love, Mom

  6. Oh Melissa — I want this right now. Some years ago I spent a few days in San Sebastian — just enough to whet my appetite for more. I never did get my teeth around that glorious gateau, however — so it’s going on my “must-make” list, along with some other glories from your delectable blog…

  7. Love your story! I look forward to reading more stories of your experience there in future posts. I like the diamond decorations on the cake.Happy Birthday!Paz

  8. Hi Melissa,What a wonderful story and a beautiful cake. You always do such a wonderful job on your write ups and your photography. Here’s another one that you’ve made me want to try!

  9. Hello my friend, gorgeous cake, the filling in the center looks quite delicious. And I love the detail that you’ve added on the top.. Aside from the cake, you are an adventurous woman with a million fascinating stories, I’m sure that I will never tire of them. I hope you had a most fantastic birthday, here’s wishing you all the best!

  10. Melissa,I’ve fixed a few Basque dishes, but wasn’t tremendously impressed. I know what the problem is, though. I need to eat some Basque food prepared by someone Basque. A recipe, however detailed, can’t teach you how a cuisine should taste. It’s subtle things like adding just a tad more of this herb and a bit less of that spice because the the moon is half full.

  11. Hi Brett – Thank you! It wasn’t exactly easy being a vegetarian there, but it wasn’t exactly difficult either; their diet is so varied and includes vegetables and legumes in so many wonderful guises, I certainly never went hungry. The tortilla certainly helped 😉 As for the cake, I think just about any fruit, cooked or raw, should work in this. Payard actually uses fresh pitted cherries (instead of preserves) in the original recipe – I can’t think of a single reason why ripe pear shouldn’t work either.Hi J – Wow, that is eerie. The strange thing is that I hadn’t been planning to make this for long – the idea just popped into my head one afternoon and I decided to whip it up the next day. I would also be very curious to test the differences between our versions – too bad cake doesn’t hold up well in the mail… And thanks, as always, for your wonderful words of encouragement – you keep me so inspired too!Hi Tattum – I’m glad to hear you feel the same way. I think all Spanish people were wonderful, but there are certainly regional differences in character. I unfortunately met a lot of people (in both the Basque Country and the rest of Spain) who had strange prejudices about people from other regions – sometimes it was funny, but most of the time it just indicated how limited their own experiences were!Hi Lisa – Thank you! I’m always touched when someone takes the time to give me some feedback. Hope to see you back here again!Hi Mom – Should I be embarassed to admit that this was long-gone before the fateful day even approached? 😉 I did have a freshly-baked batch of cookies ready and waiting to hold some candles!Hi Julie – San Sebastian is an amazing food city, did you know it has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city in Spain? I, too, have never tasted an ‘authentic’ gateau basque — not that there is one, but it gives a good excuse to plan a trip to the French Basque country…Hi Paz – Thanks! And a belated Happy Birthday to you too :)Hi Reid – Thank you! I hope you do try it, though I certainly understand that the list is long (mine sure is!)…Hi Michele – Thank you, thank you, my friend! It wouldn’t be the same to write them without knowing you’re reading :)Hi Kevin – That sounds about right. Unfortunately I haven’t always had the best results trying to recreate Basque food myself, even knowing how it should taste, because the ingredients I can get just aren’t as good – the garlic not quite as pungent, the fish not nearly as fresh, the tomatoes not as ripe… It’s definitely a cuisine that relies on the inherent flavor in the ingredients. So my best advice is – plan thee a trip there!

  12. I so need a slice of this right now to cure my post hen night hangover.I just want to miniaturize myself and jump into that pastry cream.

  13. Another luscious story, and another luscious photograph! I tasted something called a “gateau Basque” in the Perigord region of France (not quite far enough south, I know), but mine had the texture of something between a shortbread cookie and a pound cake, with a layer of preserves in the middle. It was wonderful at the time, but I venture to guess that it would pale in comparison to yours, with that dreamy pastry cream and tender crumb! I can almost taste it now. Thank you, m’dear.

  14. You must read in my mind Melissa. I’m actually studying in Toulouse and discovered a new baked good : le gateau basque. I didn’t have anytime to buy it and then i don’t know how it tastes and had no idea it was filled. Thanx for giving an answer to all my questions.xoxoFanny

  15. just to let you know, Melissa, I cpied this recipe and I’m going to make it this month. it sounds totally to die for!I hope to see more recipes from the basque country. :)thanks for this one!

  16. Hi Melissa – I just came back from holiday to France and Spain, I really wanted to go to Basque too but didn’t make it this time. Your cake looks so delicious and perfect, thank you for sharing the recipe!

  17. Hi Sam – They say the best cure for a hangover is ‘the hair of the dog that bit you’, but I guess in a pinch a big slice of cake can’t go wrong… ;)Hi Molly – Yes, several recipes that I found online looked similar to what you describe. As I’ve never had it at the source, I can’t say what is more authentic than what, but we know the end of that debate anyway. What matters is what tastes good, and this version certainly didn’t disappoint, though I’m game for further research!Hi Fanny – That’s quite a coincidence! Now you’ll definitely have to try it and let me know what it’s like in Toulouse :)Hi Malka – I hope you like it, and let me know how it turns out! I’m definitely planning to make more Basque-inspired recipes, I just hope I can do them justice.Hi Keiko – Thank you! I’ve been looking at the beautiful pictures of your trip and feeling very envious… The Basque Country (both French and Spanish, though I know the Spanish one better) is a very beautiful and unusual place, and definitely worth visiting some day. Maybe next time?

  18. Melissa: This looks ravishingly beautiful, as always. I’m with Sam (although I don’t have a hangover)–could I just jump into this picture, please? This looks so hauntingly good that I put it in my new round-up of the best gluten-free foods on the web from this weekend. I know it calls for flour, but I also know you probably used gluten-free flour for yours. I can’t wait to try it!

  19. I made Melissa’s Gateau Basque this weekend and this is a warning to all who might ruin a perfectly written recipe as I did: do NOT use all of the pastry cream. I didn’t notice that I only need 1 1/3 cups until I was cheerfully cleaning up the kitchen w/the cake in the oven. It is a wonderful recipe (and perfectly written) and one I will attempt again. In case anyone is wondering about the results of too much pastry cream, I can report accurately that the center of the cake will be a gloppy, gooey mess and that the cake itself will taste far too sweet. Quelle domage.

  20. Hi Sally – Oh dear, I’m terribly sorry to hear that! While I didn’t run into the same problem, I was momentarily annoyed when I made the cake that the recipe calls for making a quantity of pastry cream greater than what will be required. I figured there must be a reason he didn’t scale it down, though, so I proceeded with the full batch and ended up having the extra just go to waste (I probably could have found a use for it, but I was a little sick of the stuff by that point!). Anyhow, thanks for pointing this out, and I’ve revised the text of the recipe above to hopefully make this instruction a bit more clear.

  21. I’ve tried several recepies for gateau basque and I’m still looking for The one… your’s is in the oven right now and I must say that I’ve got the strongest feeling I finally found it! Thanks!!

  22. I made this cake last night for a coworker's birthday. It disappeared in record time! The cake isn't too sweet, so it accomodates sweet preserves and pastry cream really well, and the moisture of the filling soaks into the cake in the time between baking and serving. I added a little orange juice and zest with the rum (just a tablespoon) and I thought the orange flavor went really nicely with everything else. I also omitted the almonds, since I didn't have any on hand, and I don't think the texture of the cake was negatively impacted. I do recommend taking the time with the piping though. I tried to take the easy way and just spread carefully and some of my preserves ended up leaking out one side of the cake. It was still delicious, but it made half of the cake look a little soggy. I love the stories you tell with your recipes and I'm looking forward to trying more. I've also made your brioche several times, to great acclaim, and yours is quickly becoming my new favorite site for recipes.Thank you so much for sharing!

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