Far for the Soul

Far Breton 

January, you make it hard for me to like you.

You come blowing in with your icy winds that howl around our rickety old windowpanes like angry ghosts, and your horizontal rain that stings like tiny icicles shot from the barrel of a gun. You bring darkness that lingers on the edge of the horizon all day, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness from the sun. You bring no vacations to anticipate, no signs of Spring to herald, no reasons to rejoice. And worst of all – you make me hungry, and then you tell me not to eat.

Yes, I know I am as much to blame as you for falling into your trap, but once again I have embraced you as the month of betterment, repentance, and denial. That’s right, I have believed your magazine spin-doctors and your lifestyle gurus that tell me that the only thing standing between me and eternal health, happiness and a smaller swimsuit size is a little bit of self-discipline. So fueled by the guilt of Christmas and those oddly compelling things called ‘resolutions’, I have banished the fat and the sugar, the cream and cheese and chocolate from my life; I have reacquainted myself with that place called ‘gym’ and started running to it every time the urge to sink my mixer into a stick of butter threatens to overwhelm me. But even in my attempts to follow your path of righteousness you punish me, January, as it seems you have lead everyone and his uncle along the exact same path to that gym, and the only rewards I am given for my virtuousness are long wait times and the singular sensation of sweating in a sardine can.

But I still persist in believing that these sacrifices will be worth it in the end – which shows the terrifying extent of your power over me – and so I keep at it, battling the Lycra crowds, reinventing vegetables in every way possible, trying to make friends with cottage cheese and lowfat mayonnaise. Sometimes, though, no matter how steely I try to keep it, my resolve weakens, and on these dark days I wake up feeling that if I don’t cram my oven and my belly full of as much sugar, butter and vanilla as they will hold, I cannot be held responsible for the heinous crimes I will commit.

Luckily, January, I’m more clever than you think.

You see, I have a new trick up my sleeve, a sweet, tempting trick that satisfies the belly and the oven without the kind of long-term of damage to resolve this usually entails. It tastes gloriously rich and indulgent, its silky not-quite-custard-but-not-quite-cake texture interrupted here and there by fragrant little drunken fruits; its homely exterior offering no hint as to the sophistication inside. It also happens to have a funny little name, and an exotic pedigree which facilitates fabulous workplace daydreams involving craggy cliffs, quaint stone villages and ancient Celtic tongues. But most importantly, although under normal circumstances I am pathologically allergic to finding the word ‘diet’ and ‘dessert’ together in one place, I must point out that the relative paucity of naughty things in this particular little number means that when the last delicious crumb has been inhaled and the damages are tallied, the resolve, not to mention all those plans for self-improvement, are not so hard to put solidly back on track.

So, January, since you won’t be sticking around long enough to see whether all the promises and pipe dreams you’ve given me come true, I’ll just have to let you know next year. In the meantime, however, I’ve realized that even though you’ll hardly find me mourning your departure next week, I’m not feeling nearly as resentful of you as I expected — proof, no doubt, that a little Far Breton does wonders for our relationship.

Far Breton

I’m not sure what category of desserts this delicious and very traditional creation from Brittany belongs in – is it a cake or a custard? It’s certainly firm enough to slice and goes great with a cup of coffee, but its dense, smooth texture almost feels like something you should be licking off a spoon. Never mind, just give it a try – it’s really easy, really good and remarkably light. The traditional version calls for it to be studded with prunes soaked in brandy; actually Dorie’s recipe calls for raisins as well, which I left out – if you’re a raisin lover just add 1/3 cup to the pan with the prunes, and, oh, do your best to find those incredible French Agen prunes…they’re what quickly got me over my aversion to these poor, maligned fruits. I must say, though, that after trying it the ‘right’ way once the wheels are spinning on all the potential delicious variations out there. I know, I know, you don’t need to tell me I’m an abomination to authenticity! Dried cherries soaked in amaretto are at the top of my list to try next, for example, and maybe after that dried pears with sweet sherry. Authentic or not, though, this is sure to become a wintertime staple in our house.

Serves: 8
Source: slightly adapted from Baking, From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan 

2 cups (500ml) whole/full-fat milk
3 large eggs
1/2 cup (110g) sugar
5 tablespoons (70g) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (105g) all purpose flour

1 cup, packed (200g) pitted prunes (preferably pruneaux d’Agen)
1/2 cup (125ml) water
4 tablespoons (60ml) Armagnac or other brandy…or any other booze

Powdered/icing sugar, for dusting

Combine the milk, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt in blender jar and blend for 1 minute. Add the flour and pulse just until blended, scraping down the sides of the jar. Cover and chill in the jar or in another container at least 3 hours and up to 1 day (I actually missed this part and only had 1 1/2 hours to let it chill, to no obvious detriment).

Combine the prunes and water in a heavy small saucepan. Simmer over medium heat until the fruit is softened and water is almost evaporated, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and transfer the prunes to a small bowl (discard any liquid remaining). Pour the brandy over, cover and cool completely.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375F/190C. Butter an 8-inch-diameter (20cm) cake pan with 2-inch-high sides (I think a 9-inch pan would also be just fine). Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper. Dust the pan with flour, shaking out the excess; place it on the baking sheet.

Whisk the batter to reblend, tap it a couple of times on the counter to pop any large air bubbles, and pour it into the prepared cake pan (I actually whisked in the small amount of boozy liquid from the prunes before pouring the batter into the pan, since I couldn’t bear to waste it). Drop the prunes into the batter, distributing them as evenly as possible. Bake the far on the baking sheet until the top is puffed and brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour (mine took about 50 minutes, but I was using convection). Cool the far completely in its pan on a rack.

Place a piece of parchment or waxed paper on a flat plate. Sift some powdered sugar onto the paper. Run a knife around the far to loosen it. Invert the pan onto the paper, shaking gently if needed to release it. Peel off the paper. Place a serving plate over the far and invert. Dust the top with additional powdered sugar and serve at room temperature.