Monday, March 21, 2011
Gâteau Basque with Cherry Eau de Vie
I have a neighbor here in New York who spends half of every year living in a small village near Tours in France. I dread her going each year. (That’s a rarity by the way. New Yorkers are not known for being friends with their neighbors, even though, or perhaps because, we live in such close quarters with one other). Plus there’s the categorical envy we all suffer as she jets off each spring and we gird ourselves for another withering summer in the city.
But our friend eases the pain as best she can. First there are the care packages, little boxes that arrive now and then while she’s gone with some deliciously scented bars of olive oil soap from the market near her home, a tin of foie gras pâté with some fig confitures and a small sack of fleur de sel, and once a miniature set of antique silver teaspoons from the brocante.
Second are the preserved treasures from her kitchen garden she ships back when she returns. There are jams, and tomato sauces, and most prized of all, the eau de vie she makes each year. In France, producing your own eaux de vie as the fruit crops come in is still quite common. Supermarkets there sell the bottles of Alcool pour Fruits during harvest season. It’s worlds apart – tastier and less harsh than the grain alcohol we buy in the States.
My friend has a white cherry tree, and when the fruit ripens, she makes massive batches of confitures, plenty of clafoutis, and eau de vie de cerise. She puts the carefully rinsed and picked over cherries straight into the bottle unpitted, sets the bottle in a dark, cool place turning it every day for a month, and then leaves it to sit for 5 more months. Then she flavors the eau de vie with a scant amount of granulated sugar, allows it to dissolve for a few days, and ships the rosy liqueur back to New York to see us all through the long, hard winter. Her cherry eau de vie is miraculous – mellow and musky, barely sweet, and heady with the scent of summer and freshly cracked almonds, a perfume that comes from the cherry pits themselves. We sip it at the end of special dinners of course, but every now and then my friend gifts me a generous dram for baking Gâteau Basque.
Gâteau Basque is a much beloved and, needless to say, hotly debated pastry from the French side of the Basque country. There are as many variations as there are cooks, but the basic idea is that two layers of pastry, the texture of which I think should ideally fall somewhere between cake and chewy cookie, encase a filling – sometimes a pastry cream, but far more interestingly, black cherry preserves. The cherry-filled version comes from Labourd (Lapurdi in Basque), where the black cherries are sweet, meaty, and impossibly fragrant. Traditionally whole cherries preserved in syrup would be used, similar to a Greek cherry spoon sweet, but by March our store from last summer is long gone, and so I use black cherry jam instead.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Gâteau Basque, other than eating it of course, is that you can traditionally tell which filling the chef has chosen by the decoration on the top of the tart. A Basque cross, sort of two “s” shapes laid over one another, indicates that black cherries lie within. You can see a clear drawing of a Basque cross here. A crosshatch pattern indicates a pastry cream filled version, or alternately that the cook has not left enough dough to make a Basque cross, ahem.
Kirsch works well if you haven’t any homemade cherry eau de vie lying about. Both combine with the exotic perfume of orange flower water to bring out a heady freshness in the cherries. There is another version I like where a drop of pastis is added to the pastry dough. It makes for a more complex flavor profile, but anise has always worked well with both cherry and orange in my book. I’ve provided provisions for both versions below.
Makes one 9 inch tart (8 servings) or 4 individual tarts
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for the tart pan
1 cup demerara sugar (or ½ cup granulated sugar and ½ cup light brown sugar)
pinch of kosher salt
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp cherry eau de vie or kirsch (or substitute one tsp with an equal amount of pastis)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange flower water
seeds of one vanilla bean
1 ½ cups of all-purpose flour, plus extra for the tart pan
1/3 cup ground almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup black cherry jam or an equal amount of pastry cream
splash of milk
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, blend together the butter, sugar, and salt. Add the egg yolks one at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. Add the cherry eau de vie, vanilla extract, orange flower water, and vanilla seeds and blend again. Add the flour, almond flour and baking powder. Mix on low speed until just combined into a firm dough. Form the dough into 2 flat disks, cover in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 Celsius, Gas Mark 4).
Butter and flour a 9 inch (23 cm) round tart pan or 4 4½ inch (11.5 cm) individual round tart pans. Roll or press out one of the disks into approximately a 10 inch (25 ½ cm) circle or 4 5½ inch (14cm) circles. I find it helps to do this on a sheet of plastic wrap as the dough falls apart quite easily. Transfer the dough to the tart pan and press in to the sides, removing any excess dough – any tears or holes are easily patched. Fill the tart or tarts with the black cherry jam or pastry cream.
If you wish to make a Basque cross for your tart or tarts, remove a piece of dough from the second disk, then roll the remainder out into a 9 inch (23cm) circle or 4 4½ inch (11.5 cm) circles, using plastic wrap as a base if you prefer. Transfer to the tarts and pinch the sides of the base and top to seal, removing any excess dough. Use a sharp knife to score a crosshatch pattern on the surface of the tart or take your extra dough and shape a Basque cross for the top. This is best achieved by dividing the dough into two pieces, rolling each into a long thin snake, and then creating an “s” shape before rolling or spiraling the ends back in on themselves and pressing down to smooth to create the signature thickened ends of the cross (see photo below).
Briefly whisk together the egg with a splash of milk and brush over the surface. Place your tart on a baking sheet and into the middle of the oven and bake until golden brown (30 -35 minutes for the individual tarts and 40 – 45 minutes for the 9-inch version). Remove from the oven and cool on a rack before removing the tarts from their shells.