I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say that this is simply a beautiful cake. Start to finish it was an experience. Eating it was (surprisingly) not the best part. The best part was the feeling that I was making something unfamiliar. I found it in what I’m realizing is a quite obscure cookbook called Food of the World by Murdoch Publishing. As it turns out, it is also a quite obscure cake.
Usually when I want to make something there are dozens of examples of different takes all over the internet. Not the case with Gâteau Basque. There aren’t that many examples to work from but that just added to the experience. It’s rare these days that I get to experience that kind of excitement with a recipe. I think there was a miscalculation in the original recipe because the dough came out really dry. It’s meant to be a dry cake but it was so dry it wouldn’t bind. I corrected that issue but the extra time it took gave me extra time to think.
As I was labouring away at this obscure cake, I wondered how many basque women had done the same in quaint farmhouses in the foothills of the Pyrenees before Christmas holidays. The obscurity of the recipe somehow brought me closer to its origins. That moment and others like it are the reason for my love of cooking and travel. They are the end goal. They are incomparable. How else can we get so close to another lived experience so different from our own than to exist in it, even momentarily.
Gâteau Basque is a traditional cake from the Basque region of France. The classic recipe calls for an almond flour based cake enveloping layers of either almond pastry cream or preserved cherries or, less often, plum jam. In a post on NPR Dorie Greenspan recounted her experience with Gâteau Basque:
The author of Baking: From My Home to Yours says she pretty much ate gateau Basque morning, noon and night while she was traveling recently in the Pays Basque region of France.
“It’s great with coffee or tea,” she says. “It’s great anytime.”
What makes a gateau Basque so intriguing is that the cake has a clue as to what’s baked inside. If filled with pastry cream, there’s a crosshatch pattern on top. If filled with black cherry jam, another regional specialty, there’s a Basque cross — a cross shaped like a rounded pinwheel — baked flat on top.
Greenspan learned how to make gateau Basque by happenstance. While driving along the winding roads in southwest France with her husband, she came across a road sign for the museum of gateau Basque.
I was intrigued, especially by the words “regional specialty” – there’s nothing I like more to go with an obscure cake than an even more obscure regional variation. In my recipe book they use both almond pastry cream and a thin layer of cherry jam. I didn’t see that replicated elsewhere but quite liked the idea, even if it’s not exactly traditional.
I was pretty set on pastry cream because I had just made éclairs and was (am) sort of obsessed with it. I thought for a while about what sort of filling to use alongside the pastry cream. I had homemade cherry preserves as well as a beautiful plum magiun made by Bogdan’s mum. I deliberated for a while. I was really leaning more toward making the authentic original real deal Gâteau Basque. After all, how many times am I going to make this obscure cake? But then I couldn’t identify what exactly was “authentic” and had also read that there are as many variations of this cake as there are households in the basque country. I decided to deviate every so slightly and use spiced pumpkin.
I’m glad I used pumpkin. The finished product is like an international take on traditional pumpkin pie. The texture is amazing. A creamy, sweet, luscious and soft centre surrounded by a crisp crust. It tastes like the holidays. Sweet spiced pumpkin goes really well with almond pastry cream in an almond crust. The roasted pepitas on top not only make for a really pretty cake, they also elevate the flavours and add another textural element. Another benefit of making it with pumpkin is that now I’ll be compelled to make it again the traditional way, whereas I doubt I would have made it again with pumpkin had it been the other way around. Then again, who knows. It’s really, really good.
Also, a note on equipment. I used a 9.5 inch springform pan. I don’t know if it shows in the pictures but it was a fairly high cake. Also, because it’s such a dry dough I was tempted to make it in a tart pan, which would turn it into a pie. I’m glad I didn’t. Although it could pass as a pie because of the dry dough, the height achieved by using a springform not only makes it look more like a cake, but also gives it a certain allure and uniqueness as a cake that it wouldn’t have as a pie. You’ll see what I mean when it comes out of the oven.
For the dough
400 grams / 14 oz AP flour
50 grams / 1.8 oz finely ground almonds or almond flour
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
85 grams / 3.5 oz caster sugar
1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp vanilla extract (I exclusively use vanilla bean paste)
250 grams / 8.8 oz salted butter, softened
In a large bowl mix together the flour, ground almonds, and lemon zest.
Create a well in the centre and put the sugar, egg, vanilla, and butter in.
Briskly mix together the well ingredients with your fingertips, pecking and pinching to incorporate.
Once incorporated, use a knife or fork to cut the flour into the well ingredients until incorporated. Try not to touch the ingredients too much with your hands at this stage because the butter may melt and you won’t get the short crust typical of this cake.
Once all ingredients are cut into a crumbly dough, bring it all together with your hands into a mound, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
For the Almond Crème Pâtissière
7 egg yolks
150 grams / 5.3 oz caster sugar
60 grams / 2 oz AP flour
60 grams / 2 oz finely ground almonds or almond flour
1 litre / 4 cups of milk
4 whole vanilla beans or 2 TBSP vanilla bean paste/extract
In a large bowl (that can hold 1 litre / 4 cups) whisk together egg yolks and sugar then sift in the flour and ground almonds. Mix well.
Pour milk and vanilla into a pot and bring just to boil.
Strain over egg mixture and whisk until incorporated.
Pour back into pot and cook on high heat while gently whisking continuously until it’s smooth and sticks to the back of a wooden spoon. It will be lumpy at first but keep whisking and it will smooth out.
For the Spiced Pumpkin Filling
1 cup / 250 ml pumpkin purée
1/2 cup / 125 ml heavy whipping cream
1 TBSP caster sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients except sugar in a bowl and mix well until incorporated. Taste and adjust to your preferences. Add sugar little by little until it tastes the way you want it to. You could also add more cinnamon, a pinch of nutmeg or cloves, even some ground cardamom.
Assembling, Cooking, & Topping
Preheat oven to 350 F / 180 C
Take the pastry out of the fridge and cut off 1/3. Put it back in the fridge. Roll out the remaining pastry into a flat sheet. Butter the bottom and sides of a 8.5 to 9.5 inch springform pan and then cover with the pastry. It might break (mine did) but you can just stick it together by pressing. When you are finished, take the leftover 1/3 of the pastry from the fridge and roll it out into a roughly circular shape about the size of your pan to make the top of your cake. At this point it may become really fragile. It’s ok if it breaks a bit (adds to the rustic charm) but we can try to keep it as intact as possible. I recommend rolling it out on parchment paper or aluminum foil then you can take the whole thing and re-refrigerate or put it in the freezer for 3-5 minutes to firm it up. Then gently peel it off the backing and slide it onto your cake. Trim the edges and then fix up any tears with a bit of water.
Follow the method below for the egg wash and toppings.
30 grams / 1 oz pepitas
Whisk egg well and then use a brush to gently coat the top of your cake. Bake on middle oven rack uncovered for 20 minutes.
Moving quickly, remove from oven, cover with pepitas, and gently brush on another layer of egg wash. Replace to oven for remaining 10 minutes or until the cake is browned and beautiful.
Remove from oven and don’t even think about cutting into it before it’s totally cool and maybe even refrigerated. The pastry cream won’t set if it’s hot and you’ll end up with a cake that has totally lost its filling and fallen apart.
Top with a light dusting of powdered sugar for a very pretty final product.
Total Time: 2 hours prep and cook if you’re organized and move quickly + at least 2 hours cooling time.