Gateau Basque is one of the most famous desserts from French Basque country. And with good reason. A tender, sweet, cookie-like dough encloses a thick pastry cream flavored with vanilla and orange zest. A special cherry jam is often spread over the pastry cream before the top crust goes on. It is exquisite. I learned how to make Gateau Basque from Bernadette Irribarren, a native of the area, who has been baking the cake regularly for decades. At the time I was collecting recipes from immigrant bakers for my cookbook, “A Baker’s Odyssey.” Bernadette invited me to her home so that I could learn first-hand how she makes this special dessert.
Bernadette is an instinctive cook, and the practice ingrained in her during decades of baking–the deftness and skill with which she makes the pastry and filling–are exciting to watch and to be a part of. Bernadette makes everything by hand, and the only measure she uses is a soupspoon. Fifteen heaping soupspoons of flour and 10 to 12 soupspoons of sugar get plopped into a mixing bowl for the dough. She adds the butter and reduces it to smaller pieces with rapid pinching movements of her fingers. Then she makes a well in the dry ingredients, adds the eggs, yolks, fruit zest and flavoring, and works them in quickly and with a light touch of a hand. “Enough” milk goes into a pot to heat up for the pastry cream (creme patissiere), and into another pot she adds 10 soupspoons of sugar and 4 of flour to beat with the egg yolks which serve to enrich, sweeten, and thicken the pastry cream.
Make the pastry first and chill it for about 1 hour or until it has firmed up. The high amount of sugar in the dough makes it a challenge to work with, but you’ll be thrilled with the results. While the pastry is in the refrigerator, make the pastry cream. It needs to be at room temperature before being enclosed in the pastry.
When Bernadette has spread the pastry cream evenly in the shell, she adds some Basque cherry jam on top. You can use any jam you like. In Basque country the cherries grown there make excellent preserves.
Bernadette says Gateau Basque is really better the day after baking, and she never refrigerates it. I do refrigerate the gateau after it has cooled to room temperature. Bring it to room temperature before serving.
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (15 ounces; measure by dipping dry measure into flour container, filling to overflowing and leveling off excess), plus more for rolling
3 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, slightly softened, cut into pieces
Finely grated zest of 1 orange or lemon
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon pure almond extract or dark rum
2 cups whole milk
5 large egg yolks
Pinch of salt
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (dip and sweep)
1. To make the pastry, put 2 1/2 cups of the flour (12 1/2 ounces), the baking powder, and sugar–the more you use, the tenderer the dough, but the harder it is to work with–into a large mixing bowl and mix them together with your fingers. Add the butter pieces and pinch them into the dry ingredients rapidly, fluffing the mixture as you go along. Your aim is to break the butter into small unevenly-sized flakes. This step should only take 2 to 3 minutes. If your kitchen is very warm, chill the flour before beginning. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the zest, eggs, egg yolks, and flavoring. Beat with a fork until well-combined, then gradually stir in the dry ingredients from the sides to make a soft, sticky dough.
Sprinkle about half of the remaining 1/2 cup flour on your work surface and scrape the dough onto it. Sprinkle the remaining flour over the dough. Fold the flour into the dough with gentle kneading motions until all the flour is incorporated. The dough may still seem a bit sticky. Flour a dinner plate, shape the dough into a disk and set it on the plate. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, or longer.
2. To make the pastry cream, put the milk into a medium heavy saucepan and bring the milk almost to the boil over medium heat. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the yolks and salt until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Gradually add the sugar and whisk for another minute or two. Add the vanilla and flour and whisk until smooth and thick. Pour about one-third of the hot milk into the eggs and whisk until smooth. Add the remaining milk and whisk well. Cook, stirring constantly with the whisk, until the mixture becomes very thick and hot. The pastry cream is too thick to actually boil, but you should be able to see a bubble or two pop when the cream is thoroughly cooked. This step may take 10 minutes or more. Use the spatula occasionally to scrape the sides and bottom of the pan, especially along the edges. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk the cream occasionally as it cools to keep it smooth and lump-free. The pastry cream must be at room temperature when used. (The pastry cream may be made up to 2 days ahead. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming and cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using).
3. Adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350˚F. Have ready an ungreased 9 x 1 1/2-inch round cake pan.
4. Divide the dough in two, with one piece slightly larger, and shape each piece into a disk. If the dough feels very firm, let it stand at room temperature until it can be rolled easily. Lightly dust your work surface with flour and roll the larger piece of dough to and 11- to 12-inch circle about 3/16-inch thick (that’s a scant 1/4-inch). Because of the high sugar content, the dough will want to break. but remember, you’re in charge! The best way to get the dough into the cake pan is to slide a large dough spatula or cookie sheet under the dough, move the sheet over the cake pan, and slide the dough off the sheet and into the pan. Don’t worry if the dough tears. It’s easy to fix. Just carefully lift the outer edges of the pastry and nudge them gently into the pan without stretching, and press broken pieces together. They’ll seal together like magic. Leave any excess dough hanging over the edges of the pan for now.
5. Whisk the cooled pastry cream one more time to make sure it is smooth, and scrape it into the lined pan. Spread it level with the back of a teaspoon. Top with preserves, if using.Roll the second piece of dough to a thickness of about 3/16 inch on a floured surface and set it on top of the pastry cream using a dough spatula or cookie sheet to help you. Press the edges of dough together gently to seal, and cut away excess dough from the edges of the pan with a sharp knife. Use the tines of a table fork to press the edges of dough together. Brush the top of the dough with the egg wash and run the table fork all over the top to make an informal design. Combine leftover pastry scraps, wrap and chill, and roll out to make cookies.
6. Bake the gateau for 40 to 50 minutes, until it is well browned. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then run the tip of a sharp knife carefully all around the sides to release the cake.
7. Bang the cake pan on your countertop a couple of times to release the cake from the bottom of the pan. Cover the cake with a wire rack and invert the two. Remove the cake pan, cover the cake with another rack, and invert again. The cake should cool right side up. Wait until the gateau is completely cool before serving, 3 to 4 hours at least, but it’s really best if you can wait until the next day.
8. Storing. Gateau Basque stays perfectly fresh, covered, for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving. Freezing is not recommended.
Makes 10 servings.
Note: Bernadette sometimes spreads some (about 1/2 cup) Itxassou cherry preserves, made with a special Basque black cherry, on top of the pastry cream before putting on the top crust. Found throughout the Basque country, confiture de cerises noires, is a tradition in Itxassou. The preserves are made from Beltza, one of three local varieties of black cherries unique to the town. The cherries are not pleasant when eaten raw, but they make splendid preserves. Besides being used in Gateau Basque, the preserves make a delicious spread on baguettes and it is also excellent with sharp cheeses. You can substitute a top quality sweet black cherry preserve.