In Cara Black's soon to be released Paris-based noir mystery novel, Murder in Passy, (Soho Press), a computer-savvy French-American private investigator named Aimee Leduc gets an ill-tempered elderly woman to spill the beans on her neighbor by going low-tech: She plies her with something called Gâteau Basque.
Gâteau Basque? What is this dessert? we wondered. Judging from the description we knew it was small, toasty brown, smelled of cherries and was so delicious that just the sight of it made people — even wealthy 16th arrondissement dwellers — want to cooperate. To investigate further we turned to the award-winning Dorie Greenspan, author of ten cookbooks, including Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours.
Turn the page for our converstation, and be sure to check back later today for Greenspan's recipe for Gâteau Basque.
Squid Ink: What is Gâteau Basque and why does it works so well as a culinary bribe?
Dorie Greenspan: It's called a cake but it's kind of a cross between a cake and a pastry, almost like a covered pie.
SI: Is it served hot or cold?
DG: It's served at room temperature.
SI: In Cara Black's “Murder in Passy,” the old woman wants it warm.
DG: That's interesting. I've never had it heated. What I do know is that it's a truly regional pastry. When you're in the French Basque country, you see Gâteau Basque everywhere and in absolutely every imaginable size. Like, Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear sizes. There are individual ones that are three inches around. You can buy them in supermarkets and at the Sunday outdoor markets, they'll be fantastic Gâteau Basque stands. When we were in the Pays Basque country…
SI: By which you mean the Northern Basque country in France…
DG: …We were driving around and we saw a sign that said there was a Museum of Gâteau Basque. It was impossible not to check it out. I think we even ended up staying in town for an extra day because it wasn't open and I refused to leave. As it turned out, this museum had a bakery that made Gâteau Basque and a chef demonstrated how to make it.
SI: How was it a museum? Were there exhibits?
DG: He had some old pans and mixing things. I thought we'd come in, pay our little admission fee and wander around this museum. It was a Tuesday morning in the middle of I don't remember what month, and there were 22 people in line. Everybody was kept outside then out comes this chef in his whites and brought us all in and then we watched him make Gâteau Basque.
SI: Did you pick up any Gâteau Basque tricks that you'd like to share?
DG: He told us the best sugar to use for Gâteau Basque is this crystal sugar. He'd noticed me because I was the only one taking notes like mad, right? And he says, “Ach, we have a journalist, I think!” I didn't say anything, I kept writing writing writing. When he got to crystal sugar, which is a sugar that's a little bit coarser than our granulated sugar, I raised my hand and said in my best French, “Where do you find crystal sugar?” And he said in English, “You? You find it in New York at Dean and DeLuca.” I spoke to him afterwards and it turned out he worked with Gray Kunz, but he left New York after 9/11. In my recipe, I don't use crystal sugar anyway; sometimes I even use brown sugar to get a nice texture on the dough.
SI: Now it's time for you to describe Gâteau Basque to our readers.
DG: Here's the thing: It is two layers of dough that you roll out like pie dough. The dough has baking powder in it so it rises and gets a crumbly-ness that pie dough doesn't have. It's flaky; a cross behind cake and dough. So the dough gets rolled out and you put a round of it in the bottom of the cake pan, then you put the filling in – which I will tell you about in a second – then you put another layer on top. You don't have to pinch the layers or anything because the baking powder causes the layers to rise and it meets and melds in the oven.
SI: What goes inside?
DG: There are traditional fillings for Gâteau Basque. One is pastry cream and the other is a particular sort of black cherry jam that's used because black cherries grow in that region. There are two different ways of decorating the top of the cake. If it is filled with pastry cream, you give it an egg wash and use a fork to make a crosshatch pattern. If it is cherry filling, you use some dough to make a Basque Cross over the top.
SI: That's the ornate squiggly thing that I saw when I typed in “Gâteau Basque” on Google images?
DG: Yes. It's like two curlicue S's. [Pause.] Ooooh. There's a huge beautiful hawk outside in the snow. [in a quiet voice, Greenspan calls out to her husband] Michael! Go look at the hawk in the tree in the snow. It's beautiful. It's all puffed up. The poor thing must be so cold. [jokingly] You don't have snow, right?
SI: No. But my husband did take a photo of raccoon eating garbage on our back deck once. It just looked up and glared coolly at him, like, “What are you looking at, dude?”
DG: We had raccoons for a long time. They are fearless. Let me go back to heated Gâteau Basque. I've never had it warm. I just had Gâteau Basque at Daniel Bouloud's Bar Bouloud the other afternoon for lunch. It was a pastry cream filling and it wasn't served warm. So that's really strange that it was heated up.
SI: Is Gâteau Basque to make? Or difficult?
DG: It's very easy.
SI: What's the hardest part?
DG: There really isn't a hard part. It's an easy dough to roll out and it's very forgiving. It's not one of these doughs where you have to worry, “Am I going to over-roll it?” And I just love the look of it.
SI: Have you ever eaten a bad Gâteau Basque?
DG: Well you might buy one that is stale, dry, or the pastry cream is overcooked. But in general? They're pretty good!
SI: Do you ever experiment with what goes inside?
DG: I think you can use anything. I think it would be delicious with a cranberry filling or a cream cheese-y filling with a jam. An apple pie filling would be great. Lemon cream might be great in the center, blueberry would be good. It's not done but anytime you have flour, butter and sugar, something that is pie-y, you can just go crazy. I'm not Basque; I come from Brooklyn so I can say anything I want, right?