In his authoritative book The Food of France, Waverly Root begins the chapter on Brittany thus: “In the Middle Ages, there were to principal ways of acquiring new territories – conquest or marriage. France acquired Brittany by a combination of marriage and perseverance. It took three kingly weddings, two of them with the same bride, before Brittany became French.” Has history ever been better explained?
When I think of Brittany, never having been myself, the paintings of Gauguin come immediately to mind. And his pictures of Pont-Aven peasants dressed in costumes that actually post-date the French Revolution and were worn to play up the rustic character of the place that so attracted tourists and painters. In addition to costumes not-quite-historical, Root even takes the famous Gâteau Breton away from Brittany and claims that it was actually created in 1850 in Paris, but offers no further detail. Even if the cake didn’t originate in Breton, it is a classic of the region now according to both Anne Willan who unwaveringly gives it to that area in her 1981 book French Regional Cooking, and to Joanne Harris and Fran Warde, whose recipe this is (Incidentally, Harris and Warde’s book has not failed me yet in the dessert department.)
In Willan’s version, the cake reads almost like a pound cake, with equal weights of butter, sugar and flour. But this cake is flatter than a pound cake, closer, as Harris and Warde suggest, to the sablé cookies of that region. It is dense, almost cake-like, but meltingly tender and tasting of butter. You can make it plain, as is the classic version. Or you can fill it with jam, prunes, fruit soaked in liqueur. I tend to think that jam in cake is never a bad thing.
Traditionally, you should draw a criss-cross pattern on the top of the cake with the tines of a fork. But I didn’t want to shift the top layer that was resting on the jam, so I left it. It is quite an easy cake, and so very, very French. If you don’t have superfine sugar, you can wizz normal granulated sugar in a food processor for a few moments until it is a finer, powdery consistency. Superfine sugar isn’t, however, powdered sugar, so don’t substitute between the two.
Gâteau Breton with Raspberry Jam
Adapted from Joanne Harris and Fran Warde’s My French Kitchen
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups superfine sugar (see note above)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and then held out of the refrigerator to soften.
5 large egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Several spoonfuls of your favorite jam, I didn’t measure how much I used, since this part wasn’t in the recipe. I just put some good dollops on the first layer and spread it around.
Preheat the oven to 325F. Butter or spray a 9 or 10″ tart/cake pan with a removable bottom and set aside.
Put the flour, sugar, butter, egg yolks and orange zest into a large bowl and work all of the ingredients together with your fingers until the mixture is blended and start to hold together in a sticky dough. Divide the dough in half.
Press half of the dough into the prepared cake pan. Spread several good dollops of jam on top of the dough in an even layer. Carefully press the remaining half of the dough on top of the jam, making sure it reaches to the edges. Just press in small-ish pieces of dough as you go, like you’re patching it together. Don’t just dump the dough in the center and try to press it out, or you’ll get a jammy mess.
Bake for 35 minutes until it is a golden brown color and the sides start to release from the pan. Let cool for 5 minutes before removing the bottom from the pan. Serve the same day it’s made.