The Neverending Story was one of my favorite childhood movies. I loved the back and forth between Sebastian eating his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the attic of his school and young Atreyu on his white horse (well, not for long…Artax!) journeying to kill The Nothing. Mostly, though, I loved the idea of this dusty old book, discovered in a hidden-away book shop, that teleports our young hero to another world. I felt the same way, the other day, making a dessert from a cookbook I bought at Bonnie Slotnick’s in the West Village.
The book is Madeleine Kamman’s “When French Women Cook.” I first heard of Madeleine Kamman when I cooked with Gary Danko for my own book. Danko became obsessed with Kamman’s seminal work, “The Making of a Cook,” while in culinary school and eventually pursued her in real life in hopes of learning from her directly. That story (which you should read in the Gary Danko section of “Secrets”) was on my mind when I visited Bonnie’s and asked if she had “The Making of a Cook.” The answer was “no” but it turns out Bonnie had something better.
“When French Women Cook” is a memoir filled with the kinds of recipes you fantasize about when you imagine growing up in France. This isn’t the silver platter food you’d find at a Michelin 3-star restaurant; this is the food that French grandmothers serve at family dinners. The recipes are quirky and slightly intimidating (Quenelles of Pheasant with Morel Sauce, for example) but that’s what makes the book so fun to read. I’m the Sebastian and Madeleine is my Atreyu; the question is: do I step up like Sebastian steps up at the climax of the movie and enter the story myself? Bring on the prunes!
Confession: this recipe, when translated to English, is “Brittany Cake Filled with Prune Paste.” Something told me that if I put “Prune Paste” in the title of this post, nobody would click it. So I mashed up English and French, translating the first half (everyone likes “cake”) and leaving the second half in French because “aux pruneaux” just sounds way better. And the thing is: prunes are just dried plums and everybody loves plums, don’t they? Here you’re just cooking them in apple cider until they’re soft and then you mash them up into a paste.
The rest is fairly straightforward. You make a cake batter using butter (I chose Plugra to best mimic French butter), egg yolks, sugar, flour and corn starch. I couldn’t find orange flower water, which is used to flavor the cake, so tried vanilla instead. It worked nicely.
The hardest part is layering the cake batter, the prune paste, and then more cake batter on top. Amateurs (and hey, aren’t I an amateur?) will most likely swirl the prune up with the batter as they try to do this, creating a ghastly mess. Your best bet is to put a thin layer of cake batter on the bottom of the cake pan, put the prune paste on carefully and then dump the bulk of the remaining cake batter in the center so you can spread it out evenly. After that, you use the tines of your fork to create a pretty pattern and brush everything with egg yolk to get a nice color.
When it comes out of your oven, you may not have that instant excitement you get when you bake cookies or brownies or muffins or biscuits. Instead, though, like Sebastian in his attic, you’ll find yourself instantly whisked away to a land of French grandmothers on white horses battling wolves while befriending dragons. It’s not the kind of recipe that’ll get me lots of traffic here on my blog (who Googles “Brittany Cake Aux Pruneaux”?) but it’s the kind of recipe that makes me love cooking. And ultimately, that’s why I have this blog in the first place.
Recipe: Brittany Cake Aux Pruneaux
Summary: From Madeleine Kamman’s “When French Women Cook.”
- 1 dozen soft, pitted California prunes
- 1 cup cider
- 1 cup lightly salted European-style butter (I used Plugra; use one whole package, 225 g; you may need to add a pinch of salt, since I’m pretty sure Plugra’s not salted)
- 1 egg
- 3 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar (125 g; I used weights, as she does)
- 1 tsp. orange flower water (you can substitute vanilla, though I’m sure it’s not nearly as good)
- 1 2/3 cups sifted flour (180 g)
- 2 Tbs. sifted cornstarch (5 g)
- 1 Tbs. butter to butter the cake pan
- Put the prunes into a one-quart saucepan. Add the cider and cook the prunes until they fall apart. Reduce to a stiff paste by stirring well over medium heat. Cool completely.
- Cream the butter in a bowl until positively white. Add the whole egg, 2 egg yolks, sugar and orange flower water. Beat without stopping for 10 minutes on medium speed. Mix the flour and the cornstarch. Add to the butter and egg mixture without beating; just mix in the flour, flattening the batter against the edges of the bowl.
- Butter a 9-inch baking pan (I used a springform cake pan) with one full tablespoon of butter. Spread half of the cake batter on the bottom of the pan. Spread the prune paste on that first layer of batter. Leave about 3/4 inch all around the cake free of paste.
- Finish the cake by topping the prune layer with the remainder of the cake batter. Smooth the top of the cake. Brush with the last egg yolk and trace a crisscross pattern on the cake with a fork. Bake in a 350 oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Unmold only when cold.
If I had to make this cake again, I would definitely add salt. Maybe a teaspoon of French sea salt, just to bring out all the flavors.
Preparation time: 30 minute(s)
Cooking time: 35 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 8
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