James Beard Award–winning writer Aleksandra Crapanzano shares the secrets of the cakes Parisians bake at home: the gâteau in its many splendors from the simplest yogurt cakes to deceptively easy bûches de Noël, from nut tortes to boozy flourless chocolate cakes, from yuzu madeleines to rum-soaked babas.
When we think of French desserts, we tend to imagine ornate creations and confections. Perhaps we envision a tarte Tatin, but rarely a homemade cake, whipped up on a weeknight with little fuss. But that is exactly what Parisians make and eat. Gâteaux are simple, delicious cakes, both sweet and savory, served to family and friends.
You might expect elaborate home baking to rival the extraordinary pâtisseries in town. Who hasn’t wondered if the French are born knowing how to make the exquisitely fine layers of puff pastry for a mille-feuille, or how to poach a soft meringue for an île flottante? As food-columnist Aleksandra Crapanzano spent time with Parisian friends who were cooking at home, navigating children and careers and gathering friends around their table at night, often impromptu, always delicious, she realized that the real magic is a certain savoir-faire, that distinctly French know-how that blends style and functionality in every aspect of life.
Gâteau gets to the essence of Parisian home cooking. By and large, the French do not try to compete with their chefs, nor with their boulangères and pâtissières. But many Parisians are natural cooks, and Aleksandra has yet to meet a Parisian who didn’t finish dinner with a little something sweet, effortlessly made and casually served. The trick is having an arsenal of recipes that, once mastered, become blueprints, allowing for myriad variations, depending on what’s in season and what’s in the cupboard. It is a practical approach, and the French are nothing if not practical. That is the savoir-faire—from tying a silk scarf just so to popping a gâteau in the oven without anyone even noticing. When you know what you’re doing, there’s no need to overthink it. It looks easy because it is easy.
While the Paris culinary world is experiencing a fresh vibrancy, certain traditions remain intact and may surprise in their modernity. For example, French cakes have less sugar. The pure taste of apples is not masked by cinnamon, and vanilla is never a given. A gateau may be lightly glazed, dusted with cocoa or confectioners’ sugar, drizzled with rose water, but rarely heavily iced. A splash of brandy, a squeeze of lemon or a thin blanket of ganache elevates even the easiest of cakes in mere minutes. And then there are savory cakes made with cheese, herbs, ham, baked into a delicious loaf. These cakes salés are ideal for picnic lunches, accompanied by a salad and a glass of Sancerre. Gâteau includes cakes for birthdays, summer feasts and winter holidays, last-minute dinner parties and school lunches, as well beloved regional recipes and guest contributions from superstar Parisian bakers.
Practical, simple, and filled with over 100 rigorously tested recipes and charming illustrations, Gâteau celebrates every day and sometimes fanciful French cakes in all their glory and is destined to become a classic.