The other day, I was listening to an episode of Splendid Table, one of my favorite food podcasts, and heard something that stuck with me…
The guest was Aleksandra Crapanzano, author of Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes. She talked about how, in France, people often make snacking cakes to enjoy each day: “Being able to make a simple cake that they can nibble on all week, and just when you want that bite of something sweet, it’s there. That to me is that French home cake. It means family, it means after school, it means beach totes, and picnic baskets, and long train rides… It means all that.”
After the podcast, I immediately opened Aleksandra’s charming book to search for a recipe that could make use of the apples I had just picked up at the market, and it didn’t take long to find her Quatre-Quarts, or pound cake — which is so easy, she says, that it’s one of the two cakes French kids memorize in pre-school. (The other is a classic yogurt cake, also in the book.) It’s tender and buttery and endlessly adaptable. As she writes in the introduction, “The trick is having an arsenal of recipes that, once learned, become mere blueprints… It looks easy because it is easy.” Sold.
Quatre-Quarts (Pound Cake)
From Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes, by Aleksandra Crapanzano
“The lack of a leavener such as baking powder or baking soda is not a mistake. It is simply not needed, as the eggs provide the lift.” (For the apple pound cake, see variations below recipe.)
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
14 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably European, melted and slightly cooled
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
The grated zest of 1 lemon or orange
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon cake flour (or all-purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9×5 loaf pan.
Separate the eggs and let them come to room temperature. In a good-sized mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks to break them up a bit. Add the sugar and whisk until they are thick and pale. Add the melted butter, vanilla, and lemon zest and whisk until smooth. Add the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until no streaks remain.
Using electric beaters or in a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add the salt and beat until they form stiff peaks. Stir a quarter of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites into the batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 55 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out nearly clean. Allow the cake to cool for 10 minute in the pan, then remove to a wire rack.
Serve at room temperature. If not eating the cake until later, allow it to cool all the way to room temperature, then wrap it in plastic and store at room temperature.
Variations (there are dozens more in the book)
Cinnamon Apple (shown in top photo)
Reduce the vanilla to 1 teaspoon. Add 2 teaspoons cinnamon powder when adding the melted butter. Add 2/3 cup chopped peeled apples to the batter before folding in the egg whites. Consider adding 1/2 toasted walnut pieces as well.
Unfortunately chocolate chunks will sink, but you can add 1 cup mini chocolate chips to the batter before folding in the egg whites. Toss them in 2 teaspoons of flour before adding them. For a mocha version, add 2 teaspoons espresso powder when adding the melted butter.
Replace the lemon zest with the zest of 1 blood orange, and add 1 tablespoon of its juice or 2 teaspoons Solerno, a Sicilian liqueur made from blood oranges.