Basque Cake

Someone passed along to me a wonderful book by Paula Wolfert, called the cooking of South-West France. It's full of old, traditional recipes that sound rich and extravagant when set next to contemporary recipes for kale salads and quinoa bowls. It seems the perfect inspiration for the holiday season, when we're all a little more willing to spend extra time in the kitchen and more money at the store. It doesn't hurt, too, that we generally expect to gain a few pounds roundabout now.

When I was flipping it through it, I was immediately attracted to this section of cakes from the Basque country.  If you don't know, the Basque culture is thought to be one of the oldest in the world. In fact, evidence has shown that the Basque people inhabited the region they now call Basque Country, in Northern Spain, even before the arrival of agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula. With their own distinctive genetic attributes, and a language that doesn't share roots with the rest of Europe, the Basques have, throughout centuries of war and repression, maintained some ties to antiquity. 

Naturally, the Basques have their own food culture, anchored in tradition, unique from surrounding areas. So, it makes sense that this "cake" is nothing like what we would call a cake here in the U.S. It's just a simple pastry cream layered with cherry preserves (if you'd like), and encased on bottom and top by a sweet tart-like crust. One thing that struck me about the recipe, and inspired me to make it, was what Wolfert calls "Basque Aromatic Mixture," a potent blend of anisette, armagnac, dark rum, orange flower water, almond extract, and the zest of lemon or orange that is swirled into the pastry cream at the end of cooking. It produced such a unique, delicate flavor that I wondered why I'd never tasted it in any confection before. Move over plain, boring vanilla extract! The Basques are on to something.

For the recipe, you'll need to make your own blend of Basque Aromatic Mixture. This can be expensive if you don't happen to have dark rum, armagnac, and/or anisette on hand. (And who does keep anisette on hand these days?) Still, they're things that stay good forever once you buy them, and you can use the mixture in any number of things: ice cream, cakes, pastry cream, as a substitute for vanilla extract, poached fruit, and cocktails. You may be able to find the tiny bottles of some the alcohol, too, so that you're not stuck with a giant bottle of anisette, like me. 

You'll also need to give yourself at least two days to make the recipe. Rushing it would make for a stressful time rolling out the dough. Lastly, use good cherry preserves, the best you can find. I used a cheap kind because I was worried the cake would be a failure, and I really regretted it.

Basque Cake

You need: One 8" shallow cake pan or springform cake pan

Adapted from The Cooking of South-West France, by Paula Wolfert


For filling:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 3" vanilla bean, split
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3.5 tbsp superfine sugar (if available, otherwise use regular)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 4 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp Basque Aromatic Mixture (click link for recipe)
  • 1/2-3/4 cup very good cherry preserves (thick and slightly tart, if possible)

For Pastry:

  • 6 oz (about 1 1/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 oz (about 2/3 cup) cake flour
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 9 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 9 tbsp sugar (preferably superfine)
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1.5 tbsp Basque Aromatic Mixture (click link for recipe)
  • 1 tsp milk (for glaze)


One day ahead, make the pastry cream and pastry. For the cream:

  1. Bring the milk to a boil with the vanilla bean in a small saucepan. Cover and set aside. 
  2. Place salt, sugar, and egg yolks in a mixing bowl; beat until pale yellow and thick. Beat in the cornstarch until smooth. 
  3. Remove the vanilla bean from the hot milk. Gradually beat the hot milk into the egg yolk mixture. Pour into a clean saucepan, set over medium heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until boiling. Continue to stir vigorously until the custard is no longer lumpy, about 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and continue to beat vigorously for 30 seconds longer. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. 
  4. Stir in the cream, butter, and aromatic mixture. Stir from time to time as the pastry cream cools. Place a sheet of buttered waxed paper directly on the cream to inhibit the formation of a skin. Chill. 

For the pastry:

  1. Sift flours, salt, and baking powder into a bowl. Set aside. With a wooden spoon or stand mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. Gradually add the sugar by spoonfuls. Cream together until very light and fluffy. The mixture must not feel granular.
  2. Set aside 2 tbsp beaten egg for glazing the gateau. Add the remaining eggs to butter and sugar by spoonfuls, beating well between additions to blend completely. Add the Basque Aromatic Mixture and one quarter of the sifted flour. Fold in remaining flour and gather into a ball. Do not overmix or knead the dough. It will be very sticky and soft. Dust lightly with flour and invert into a wide soup bowl. Wrap in waxed paper (or plastic wrap). Let rest overnight in the refrigerator.

To finish:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425 F. Place a baking sheet or tile on the lowest oven rack.
  2. Divide the dough into 2 unequal parts, one slightly larger than the other. Gently press each part into a round. Roll out the larger portion into a 10 inch circle between sheets of lightly floured wax paper or parchment. Loosen the paper from time to time to facilitate rolling. (I noticed that if I didn't stop to lift the pastry every now and again, it stuck to the paper.) Remove top sheet of paper and invert dough into the 8" cake pan. Peel off paper and line bottom and sides. If pasty tears, use edges to repair or pinch torn pastry together. Trim edges and spread a layer of the cherry preserves in the bottom of the crust. The recipe calls for 1/2-3/4 cup, though you can use more if you like jam. Top with pastry cream, trying not to get any blending between the two. You can pipe the pastry cream on top, if that's your style.
  3. Roll out the smaller ball of dough into an 8 inch round. Remove paper and and gently press a pattern of criss crosses on the top with the floured tines of a fork. Turn over onto parchment again and remove paper from other side. Invert onto filling so that fork pattern is up; crimp edges and chill completely, at least one hour. (Note: don't worry too much how the edges look when crimped together. All that matters is that you get them stuck so the cream doesn't leak. The rest will sort itself out in baking.)
  4. Brush pastry with reserved beaten egg diluted with 1 tsp milk. Make three slashes in the center of the top crust to allow steam to escape. Place on the heated baking sheet or tile and immediately lower oven temperature to 375 F and bake 45-50 minutes, or until cake is a light golden brown. (About half way through the cooking, I  moved my cake to the top rack of the oven to get a more even brown on top. ) 
  5. Remove to a rack and let cool at least 10 minutes. Invert out of pan and invert again onto a rack to cool completely. (Note: this seemed like it would be super stressful, since the cake is full of cream in a delicate crust, but I had no problem getting it out. It's quite sturdy. Simply use a parchment lined tray to place on top of the cake tin, and then turn the tin over onto the tray. Then, use another lined tray to put on top of the upside down cake, and repeat the turn over.)
  6. The cake will harden as it cools. Serve at room temperature, cut into wedges, and dusted with powdered sugar, if desired. Store leftover cake in the fridge and eat for breakfast. It has jam in it after all :)