We all have our favorite places and cultures to visit. Mine has long been the northeastern corner of Spain, the mysterious Basque country and the Pyrenees Alps. It’s got the total package, a rugged coastline and breathtaking mountains, plus resourceful, resilient people with a world class cuisine.
Basque food has the unique ability to reach into the heart and linger there, and such is the case with the notorious Basque Gateau. Popular versions of it crop up across the border in the Pays Basque region of France and down into the southern reaches of Spain. It’s a simple pastry marked by crosshatches across the top and filled with either cherry jam or pastry cream. So, what’s the big deal?
People praise the cake’s holding powers and reverently speak of it as the item to take when traveling or visiting friends. Admittedly, I’ve had my own visions of romantic adventures complete with this charming cake—safe in the knowledge it would sustain in any conditions.
I’ve considered making a Basque Custard Cake but have been put off by the complicated process and rich pastry. However, there is one recipe I have held onto for quite a while. It’s an interesting take from the French perspective by accomplished chef Michel Richard. In my notes, he describes it endearingly as a “pastry cream encased in two cookie crusts; aka a weekend cake in France because it holds so well.” Sweet.
The more I’ve studied Richard’s approach, the more I like it. For example, pastry cream often uses egg yolks with cornstarch for thickener because cornstarch does not not lump when added to hot liquid; however, it can break down with prolonged cooking. Richard’s version opts for flour instead, which makes sense since this pastry cream cooks twice. His should hold up very well and continue to maintain mass at room temperature or cold.
I’m impressed with Richard’s brilliant crust solution, too. Rather than a labor intense, buttery pastry, he elects to use the whites left from the custard. He cleverly incorporates them into a light, resilient cookie/cake-like base. The first thin layer is baked just to set, the filling is added, remaining dough is spread on top and it is given a final bake. Simple enough.
I decided to give it a try. Here are a couple of notes: I further simplified Richard’s custard by using double the vanilla extract, rather than soaking a vanilla bean (which I was missing) for an hour in hot milk. It also makes twice as much as needed, but that’s fine; it came in handy. I also dabbed a small amount of cherry jam on the baked bottom crust before the pastry cream. It appears that cookie/cake dough is quite scant. However, it blends beautifully with the pastry cream and works out fine.
So, there you have it. I will definitely make this Basque Custard Cake again. (Actually, I did make it again. It was easier the second time with remaining custard and refined method. I kept my fingers off of it and it was just as good the next day!) The cherry and custard combo gives it real character, but you could use either.
I dare you to eat just one piece—evidently, I practically polished an entire cake by myself!
Basque Custard Cookie Cake
Inspired by Michel Richard, Baking from the Heart
2 cups milk
½ cup sugar, divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg whites, room temp
½ cup AP flour, plus 1 Tbsp
½ cup cherry jam, optional
1. Make Pastry Cream
In 4 cup microwaveable measure, heat milk in microwave with salt, and ¼ cup sugar for 2-3 minutes to dissolve sugar, add vanilla extract.
In small mixing bowl, beat yolks and remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale yellow, 2-3 minutes. Mix in flour. Gradually pour in the hot milk and whisk to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into a small pan, set over medium heat and continue whisking as it thickens to avoid lumps and curdling. Reduce to medium low and cook 2-3 minutes, whisking to keep smooth and not curdle. Off heat stir in butter and remaining vanilla. Scrape into a bowl and cover top with film. Chill 2-3 hours until cold, up to 1 day ahead. You should have enough for 2 cakes.
2. Make Dough
Preheat oven to 350-375°F. Thoroughly butter and flour 9″ tart or springform pan.
In mixing bowl beat butter, add sugar in 3-4 batches, beating well after each addition until light. Beat in egg whites one at a time, incorporating after each. Stir in flour to just combine and form a soft batter.
3. To Bake
Spoon enough batter to thinly cover bottom of pan, about ½ cup spread ⅛” thick. Bake 10-12 minutes, until dough is firm to touch, and edges turn golden brown.
If using preserves, randomly dot spoonfuls onto crust spreading away from edges. Top with cold pastry cream, leaving ½” border at edge.
Carefully spoon remaining dough evenly over all, spreading to cover cream and fill in border edge. Bake 25-35 minutes, rotating pan until golden brown. Cool completely on wire rack. Release cake from pan and slice into wedges. For best flavor, allow to come to room temperature for 1 hour prior to serving. Cover and chill for storage. Serves 6-8