Sweet Dreams

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.

Basque Gateau

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.

Basque Custard Cookie Cake

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

Pastry Cream
2 cups milk
pinch salt
½ cup sugar,  divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
4 large egg yolks, room temp
⅓ cup flour
1 Tbsp butter
Cookie Dough
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

The Génoise Project

Lately I have been preoccupied with conquering the génoise and some of its many accoutrements.  Similar to our sponge cake, génoise is considered the go-to all purpose cake in France.

I am very excited about adding a well-structured basic cake to my baking repertoire and the génoise is one of the legendary building blocks in French patisserie work.   Beginning with the “simple” génoise formula, endless sweet options are attainable:  individual cakes and glazed petit fours, molded madeleines and free-formed lady fingers; novelty filled rolls and stylish holiday logs; and of course stunning cakes for every occasion.

There are a few hurdles.  The cake’s tight structure comes from a lengthy beating of eggs and sugar until it is triple in volume.  A bit of flour is folded in and then a little melted butter is added on the finish.  How hard can that be?

I’m learning a fair amount of precision, gentle handling, and adept folding are required to successfully pull this off, as the fragile eggs tend to deflate into a bewildering puddle. But, my goal is to create the perfect chocolate génoise for my daughter’s birthday in August.  I have time to tinker.

With that I mind, I continue to crank out my own génoise creations.  For the 4th of July, it was a strawberry cake soaked with orange syrup, slathered in whipped cream.  A tad dense, but with all those goodies, no one complained.
Plum Cake with sauce
Today I achieved another moderate success: an upside-down Pho-flavored plum cake accompanied by a head turning ginger-lemon pastry cream.

I’m not sure the cake would receive high marks in any French bakery, but the more I eat, the more I like it…especially the pastry cream; but for now I will not bore you with further cake details.  You will be hearing more about the “génoise project”, as we lead up to the main event in August.

Pastry Cream
Pastry Cream

Today’s focus was all about running the pastry cream through its paces and testing a companion syrup for the cake.  Pastry cream, or creme patisserie is a basic cream filling with endless potential. It is used to fill a variety of cakes, tarts, cream puffs and other pastries.  Similar to a custard, eggs and milk are simmered to thicken, but now flour and cornstarch are added not only to thicken but to also strengthen and stabilize the custard for greater durability.  Almost any flavoring or liqueur can be added to the cream to suit the desired effect and composition:  vanilla, almond, chocolate, etc.

Since génoise can be slightly dry, complementary syrup is often brushed on the cut layers to moisten and provide additional flavor.  However, my upside down cake was tricky enough with caramel glazed plums; I opted to pass on further slicing and filling.

Ginger-Lemon Sauce
Ginger-Lemon Sauce


Here, I thinned the pastry cream with additional ginger-lemon syrup to make it thinner and more pourable – a return to the custard sauce state.  You will note how well it continues to hold its shape in the photo provided.

Following are basic recipes and ideas for flavored syrup and pastry cream.

Simple Syrup


  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup hot water
  • 1 Tbsp light corn syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or other flavoring


In small pan dissolve sugar in water.  Add syrup and bring to a boil.  Simmer 2 – 3 minutes.  Add flavoring and cool.


Orange:  substitute orange juice for water.  Add peel of ¼ orange to pan.

Ginger-Lemon Syrup: steep 1 ginger-lemon tea bag in 1 cup boiling water for 5-10 minutes.  Use this infusion for the syrup water along with peel from ½ lemon and ½” slice fresh ginger, peeled.  Proceed and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes.  Let cool and remove ginger and peel.  The lemon strips can be used to decorate the cake, if desired.

 Pastry Cream


  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 tsp vanilla, vanilla bean paste or other extract, or 2 tsp liqueur such as Grand Marnier
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces


  1. Heat milk to near boiling, with the milk steaming hot.
  2. In small saucepan mix the egg yolks and sugar to combine.  Sift the flour and cornstarch together and slowly add to the egg mixture, stirring to incorporate before adding more until a thick mass forms.
  3. Slowly add the hot milk to the egg mixture until it is combined and there are no lumps.
  4. Place pan over medium heat; while whisking bring mixture to a boil and cook briefly until it is thick.
  5. Remove from heat and add vanilla or other flavoring.
  6. Let cool 4-5 minutes and whisk in bits of butter until smooth.
  7. Place in bowl and cover surface with plastic wrap to avoid skin forming.  Cool and store in refrigerator up to 3 days.  Stir well to remove any lumps before using.  Yield:  a generous cup , suitable for filling a 9” cake


Ginger-Lemon Sauce, thin the pastry cream with ginger-lemon syrup to desired consistency.