Why It Works
- Chilling the dough in the refrigerator makes it easy to roll out.
- Almond flour in the dough and almond extract in the pastry cream adds nuttiness and deepens the flavor of the cake.
The first time I heard of gâteau Basque (or Basque cake), I was told to imagine a kind of pastry that blends elements of a cookie, a tart, and a pie, with a filling of pastry cream or cherry jam. That description was more than enough to sell me on the idea—it wasn’t long before I’d baked my own. The result was lightly sweet with a sturdy yet tender, slightly crumbly crust, buttery-rich flavor, and a creamy center. Dorie Greenspan, the prolific baker and cookbook author, equates it to a “grown-up Pop-Tart” and, funnily enough, those were the first words my brother-in-law used to describe the pastry, mumbling them between mouthfuls of cake.
Gâteau Basque hails from the pays Basque, or Basque country, in southwestern France. Known as “etxeko bixkotxa” in Basque, the cake gained widespread popularity during the nineteenth century, thanks to Marianne Hirigoyen, a baker from the town of Cambo-les-Bains, who sold the cakes at local markets before opening her own bakery. Nowadays, the cake is a fixture of Basque culinary culture, so much so that there is a museum, a two-day annual festival, and an Eguzkia association of twenty pastry chefs, all of whom are dedicated to promoting and upholding the cake’s tradition.
Basque cake has two main components: the dough and the filling. The dough itself is made from all-purpose flour, baking powder, granulated sugar, eggs, butter, and salt. The addition of baking powder helps the dough rise slightly and lightens the final texture, avoiding dense and heavy results. I like to mix in almond flour, a non-traditional ingredient, which I found adds a nubbly quality to the dough and complements the almond extract (another addition of my choosing) in the pastry cream filling. The dough is easy to prepare with a stand mixer, first by beating together softened butter and sugar until fluffy, then working in an egg, and finally incorporating the almond and all-purpose flours. The dough is then split into two (these will later be layered with the filling) and refrigerated to firm up.
Traditionally, the filling consists of either pastry cream or black cherry jam―it is always one or the other, with pastry cream being the most popular. For the pastry cream, I stick with classic vanilla, adding in a splash of rum (which I’ve made optional) and almond extract (if you’re inclined, you can sub in chocolate pastry cream, which isn’t a common flavor variant but one that pairs well with cherries). As for the jam, the “official” version is made from black cherries grown in Itxassou, a village in the French Basque country, but that’s obviously not an option for most of us, so use whatever store-bought black cherry jam you can find.
In my own recipe tests, I made versions alternatively with only pastry cream and only jam, and while they were good, I couldn’t help myself from making a third version with both fillings, which—shocker of shockers!—was my favorite with that classic tart-like combo of sweet custard and juicy fruit. While not entirely conventional for gâteau Basque, it’s not an unheard-of innovation in modern recipes.
Once the fillings are prepared, the final step is assembling the cake, first by rolling the disks of dough into smooth, thin layers, and then layering them into an eight-inch cake pan with the pastry cream and jam in between. After pinching the top and bottom dough edges together, I like to fold the excess back over instead of trimming, to create a thicker crust all around. A little egg wash brushed on top followed by a crosshatch pattern with the tines of a fork give the cake its classic shiny design. After baking and once it has completely cooled, gâteau Basque tastes best on the day it’s made, coupled with a mug of tea or coffee, and, if you must, a Pop-Tart for comparison’s sake.