I learned to bake by following the recipes in "Joy of Cooking." So I'm in my comfort zone with blondies, gingersnaps and apple crisps. But what kind of baker would I be if I had grown up in Paris instead of New Jersey, and my first cookbooks had been "I Know How to Cook" and "I Know How to Make Pastries," both by Ginette Mathiot?
Recently, I had a chance to find out, when a copy of "The Art of French Baking," a compilation of recipes from both of Mathiot's classic books, landed on my kitchen counter. Mathiot, then a 25-year-old home economics teacher, published "I Know How to Cook" in 1932 (the first edition of "Joy of Cooking" debuted in 1931). It went on to sell 5 million copies, becoming the French housewife's kitchen bible.
Dipping into the new book, I was curious to see what kinds of after-school treats and simple desserts the real housewives of Paris have been routinely whipping up for the past 80 years.
In the summer, I'm always looking for dessert recipes nice enough to serve to company but quick enough to throw together if I want to spend most of my time at the beach. Strawberry season is upon us, so with my very first box of local berries I decided to audition Mathiot's Strawberry Frangipane for a place in my summer dessert rotation.
If your mother isn't French and you didn't go to culinary school, you probably have never heard of frangipane. This is a real shame. Frangipane is a deliciously rich and flavorful batter made from egg yolks, sugar and ground almonds. When scraped into a tart pan and dotted with strawberries, it bakes into a cakelike tart that is easy to make but a little more elegant in presentation than the strawberry cobbler I have relied on in the past.
I love this book, but I'm glad I came upon it after I'd baked my way through Fannie Farmer and Betty Crocker. Mathiot's style is to streamline rather than overexplain. Her Madeleines recipe, for example, doesn't tell you how to smooth the rather stiff batter into the molds or how many cakes you'll wind up with (I got 24). The Frangipane recipe doesn't specify the size of the pan you'll need (I found a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom to be just right).
But if you have mastered simple American recipes and want to produce cakes and cookies with a little more savoir faire, "The Art of French Baking" may be the book for you.
Adapted from "The Art of French Baking" by Ginette Mathiot
I added a dash of vanilla and a pinch of salt to Mathiot's recipe. If you don't have superfine sugar, use granulated sugar and give it a whirl (about 1 minute) in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Serve slices (the tart gets a bit messy when sliced, because of its crisp top crust and moist interior) with whipped cream.
Butter, for greasing the baking dish
5 large egg yolks
1 cup superfine sugar
1 1/2 cups whole or slivered almonds, finely ground in a food processor
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 pound small strawberries, washed, dried and hulled
Confectioners sugar for dusting (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch tart pan and place on a baking sheet.
2. In the bottom of a double boiler or in a medium-size saucepan, bring 2 inches of water to a bare simmer. In the top of the boiler, or in a stainless-steel bowl big enough to rest on top of the saucepan, whisk together the yolks and sugar. If using a saucepan, set bowl over the pan without letting it touch the water. Whisk constantly until mixture is pale, tripled in volume, and just warm. Fold in almonds, vanilla and salt.
3. Smooth frangipane into prepared pan. Arrange strawberries, pressing them into frangipane so they are mostly submerged in batter. Bake until crust is golden brown and batter is set, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool to warm room temperature. Dust with confectioners' sugar, if desired, and serve warm, or let cool completely before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 servings