James Beard Award–winning writer Aleksandra Crapanzano shares the secrets of the cakes Parisians bake at home: the gâteau in its many splendors from the simplest yogurt cakes to deceptively easy bûches de Noël, from nut tortes to boozy flourless chocolate cakes, from yuzu madeleines to rum-soaked babas.
When we think of French desserts, we tend to imagine ornate creations and confections. Perhaps we envision a tarte Tatin, but rarely a homemade cake, whipped up on a weeknight with little fuss. But that is exactly what Parisians make and eat. Gâteaux are simple, delicious cakes, both sweet and savory, served to family and friends.
You might expect elaborate home baking to rival the extraordinary pâtisseries in town. Who hasn’t wondered if the French are born knowing how to make the exquisitely fine layers of puff pastry for a mille-feuille, or how to poach a soft meringue for an île flottante? As food-columnist Aleksandra Crapanzano spent time with Parisian friends who were cooking at home, navigating children and careers and gathering friends around their table at night, often impromptu, always delicious, she realized that the real magic is a certain savoir-faire, that distinctly French know-how that blends style and functionality in every aspect of life.
Gâteau gets to the essence of Parisian home cooking. By and large, the French do not try to compete with their chefs, nor with their boulangères and pâtissières. But many Parisians are natural cooks, and Aleksandra has yet to meet a Parisian who didn’t finish dinner with a little something sweet, effortlessly made and casually served. The trick is having an arsenal of recipes that, once mastered, become blueprints, allowing for myriad variations, depending on what’s in season and what’s in the cupboard. It is a practical approach, and the French are nothing if not practical. That is the savoir-faire—from tying a silk scarf just so to popping a gâteau in the oven without anyone even noticing. When you know what you’re doing, there’s no need to overthink it. It looks easy because it is easy.
While the Paris culinary world is experiencing a fresh vibrancy, certain traditions remain intact and may surprise in their modernity. For example, French cakes have less sugar. The pure taste of apples is not masked by cinnamon, and vanilla is never a given. A gateau may be lightly glazed, dusted with cocoa or confectioners’ sugar, drizzled with rose water, but rarely heavily iced. A splash of brandy, a squeeze of lemon or a thin blanket of ganache elevates even the easiest of cakes in mere minutes. And then there are savory cakes made with cheese, herbs, ham, baked into a delicious loaf. These cakes salés are ideal for picnic lunches, accompanied by a salad and a glass of Sancerre. Gâteau includes cakes for birthdays, summer feasts and winter holidays, last-minute dinner parties and school lunches, as well beloved regional recipes and guest contributions from superstar Parisian bakers.
Practical, simple, and filled with over 100 rigorously tested recipes and charming illustrations, Gâteau celebrates every day and sometimes fanciful French cakes in all their glory and is destined to become a classic.
About the Author
Aleksandra Crapanzano is a James Beard–winning writer and dessert columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of The London Cookbook and Eat. Cook. LA., and her work has been widely anthologized, most notably in Best American Food Writing. She has been a frequent contributor to Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Food52, Saveur, Town & Country, Elle, The Daily Beast, Departures, Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times Magazine. She has years of experience in the film world, consults in the food space, and serves on several boards with a focus on sustainability. Aleksandra grew up in New York and Paris, received her BA from Harvard and her MFA from NYU, where she has also taught writing. She is married to the writer John Burnham Schwartz, and they live in New York with their son, Garrick, and Bouvier des Flandres, Griffin.
"Demystifies the art of French baking with a collection of recipes for deceptively simple Parisian cakes that, with just a handful of ingredients, can be whipped up and served on a whim.” —Publishers Weekly
"If Aleksandra had set herself the task of making the world a little more chic, charming, and delectable, she could not have done better than to give us this book. Everything about it—Aleksandra’s delicious writing, the lyrical illustrations, and the recipes for cakes simple and seductive—conspires to bring joy. Gâteau is enchanting." —Dorie Greenspan, author of Baking with Dorie
"You know that feeling when you walk into a patisserie and see cakes of every color and dimension and like a child you can’t possibly make up your mind much less close your mouth from gasping? That’s how I feel reading Aleksandra’s lovely book. She opens my mind to French cakes that can be made in my kitchen and approaches baking with practicality but also whimsy and love. I want to make her Clafoutis with Raspberries, Yogurt Cake with Lemon Thyme, Baba au Rhum, and Quatre-Quarts, but can’t decide which one to bake first." —Anne Byrn, author of The Cake Mix Doctor
"Gâteau exhilaratingly demonstrates how simple and satisfying it is to make a great cake. The French have known this for centuries; Aleksandra Crapanzano's mission is to make sure Americans understand it, too. Using more than one hundred recipes to prove her point, Aleksandra shows us how easy it is to pull together a cake and put an exclamation point on any meal. After learning about a confection known as Le Weekend Cake, poring over a banana bread recipe that’s made with coconut milk, lime zest and rum and hopscotching through six pages of variations on her three-step pound cake (blood orange, matcha, or rum raisin, anyone?), I am forever on Team Gâteau!" —Amanda Hesser, co-founder and CEO of Food 52
"In her terrific new book, Aleksandra Crapanzano dispels the myth that making French cakes is daunting and best left to professionals. Her fabulous recipes will have you wooing your friends with a whole range of sweet delicacies from a simple and delicious Orange Blossom Honey Cake to a luxurious Flourless Chocolate and Red Wine Cake to a festive Coconut and Yuzu Bûche de Noël. Go get a copy right now!" —Nancy Silverton, chef and co-owner of Mozza Restaurant Group
"While I confess I’m naturally a bit torn about the idea of France’s cherished national cake secrets being revealed to the rest of the world, if anyone is going to do it, I’m delighted that it’s Aleksandra Crapanzano. I can imagine no one else with the knowledge, the passion and the spirit for this authoritative and delicious covert operation!" —Apollonia Poilâne, co-owner of Poilâne