Cookbook review: The short and sweet of French baking

‘Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes’ by Aleksandra Crapanzano (Scribner, $30)

Living in Paris as a child, Aleksandra Crapanzano observed the ease with which chic Parisians could tie a silk scarf, transforming the most basic attire into an elegant ensemble in seconds.

That mindset also reveals itself in French home kitchens, she explains in the introduction to “Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes” (Scribner, $30). While Parisian home cooks tend to leave the intricate patisserie work to the professionals, she writes that they’re equally inclined to “finish dinner with a little something sweet, effortlessly made and casually served.”

Crapanzano, a longtime food columnist for The Wall Street Journal and recipient of the James Beard M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, shares the secrets to that culinary savoir faire in these charmingly illustrated pages.

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“A French cake will, by and large, have less sugar, as nuance is prized over sweetness,” she explains. “A bit of salt will bloom the flavors. A cup of yogurt might add a moist backstage tang. Vanilla is used sparingly. The pure taste of apples is rarely masked by cinnamon. And the pucker of a lemon cake is not undermined by a thick blanket of frosting. Chocolate is almost dark and bittersweet.”

Her streamlined recipes begin with a yogurt loaf cake French children learn to bake in nursery school. “But add a heady splash of creme de framboise and a pint of raspberries,” she notes, “and you suddenly have a very grown-up dessert.”

Chapters covering chocolate cakes, tortes, madeleines, dacquoises, buche de noel, clafoutis, savory cakes, and much more follow. All are rooted in classic techniques that serve as blueprints for myriad variations based on the season or what’s in the cupboard. Her recipe for Quatre-Quarts, the French version of pound cake, includes 52 spinoffs that involve no more than a tweak or two: Apple and Calvados, Lemon Thyme, Matcha, Poppy Seed.

Whether it’s tying a silk scarf or rolling a genoise, she writes, the French continually fall back on the time-tested methods that embolden them to improvise. “When you know what you’re doing, there’s no need to overthink it. It looks easy because it is easy.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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