Today's race finished in Pau in the region of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is home to nearly 5% of France's population (2002) and stretches out over five counties: the Dordogne (also know as Périgord), is well-known for walnuts, walnut oil, truffles and foie gras; the Gironde and its prestigious wines, the Landes, and seemingly endless sandy beaches, the Lot-et-Garonne ; the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, (where we end up today) with majestic mountains and a culture heavily influenced by the Basques.
World-famous wines from the region's capital Bordeaux include Graves, St Emilion and Médoc that mature into sought out names such as Margaux, Rothschild and Petrus. According to Nicks Nose Knows, "The Bordeaux AOC area is the largest in France...the average annual yield is...equivalent to 650 million bottles."
Armagnac, a brandy, was the first distilled spirit in France. It's similar to Cognac, in that it bars the name of the production region. The difference between the two is in the type of grape used, the soil, the climate, the method of distillation and the use of black oak wooden maturation casks. In addition Armagnac is distilled once (twice for Cognac) which yields a lower alcohol content. Armagnacs are also aged longer than Cognacs, typically 12-20 years, but can be aged up to 30 years.
As this is the land of geese and ducks, butter is considered a poor substitute in cooking preparations. Any cooking effort beginning with fat--a fried egg, sauteed peppers and onions or peppered duck breast in a creamy Armagnac sauce begins here. Autumn yields cepes and truffles. Another Basque regional specialty is ttoro, a peppery fish stew, which had it's beginnings with the fishermens' wives not wanting any of the unsold catch going to waste. This explains the long and varied fish called for in the recipe!
The following Gateau Basque is very simple. It is more of a coffee cake than a dessert-type cake. It is dense--scone like in fact. In my research I saw a few variations on this theme. One of them involving a involving an almond crème pâtissière. A French website stated, "Il en existe presque autant de variétés que de villages, de pâtissiers ou de restaurateurs." (i.e. there are a lot of variations!) The same website explained (if I have it right) that the reason that the former version has become more popular as the traditional Ixtassou black cherries are becoming hard to find. Sour cherry preserves are the filling for this cake. However, since I had some challenges (my local gourmet pantry was closed for painting) I've substituted strawberry preserves from Four Star Provisions for a close to actual version.
Simple French Desserts Makes one 10-inch cake; serves 10 to 12
By Jill O'Connor
Simple French Desserts
Makes one 10-inch cake; serves 10 to 12
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2-3/4 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup sour cherry preserves
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract (optional)
1/4 cup sliced almonds (optional)
Place an oven rack on the middle shelf of the oven. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Spray a 10-inch cake pan or spring-form pan with nonstick vegetable-oil cooking spray.
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Gradually beat in the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract.
Sift the cake flour, salt, and baking powder together and use a rubber spatula to fold the dry ingredients into this butter mixture until a soft dough form and no white streaks of flour remain.
Spread half the batter evenly in the bottom of the prepared pan. Stir the almond extract, if using, into the cherry preserves. Spoon the cherry preserves over the batter, spreading it within 2 inches of the border.
Drop the remaining batter by large spoonfuls over the preserves. Spread the batter carefully over the jam to the edge of the pan. Sprinkle with sliced almonds, if using.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a bamboo skewer inserted into the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack.