Food & Drink

A Kinship Between French and Southern Baking? Mai Oui!

The author of the new cookbook Gâteau makes the delicious case

Photo: Melissa Foreman

Gâteau author Aleksandra Crapanzano.

The pound cake, that staple of Southern baby showers, church potlucks, and funeral spreads, has roots that go back hundreds of years—just not to the South. Instead, the original recipe traces to eighteenth-century England, then hopped the Channel to France, where it became the quatre-quarts, one of the first dishes children there learn how to make (Ask G&G’s Guy Martin explores some of that history here).

And even though there are some distinct differences in the way the French make their pound cakes—more on that in a minute—Aleksandra Crapanzano, the author of the new cookbook Gâteau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes, thinks more similarities exist between the two baking cultures than not. 

Crapanzano—a prolific and award-winning food columnist for such publications as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine—moved at age ten to France, and as she started to work on this delightful and rigorously tested compendium of sweet and savory bakes, she began to realize that behind the seemingly effortless je ne sais quoi of style and hospitality there lies a distinctively precise way of doing things. 

“I grew up in Paris for a big chunk of my life,” Crapanzano says, “and when you grow up cooking in a certain way, you don’t necessarily stop to think about the science.” She explains exactly why the French method—including weighing the eggs in their shells, and using and melting a high-quality butter—leads to a more delicate crumb in the headnote of her quatre-quart recipe, which she shared with us here

One parallel between French and Southern baking, she says, is both cultures’ obsessions and loyalty to particular recipe components. In the South, that might mean Duke’s or White Lily. “In France, when you go into a market, you’ll see not just bread, cake, all-purpose flour, you’ll see an entire range of different percentages, even in the little deli on the corner,” Crapanzano says. “Because they’re very specific about their ingredients. Which I think is also very much true in the South.” 

The French, she says, also prize a tanginess in their bakes, the kind Southerners get from adding in a little buttermilk or sour cream—only in Paris, that zip comes from crème fraîche. “It’s all swappable in this book, too,” she says of the ingredients she lists in Gâteau. “I think that desire for that tang is very similar—to counter the richness.”

And while the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of French baking might be that of a patisserie window full of tiny sophisticated pastries, “there is this idea of having very simple recipes that just has become absolutely integral to this country’s identity,” Crapanzano says of France. “Coming home after school to a friend’s house, there would be a gâteau au yaourt or a quatre-quart. Those kinds of versions of pound cakes are incredibly integral to the way actual Parisians bake at home.”

In the book’s introduction, Crapanzano credits this to the “very French belief in the power of celebration,” an emphasis on everyday hospitality that only requires a few easy steps—one Southerners know and practice all too well. “Yes, there’s going to be a cake on the counter,” she says, “and if there’s not, it can be made in ten minutes.” She calls them “back-pocket” recipes. “The ease of it, I think in both places, comes from really knowing what you’re doing because you’ve been doing it for so long.”

Try Crapanzano’s recipe for the quatre-quarts, the French version of pound cake, here.