Thursday, July 5, 2012

French yogurt cake

Monday morning I got an email from my editor saying that she needed my column by two that afternoon because, due to the July 4th holiday, they’d be running the Flavor section a day early. I spent the morning furiously writing (my husband took the kids) and sent it off with seven minutes to spare.

Also, I’m completely out from under The Play’s Cloud. I don’t miss it or think about it much anymore, so that feels good.

In other words, I’m all sorts of liberated this week.

But back to the column. In it, I wrote about a book I read and how it’s changed my perspective on eating. I didn’t make all my points in the column, though. I couldn’t—I didn’t have enough time to hone my thoughts. Plus, I had too many ideas for the allotted 600 words.

The main point (and you better go read the column first if you’re to have any idea of what I’m talking about), one that I think I’m just beginning to catch on to, is that we (North America? Mennonites? Just my family?) eat for both pleasure and to fill ourselves up, yet food has a primarily utilitarian purpose.

Much of feeding my kids involves me saying, more or less, Just get it down. They are to eat the peas because they’re green, the beans and rice because they’re nutritious, the oatmeal to fill them up and give them energy for the day. It tastes good, too, but to dwell too much on the flavor seems snobby.

While the French eat for fulfillment, too (obviously, they’re human), they also put high priority on enjoyment and flavor. Dinner doesn’t get slapped on the table—it gets portioned out, discussed, appreciated. Food is to be savored. The differences between the two approaches are small, yet profound.

I was explaining these ideas to my mother and she said, “That’s a really sophisticated perspective of food. Starving people can’t eat like that.”

"But we're not starving," I said.

That exchange, right there, perfectly sums up the tension: I feel guilty about eating well. In fact, maybe I even eat like starving people—quickly and too much—because I don’t know how to handle the bounty.

The funny thing is, I’ve been taught it’s fine—virtuous even—to spend hours upon hours growing, preserving, and cooking my food. Yet, somehow, spending much time eating it is sumptuous and excessive.

Of course, I’m not French and I’ve never been to Paris (or even Europe), so all my information is second hand and therefore probably skewed. But when I serve French-style meals to my family, they are well-received, even with the "adult food" emphasis, so I do think I (as a pseudo French person) am on to something.

We had a French-style lunch yesterday. Just my younger son and older daughter were present, and since my daughter was gone all last week and this was the first time she had one of these meals, I asked my son to explain the rules to her.

“No fussing,” he said. “And you don’t have to eat everything.”

(Several times, he's accidentally said “curses” for “courses,” as in, “What’s the next curse, Mama?”)

First course: Greek cucumber and tomato salad (with green olives instead of black)
Second course: red beans over a mix of brown rice and quinoa (with toppings of sour cream, cheese, and salsa), and some tortilla chips
Third course: apple slices and peanut butter
Fourth course: molasses cookies

It’s all normal food, leftovers and such. But the genius lies in serving only one thing at a time, with the veggies being first, and actively discussing the flavors—why they are paired up together and so on.

With meals like these, there’s a little more planning involved, but that’s mostly because I’m not used to laying out meals in this manner. Also, I find I’m thinking about vegetables and fruits more—they’re not simply a side, they’re the star.

Last night’s supper:
First: a cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers salad
Second: grilled flatbread with pesto
Third: watermelon and cantaloupe
Fourth: good cheeses (a creamy buffalo and a smoked sheep) from NYC
And after the sun went down: ice cream cones


There was a cake recipe in that book, so of course I made it. The author claims it’s so simple that French kids make it all the time. It’s low-maintenance, for sure, the only tools required are a whisk and one bowl, but it took me three cakes just to get a feel for it.

The first cake: I bought two six-ounce containers of yogurt and then, like the recipe said, used the empty yogurt containers to measure the rest of the ingredients. But I think that method led to inaccurate measurements—the resulting cake was too dense and dry. However, it had great potential, we all agreed.

The second cake: I converted the measurements to standard cups and made the cake again. Yummy, but the bottom of the cake had a single, thin layer of denseness—not doughy and not un-done, just a little line of heaviness.

The third cake: I turned to the web. There are tons of yogurt cakes out there, mostly from bloggers who read the book and then made the cake (a lá Yours Truly). I chose one that was simple and clean-cut. It had an extra egg, less sugar, and some nutmeg, but was still heavy on the bottom. We preferred the second cake.

So then, rather than make a fourth cake, I decided that the little bit of heaviness (and it really is hardly noticeable) is just how it’s supposed to be. The cake itself is delicious: mildly sweet and noticeably tangy from the yogurt and with a unique crumb—moist, dense, chewy, and springy.

French Yogurt Cake
Adapted from Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman.

1 ½ cups plain yogurt, preferably full-fat
1 ½ cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 scant cup flavorless oil, such as canola
3 cups flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

Whisk together the yogurt, sugar, eggs, oil, and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and stir to combine.

Pour the batter into a greased, 10-inch springform pan (or two round cake pans) and bake at 375 degrees for 35-45 minutes or until the top is cracked and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

This cake is great served plain, with a cup of coffee, or with whipped cream and fresh berries. Also, I think it would be fabulous crumbled into a bowl, topped with sugared strawberries and drowned in milk.

This same time, years previous: butchering chickens, in their words, sauteed Swiss chard with a fried egg


  1. I like this new theory you've got going. I'm giving it a try.

    (I'm the same as you are when it comes to food...spend hours making it and then scarfing it down because I feel the need to get on to the next chore/activity.)

    And I have a lot of yogurt right now. I'm making this cake this afternoon, as long as the teething babe takes a nap, that is.

  2. I haven't read THIS book (but I will), but I'm in line to read French Kids Eat Everything. I think it's going to be my philosophy exactly, although I didn't know about the hard line for snacking. I already told my kids out of laziness mostly that we were going to forgo snacks this summer. They haven't noticed most of the time.

    Thanks for cracking the code on this cake. I'm tempted to make it for the sheer Frenchness of it (I've heard of it before), but I'm not sure I would LIKE it.

  3. This is interesting. This method may help my finicky eaters stay focused on what's in front of them instead of begging for the applesauce, etc. that's sitting in front of them on the table. The jumping up and down to present all those courses is what might hold me back. By the time dinner comes around, I just want to sit. I might have to give it a go, though. Hmmm....

  4. I loved the column entry! And Baby Nickels telling Beccaboo the rules.

  5. I like this cake. It's especially delicious with a strawberry sauce.

    1. Oh that sounds good!

      And I forgot to mention, I think it improves with age...

  6. Could you use a vanilla flavored yogurt or do you think that would mess with the over all flavor?


    1. It may be fine, but you'd probably want to cut back on the sugar since vanilla yogurt is pretty sweet. Let me know if it works!

  7. That yoghurt cake is indeed a classic.

    Mine goes like this:

    150g tub of yoghurt
    fill it once with sunflower oil
    fill it twice with sugar
    fill it 3 times with self raising flour
    pinch of salt
    package of vanilla sugar
    3small or 2 medium eggs

    Whisk together, bake at 180Celsius for approx 30 to 40 minutes.

    If you want it fancy, stir in raisins or cranberries or chocolate chips or apricot pieces or peach pieces, the variations are endless.

    If you want a glaze, use the juice of 1 small lemon, plus the zest, a couple of tablespoons icing sugar, mix and glaze.

    The best thing about it is that it stays moist even if you live alone and only eat one slice per day. I have made it for myself and it is still nice after 3 to 4 days and not dry at all!

  8. I just tried that recipe yesterday with my daughter and had the same problem you did the first time. It was way too dense and in some places it wasn't even cooked all the way. I think it was too !much flour, the batter was SO thick! But I think we'll try it again, maybe with your variation. :)