Musicians do it. Dancers do it. Cooks and bakers do it too. Start with something simple and classic. Add a flourish or a twist. Alter the mood. Create something new that refreshes your appreciation for something that's already done so well.
Theme and Variation is a standard form of musical composition that begins with a simple melody in its original, unadorned form. It is repeated several times with varied treatment, but in the end, some semblance of the original melody is evident. A familiar example is the melody for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." It began as a French children's folk song in the 1700's. Additional variations gave us "The Alphabet Song," "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and even parts of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World."
Dancers use choreography as their form by starting with an original movement idea that is repeated with various modifications while still maintaining its structure and sequence. When you get to cooking and baking, it's pretty much all a riff on something classic.
While visiting the Basque region of France and Spain recently, we fell in love with the gâteau basque. The simplicity of its buttery-almond crust had us smitten at first sniff. The flavor is comforting and satisfying all of the time. The filling, traditionally black cherry preserves or pastry cream (or both) is a delicious departure from flavors we usually gravitate towards in the States. In the name of culinary research, we sampled the gâteau basque several times each day and quickly came to the conclusion that it's a practical and multitasking recipe that is perfect for just about any occasion. It can be a welcoming afternoon snack with tea and can also stand up to a dollop of something fancy on the side for dessert. Pack it for a picnic thanks to its sturdy structure or wrap it with a ribbon to give as an elegant gift.
The traditional gâteau basque can be found in pastry shop windows throughout the region in France and Spain. While we usually saw it in various sizes of a classic round shape, we were impressed when we came upon one at a market where it was baked in a large rectangle (the size of a table) and sold in pieces by the kilogram.
Once we arrived home and unpacked our suitcases, we explored the idea of theme and variation by trying different fillings and shapes for this Basque classic. We sorted through the jars in our fridge and substituted passion fruit curd for pastry cream. Apricot and raspberry jam filled two additional gâteaux. With a nod to Basque tradition, we opened up the jar of black cherry preserves that we brought home as a souvenir to fill the last one. Individual square gâteaux, each with its own filling, capped off a fun evening with friends as we shared the differently flavored desserts.
Another day, a long fluted rectangle served as the treat that kept treating. Not only did we gift a large portion to our favorite hostess, but there was enough to put smaller slices into the lunch boxes of our favorite pencil pushers.
1-3/4 cups flour
2/3 cup sugar
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup almond flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2-3/4 cup fruit preserves or pastry cream
1 egg, beaten
1 Tbsp water
In a mixer with the paddle attachment, combine flour, sugar, butter, baking powder and almond flour. Mix for 3-4 minutes until evenly combined. Add the egg and almond extract and mix until the dough comes together. Do not over-mix.
The dough will be very sticky. Place it between two pieces of parchment or wax paper. Flatten it into a disk and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes for easier handling.
Remove dough from the refrigerator, but keep it in between the parchment paper while rolling it out. Gently roll it with a rolling pin to about 1/4 inch thickness or slightly more. Roll out a bottom and top crust to the approximate shape of your pan. Press the bottom crust into the pan. Don’t worry if it tears or breaks, it’s very forgiving if you patch it together.
Fill with either fruit preserves or pastry cream (or both). Use 2 Tbsp filling for small, individual pans or 3/4 cup for one large pan. Don’t over-fill. The crust will expand while baking and fill in the air pockets.
Cover with the top layer of crust and press the edges to seal. Seal up any tears in the top crust if necessary to prevent the filling from spilling out. Combine ingredients for egg wash and brush over top crust.
Bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees or until golden brown. Let cool completely before eating.
This dough makes one 9-inch or four 3-inch individual gâteaux. It can accommodate various pans of similar proportions.