To anyone who has been to France, it’s clear that the country has raised baking to an art form. But one doesn’t need to be a master pâtissier to enjoy some of its simpler confections. For a custardy apple cake, a mixture of tart and sweet apples lends complex flavor, and cooking the apples prior to adding them to the batter ensures the cake doesn’t turn out soggy. For a cake soaked in rum syrup, almond flour helps retain moisture while a lemon glaze adds tartness and texture to the tender crumb. Plus, a French walnut tart.
French Almond-Rum Cake (Gâteau Nantais)
Makes 12 servings
Gâteau Nantais originated in Nantes in western France. Made with generous amounts of butter, eggs, and almond flour, the cake’s crumb is rich, moist, and pleasantly dense, and becomes even more so after it’s brushed with rum syrup. The classic finish is a rum icing, but we opt instead for a bracing lemon glaze that brings out the lemon zest in the cake. You can serve the cake as soon as the glaze sets, but its flavor and texture improve if it’s allowed to rest overnight at room temperature. If storing it for longer, cover and refrigerate it (for up to three days), but bring the cake to room temperature before serving. If using a dark, non-stick cake pan (which transfers heat more quickly than lighter aluminum), reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake for the same time.
To help ensure that the alcohol won’t ignite, be sure to use a large saucepan to make the syrup, and remove it from the burner before pouring in the rum. After removing the cake from the pan, don’t re-invert it —leave it bottom side up, as the perfectly flat surface is easy to glaze. Finally, the cake needn’t cool before brushing on the syrup; absorption is better if the cake is still hot.
For the cake:
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) salted butter, room temperature, plus more for the pan
11/3 cups (300 grams) white sugar
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
2½ cups (250 grams) almond flour
¼ teaspoon table salt
6 large eggs
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (80 grams) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons dark rum
For the rum syrup:
3 tablespoons (38 grams) white sugar
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ cup dark rum
For the lemon glaze and garnish:
1½ cups (186 grams) powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
3 tablespoons lemon juice, plus more if needed
47 grams (½ cup) sliced almonds, toasted
To make the cake, heat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, beat the eggs.
In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, white sugar, and lemon zest on medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed. Add the almond flour and salt, then beat on medium speed just until incorporated. With the mixer running, gradually add the eggs and beat until homogeneous, scraping the bowl as needed. Increase to medium-high speed and continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl once or twice. With the mixer running on low, gradually add the all-purpose flour and mix until incorporated, then slowly add the rum and beat just until combined. Scrape the bowl to ensure no pockets of flour or rum remain. The batter will be thick.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, then spread in an even layer and smooth the surface. Bake until deep golden brown and the center of the cake springs back when gently pressed, 50 to 55 minutes.
Meanwhile, to make the rum syrup, combine the white sugar, 1/3 cup water, allspice, and peppercorns in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then boil for 3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the rum. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 2 minutes. Pour the mixture though a fine mesh strainer set over a small bowl; discard the solids and set the syrup aside.
When the cake is done, let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Invert the cake onto another wire rack; do not re-invert. Immediately brush the top and sides of the cake with all of the rum syrup. Cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Transfer the cooled cake to a platter.
To make the lemon glaze, in a medium bowl, whisk together the powdered sugar and salt, then gradually whisk in the lemon juice; the glaze should be smooth, with the consistency of yogurt. If it is too thick, whisk in additional lemon juice ½ teaspoon at a time to attain the proper consistency.
Pour the glaze onto the center of the cake, then use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread the glaze toward the edges, allowing just a small amount to drip down the sides. Sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Let stand at room temperature to set the glaze, about 1 hour.
French Apple Cake
Makes 8 servings
This simple dessert is less cake than sautéed apples set in a thick, buttery custard encased in a golden crust. We like using two varieties of apples, one tart and one sweet —the variation in sweetness gives the cake a full, complex flavor.
No need to use a spatula to scrape the browned butter out of the skillet —simply pour it into the bowl. A skim coat of butter in the pan is necessary for cooking the apples. Be sure to let the cake fully cool before slicing; if it is at all warm, the texture at the center will be too soft.
The cake is delicious served unadorned, but it’s equally wonderful with crème fraîche or ice cream.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, plus more for pan
2/3 cup (86 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
1½ pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch slices
1 pound Braeburn or Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-inch slices
12 tablespoons (156 grams) white sugar, divided
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons brandy or Calvados
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Coat a 9-inch springform pan with butter, dust evenly with flour, then tap out the excess.
In a 12-inch skillet set over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Cook, swirling the pan frequently, until the milk solids at the bottom are golden brown and the butter has a nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Pour into a small, heatproof bowl without scraping out the skillet. Stir the allspice into the butter and set aside.
Add all of the apples, 26 grams (2 tablespoons) of the sugar, and the salt to the still-hot skillet and set over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all moisture released by the apples has evaporated and the slices begin to brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Add the brandy and cook until evaporated, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer to a large plate, spread in an even layer, and refrigerate uncovered until cool to the touch, 15 to 20 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and baking powder. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, vanilla, and 117 grams (9 tablespoons) of the sugar. Gradually whisk in the butter. Add the flour mixture and stir with a rubber spatula until smooth; the batter will be very thick. Add the cooled apples and fold until evenly coated. Transfer to the prepared pan, spread in an even layer, and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake until the cake is deeply browned, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack, about 2 hours. Run a knife around the inside of the pan and remove the sides before slicing.
French Walnut Tart
Makes 10 servings
This simple tart comes from the Perigord region of France, an area known for its walnuts. A cookie-like pastry shell is filled with the rich, subtly bitter nuts and buttery caramel. Our version tones down what is often cloying sweetness with a small measure of crème fraîche and a dose of cider vinegar (you won’t detect it in the finished dessert). Whole-wheat flour in the crust plays up the earthiness of the walnuts.
The dough-lined tart pan can be prepared in advance; after the dough is firm, wrap tightly in plastic and freeze for up to two weeks.
To toast the walnuts, spread them in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees until fragrant and just starting to brown, about 8 minutes, stirring just once or twice (take care not to over-toast them or they will taste acrid).
Be sure not to overcook the caramel. Aim for an amber hue; if it gets much darker than that, the finished tart will taste bitter.
The tart is superb lightly sprinkled with flaky sea salt and accompanied by crème fraîche or unsweetened whipped cream.
For the tart shell:
87 grams (2/3 cup) all-purpose flour
46 grams ( 1/3 cup) whole-wheat flour
40 grams (3 tablespoons) white sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) salted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
107 grams (½ cup) white sugar
¼ cup honey
1/3 cup crème fraîche
4 tablespoons (½ stick) salted butter
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/8 teaspoon table salt
2 large egg yolks
230 grams (2½ cups) walnuts, roughly chopped and lightly toasted (see headnote)
Heat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the lower-middle position. Mist a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom with cooking spray. Line a rimmed baking sheet with kitchen parchment.
To make the tart shell, in a food processor, combine both flours, the sugar and the salt, then process until combined, about 5 seconds. Scatter the butter over the mixture and pulse until it resembles coarse sand, 10 to 12 pulses. Add the egg yolk and vanilla, then process until the mixture is evenly moistened and cohesive, 20 to 30 seconds; the mixture may not form a single mass.
Crumble the dough into the prepared tart pan, evenly covering the surface. Using the bottom of a dry measuring cup, press into an even layer over the bottom and up the sides; the edge of the dough should be flush with the rim. Use a fork to prick all over the bottom, then freeze until the dough is firm, 15 to 30 minutes.
While the dough chills, to make the filling, pour ¼ cup water into a medium saucepan. Add the sugar and honey into the center, avoiding contact with the sides. Cook over medium heat, swirling the pan frequently, until the mixture is amber in color, about 8 minutes. Off heat, add the crème fraîche, butter, vinegar, and salt, then whisk until the butter is melted and the mixture is well combined. Let cool until just warm, about 30 minutes.
While the caramel cools, set the dough-lined tart pan on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for about 5 minutes.
Whisk the yolks into the caramel filling, then add the nuts and stir until evenly coated. Pour the filling into the warm tart shell, then gently spread in an even layer. Bake until the edges of the filling begin to puff and the center jiggles only slightly when gently shaken, 25 to 35 minutes.
Let the tart cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for about 1 hour. Remove the pan sides. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Christopher Kimball is the founder of Milk Street, home to a magazine, school, and radio and television shows. Globe readers get 12 weeks of complete digital access, plus two issues of Milk Street print magazine, for just $1. Go to 177milkstreet.com/globe. Send comments to email@example.com.