Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Textural Reversal: Gâteau de Sarrasin


As I've said in this space many times before, baking does not come naturally to me.

This isn't to say that I don't try; it's just that I've had more practice with sauté pans than with baking powder or yeast. I realize that this can be overcome -- much as I hope that many of you realize your own cooking fears can be overcome by making things off of this food blog -- and, as a result, these days I often make myself break out the flour and preheat the oven as opposed to providing my guests with a bowl of fruit, some good blue cheese, and a few extra bottles of red.

[Editor's Note: Seriously, who would choose dessert over that?]

One side effect of this increase in baking is that it has been self-driven, rather than learned at the side of a parent or relative, which is how it seems most of my baker friends first learned. As a result, my techniques are a bit unorthodox, my combinations of flavors and textures somewhat of their own making.

This cake is a prime example of that. In its most basic form, it is a frosted Vanilla-Buckwheat cake, but, rather than use buckwheat flour, I used Kasha (seen at the top of this post), the whole-kerneled groat of the plant, resulting in a richer dough, much more akin to the Italian torta di noci than, say, yellow cake from a box. As for the frosting, rather than turning to a heavy buttercream, I opted for a lighter-than-air meringue.

While I realize that this is contrary to the traditional principles of cake dynamics (light, fluffy cake surrounded by rich frosting), the resulting product turned out to be both full of flavor and not too heavy, perfect for mid-summer. Let's get to it.

Gâteau de Sarrasin
Serves 8

1/2 Cup Roasted Buckwheat Groats (Kasha)
2 Cupa Water
2 Tablespoons Butter, cut into two pieces

Cake Batter
2 cups Flour (Cake Flour is nice, but All-Purpose will do)
1 and 1/2 Tablespoons Baking Powder
Pinch of Kosher Salt
1/2 Cup Sweet Cream Butter, room temperature
1 Cup Sugar
2 Extra-Large Eggs
3/4 Cup Whole Milk
2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract

5 large Egg Whites, room temperature
2/3 cup Sugar
1/2 teaspoon Lemon Juice or White Vinegar
2 teaspoons pure Vanilla Extract
1/2 Tablespoon Cinnamon
Pinch of Kosher Salt

Preheat your oven to 350F.

Immediately after doing this, take your stick of butter (the 1/2 cup needed for the batter) out of the refigerator. Better yet, do it the night before. We're going to need it to be soft so that it whips well into the dough. I know, I know, just two weeks ago I said that butter temperature isn't important. It isn't always important, and frankly, it's not all that important here -- I just want to make life easier on you, and fighting a solid brick of butter with a spoon or a mixer just isn't fun. Trust me on this one.

Now, we need to prepare the Kasha before everything else. For those of you not familiar with it, it is a fantastic grain, gluten-free, with a lovely, sweet nuttiness and a hint of spice. Start by toasting it in a dry pan, over high heat, for 30 seconds. Once things get nice and warm, draw up the two cups of water measure and have them on hand. Start by adding in one of the Tablespoons of butter and stirring to coat everything well.

You don't want to burn the butter, so as soon as it melts, add in the water. Let it rise to a boil, and cook until it's absorbed and the grain is tender. If it's not tender after the water boils off, feel free to add additional water, cooking once again until the liquid is absorbed.

Remove the Kasha from the heat, transfer to a bowl to cool, and stir in the second Tablespoon of butter. Stir well as it melts to coat the individual grains and to keep them from clumping too much. Set the bowl aside.

Next, sift together your dry ingredients -- flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.

Using a hand-mixer (or a whisk and someone with strong forearms), stir in the two eggs and milk. Once that's incorporated, add in the vanilla extract and the stick of butter, which you so conveniently decided to let come up to room temperature earlier. Good idea!

We're almost done with the batter. Stir in your cooked Kasha, being sure to mix it in well.

Using the wrapper from the stick of butter (or cooking spray, or canola oil and a paper towel), butter your 8" cake pans. Cover this with a layer of flour, about two Tablespoons for each, coating all the buttered surfaces well and tapping out the excess.

Pour your batter into the pans, distributing half into each. Smooth it out with a spatula, checking for air pockets and trying to make sure the top is relatively level.

Place your cakes into the oven for 45 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and a knife comes out cleanly (note the knife mark in the left-hand cake). Let cool in the pans for 15 minutes, and then transfer to cooling racks for another hour.

In the meanwhile, right after the cakes come out, crack five eggs, leaving the whites out at room temperature (we want them to get warm), and refrigerating the yolks for another use (after all, making a Fruit Tart or Creme Brulee is never a bad idea).

Once the cakes are cool, it's time to make the frosting. Meringue frosting is great not only because it's light and fluffy; it's also almost completely temperature proof, staying structurally sound and attractive even in 90 degree heat. Try taking a buttercream cake to a picnic in the middle of July to see the alternative.

Place a pot of water on the stove to boil, and place a heat-proof bowl over it, being sure to make sure the base doesn't touch the water inside. Add in your egg whites and sugar, whisking by hand as the water comes to a boil.

This is the only moderately challenging part of the recipe -- we want to heat up the egg whites and dissolve the sugar, but without making an omelet out of the whole mess. If you whisk quickly enough and occasionally lift the bowl out of the pot to cool down, you should be fine. If you mess up? Crack another five eggs and try again. It's the only way you'll learn.

Once the sugar is dissolved (you can test this by sticking a finger into the whites and then rubbing it against another digit -- if you don't feel grittiness, you're good to go) take the bowl off of the heat and transfer the whites to another bowl. This will stop the cooking process. Switching to a hand-mixer, whip the sugar/egg mixture on high speed until it is thickened and glossy (this may take several minutes, but have faith -- it will happen).

Add the lemon juice or vinegar at this point. It doesn't really matter which you use, since it's such a small amount, and it's being used strictly as a stablizer. If you have Cream of Tartar, that's ideal, but let's be honest -- it's more likely that you have lemons or vinegar around. Add the vanilla, cinnamon, and salt as well, and continue to whip until the frosting is firm and fluffy.

You'll know it's done when the fluff stands in stiff peaks off the end of the beater, but, to be honest, you can't overwhip this. If you think it's where it should be, whip it for another thirty seconds from there.

From here, it's time to start building the cake. Place one of the layers on the plate or stand that you intend to serve it from, with a sheet of parchment paper underneath. The paper isn't really important, but you'll see why it's nice in a moment. Place a thick layer of the frosting (about 1/3 of it) on the top of this layer.

Carefully lay the second layer of the cake on top of the first. Frost the sides and the top, making sure to coat everything well (you should have enough frosting left to do a pretty thick layer).

At this point, if you used the parchment paper, draw it out from underneath the cake. This will give it a clean, "professional" look, but it's not really needed. If you still want a clean plate, lightly moisten a paper towel and run it around the exposed plate area to clean things up.

Dust the top with a little more cinnamon, garnish, and serve!

As I said in the introduction, this is far from traditional. That being said, the rich, nutty cake and the light, spiced frosting make for a lovely summertime treat, the sort of thing that will have people asking you for the recipe, the sort of thing that will make those who bring a box of store-bought cookies to the picnic wish that they had learned how to bake.

Next weekend, we'll return with a cool summer soup that you won't want to miss. See you then.

Music: Buckwheat Zydeco -- "Make A Change"


  1. So I don't know how to pronounce this, but we've been talking about different wheats and flours lately. And I am intrigued enough by this kasha to give this a try/

  2. Eh, just call it Vanilla-Buckwheat Cake with Cinnamon Frosting -- we're a little too fancy for our own good over here sometimes, trust me.

    Please, do try it! I'd love to hear how it came out.

    Kasha is a great thing to have around the house anyway -- cheap, remarkably nutritious, flavorful, and it subs in well anywhere you'd usually use rice (while delivering far less sugar and a lot more protein to your body).


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