Growing up in the Loire Valley in France, we had more than fifty fruit trees in our garden and small family vineyard. Among other things, my parents grew raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb and redcurrants, and we often went out in search of wild blackberries, wild strawberries, hazelnuts, walnuts and chestnuts.
We lived with my maternal grandmother, who was the queen of the kitchen, making glorious cakes, fruit tarts and superb family desserts, like crêpes and custards. My very first kitchen memory is helping her make an apple tart when I was about five years old.
My grandmother was a delight to be with. From her I learned the love of cooking. And from my mum I learned the joy of eating. Not surprisingly, my eldest brother became a pâtissier/ boulanger (pastrycook/baker) and I became a cuisinier/pâtissier (chef/pastrycook). I trained forty years ago with the best Master Chef of my generation and after some solid experience in restaurants I began to freelance, concentrating on teaching, writing and presenting recipes and cooking shows on television.
Most of my work over the last twenty-five years has focused on home cooking. There is something really special about homemade cakes and desserts, about using the best seasonal fruits, and learning to make pastries and other sweet concoctions. Dessert-making is an exciting and creative hobby. It’s a satisfying way to spend an hour or two in the kitchen, and your family and friends will love you for it. Most home cooks have a repertoire of about half-a-dozen desserts. If you try a new dessert every month, you’ll have made more than one hundred and twenty new desserts over ten years and you’ll be a great cook!
When baking, you need to carefully measure the ingredients. I use measuring cups and spoons as well as digital scales. My most prized piece of equipment is my electric mixer, which has a large bowl and a whisk attachment to beat egg whites and to cream eggs and sugar. It also has a beater attachment for mixing pastry and for creaming butter and sugar.
Use good-quality ingredients – cakes, pastries and desserts taste better when made with fresh eggs, butter and flour, and the sweetest, freshest fruits.
Involve your children in making your desserts. And be easy on yourself – if your first try at a new recipe is not perfect, you will usually master it after a second or third attempt.
Cherry and pistachio tart
You will need a cherry pitter for this special tart that I make in the early summer months. The pastry base can be made in advance. If you need to peel the pistachios, drop them in boiling water for 20 seconds, then drain and peel.
Ingredients, serves 8-10
1 quantity Sweet Pastry (see below)
400g (14oz) cherries, pitted
60g (2oz) raw peeled pistachios
2 tablespoons walnut/olive oil
115g (4oz/½ cup) caster sugar
½ vanilla pod, split lengthwise
125ml (4fl oz/½ cup) cream
1 tablespoon brandy, Kirsch or Drambuie (optional)
70g (2½oz) smooth apricot jam, warmed
Sweet pastry (makes 550g)
125 g (4oz) sugar
1 large egg
seeds of ½ vanilla pod
250g (9oz/1²∕³ cups) plain flour
125g (4oz) butter, cut into small cubes
1. Place the sugar, egg and vanilla seeds in a small bowl and whisk well. Place the flour in the bowl of an electric beater. Add the cubed butter and beat until crumbly. Beat in the egg mixture until the pastry is well combined. Form the pastry into a ball using your hands. Flatten it slightly, wrap in plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate for at least one hour before using.
2. Preheat the oven to 220°C (430°F). Grease a 25 cm (10 in) loose-based flan tin.
3. Briefly knead the pastry to soften it, then roll it out on a floured surface to a thickness of 3 mm (¹∕8 in). Gently wrap the pastry around the rolling pin and lay it over the prepared tin. Line the tin with the pastry and trim the edges. Prick the base of the pastry with a fork.
4. Line the pastry with foil and fill with uncooked rice or dried beans. Bake the pastry for 10 minutes, then carefully remove the foil and its contents and cook for another 2–5 minutes or until the pastry is lightly browned. Remove from the oven and place the flan tin on a baking tray.
5. Arrange the cherries on tp of the pastry. Using a food processor, blend the pistachios and oil into a rough paste.
6. Combine the sugar and vanilla pod in a bowl and mix for 1 minute. Stir in the pistachio paste, cream, eggs and brandy, if using, until well combined. Discard the vanilla pod, then pour the mixture over the cherries. Place the tart in the oven, reduce the heat to 150°C (300°F) and bake for 25 minutes. Set aside to cool, then brush the top with apricot jam. Remove from the tin and serve warm.
Almond and blueberry galette
A galette is the French term for a flat cake. I love the flavour of the cooked blueberries in this dish. You can also make eight small galettes using individual flan tins or muffin tins.
Ingredients, serves 8
160g (5½oz) plain flour, sifted
80g (3oz/¾ cup) ground almonds
200g (7oz) butter, cut into small cubes
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
200g (7oz) caster sugar
4 large egg yolks
50g (2oz) flaked almonds
200g (7oz) blueberries
cream, ice cream or fruit sauce to serve
1. Place the flour and ground almonds in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Add the butter, lemon zest, sugar and 3½ egg yolks to the well. Using your fingertips, work these ingredients together first until just combined, then gradually incorporate the flour and ground almonds until a dough forms. Shape the dough into a ball, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Butter a 24 cm (9½ in) flan tin and sprinkle the sides of the tin with the flaked almonds.
3. Cut the dough in half. Lightly flour the dough, your hands and the rolling pin and roll each dough half out to a circle to fit the tin. Place one round of dough in the tin. Top with the blueberries, leaving a 1 cm (½ in) border around the edge. Place the other round of dough on top. Mix the remaining ½ egg yolk with 1 teaspoon water and lightly brush over the top of the dough. Using a fork, mark a lattice pattern on top of the dough.
4. Bake the galette for 20 minutes, then reduce the oven to 180°C (350°F) and bake for a further 35 minutes or until the top is firm to the touch. Leave to cool before carefully turning out. Serve the galette with cream, ice cream or a fruit sauce.
Hazelnut meringue cake with chocolate ganache
The meringue and filling can be prepared a day or two in advance, then the cake can be assembled on the day you need it. The assembled cake keeps well for 36 hours.
Ingredients, serves 8-10
80g (3oz/¾ cup) ground hazelnuts, toasted
1½ tablespoons cornflour
240g (9oz) caster sugar
6 large egg whites
pinch of cream of tartar
2 drops red wine vinegar
3 drops pure vanilla extract
40 roasted hazelnuts, chopped into small pieces
1 quantity Chocolate Ganache (see below)
icing sugar, for dusting
Chocolate ganache (makes 300ml)
300 ml (10 fl oz) cream
300 g (10½ oz/2 cups) dark cooking chocolate, cut into small pieces
1. Bring the cream to the boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth. Set aside to cool before using.
2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Draw a 20 cm (8 in) circle on three sheets of baking paper and use them to line three baking trays.
3. In a bowl combine the ground hazelnuts, cornflour and one-quarter of the sugar.
4. Using electric beaters, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium to high speed until almost stiff. Reduce speed to low, gradually add the remaining sugar, then the vinegar and vanilla extract, and beat until stiff peaks form.
5. Fold the hazelnut mixture into the beaten egg whites. Spoon into a piping bag fitted with a 1 cm (½ in) plain nozzle. Pipe three discs inside the circles on the baking paper, starting from the outside and moving inwards. Sprinkle half the roasted hazelnuts onto one of the discs. Bake the discs for 30 minutes or until the meringue is firm and dry. Set aside to cool.
6. Stir the remaining roasted hazelnuts into the chocolate ganache and spread one plain disc with almost half the ganache. Place the second plain disc on top and spread with ganache, reserving 2–3 tablespoons for the side of the cake. Top with the last disc, with the hazelnuts on top.
7. Briefly heat the remaining ganache until spreadable, then spread it over the side of the cake, using a spatula. Dust the cake with icing sugar to serve.
French apple tartlets
This dessert brings back beautiful memories of my youth, cooking with my mum and grandmother at home. At its best, it’s heaven.
Ingredients, serves 6
6 Granny Smith apples
400g (14oz) Puff Pastry
2 tablespoons thick (double/heavy) cream
1 tablespoon caster sugar
70g (2½oz) smooth apricot jam, warmed
1. Preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F). Line a baking tray with baking paper.
2. Peel and core the apples and cut two of them into eight pieces each. Place the apple pieces in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons water, cover and cook for a few minutes or until tender. Mash the apple, then set aside to cool.
3. Roll out the pastry to a thickness of about 2 mm (1/8 in) and cut into six 8–10 cm (3–4 in) rounds. Place the rounds on the prepared tray and prick with a fork to prevent the pastry from shrinking. Refrigerate the pastry while you prepare the apples.
4. Halve the remaining apples and cut them into thin slices about 2 mm (1/8 in) thick. Stir the cream into the mashed apple and spread it over the pastry, leaving a 1 cm (½ in) border. Overlap the apple slices on the pastry, working in a spiral pattern from the outside towards the centre, leaving no gaps.
5. Sprinkle the sugar over the tarts and bake for about 15 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp and the edges of the apple are lightly browned.
6. Lightly brush the tarts with the apricot jam and serve warm.
Extracted from So French So Sweet by Gabriel Gaté (Hardie Grant, £12.99).
Photography © Mark Roper.