Monday, 11 December 2017

Pithiviers Fondant

I know it's that time of year and all good food bloggers should be presenting their Christmas cakes, mince pies and puddings but I'm afraid I don't really do the classic Christmas stuff anymore. So here's the closest thing to a festive cake that I've made recently. I hope it makes up for the lack of Yuletide baking. It may not be traditional, but I like it a lot.

The French town of Pithiviers has become famous for the puff pastry concoction that shares its name. They can be delightful but they're a newfangled invention dating back no earlier than the 18th century. By that time Pithiviers had long been renowned for this gâteau.

So forget all about those pastry newcomers, this is one of those meltingly soft (well, fondant) almond cakes that has probably been around since the middle ages, although some people even claim that it originated with the Roman invasion of Gaul. It's a bit like a cross between a Gâteau Nantais and a Tarta de Santiago in my opinion. (Sorry, my irritating baking nerd persona got the better of me there.)

Never mind the history, though, it's a delicious cake that makes a fine dessert or afternoon treat. The cake is normally iced but tastes fine without if that's what you prefer. It's also usually decorated with glacé cherries and angelica. I've just used some little jellies instead and there are two reasons for this: first, I don't really like glacé cherries and angelica and second, I have no class.
Pithivier Fondant
This really is very straightforward to make, especially if you use a decent electric mixer. You can add some extra flavouring to the cake, although that's optional. A few drops of almond extract or a little vanilla extract will both work well. Alternatively, some bakers add a dash of booze such as dark rum, kirsch or almond liqueur instead. The cake keeps very well in an airtight tin.

200 g caster sugar (I prefer golden caster sugar, but it’s not crucial)
4 eggs
140 g unsalted butter, melted and allowed to cool a little
200 g ground almonds
Additional flavouring – this is optional, see above

To finish:
Around 200 g icing sugar and your chosen bits of decoration


Butter and line a 20 cm cake tin. (A loose bottom or springform tin would be best, if you have one). Preheat the oven to 180⁰C.

Whisk the sugar and eggs together thoroughly. Whisk in the melted butter and any flavouring you want to add. Gently but thoroughly whisk in the ground almonds.

Pour into the prepared tin, smooth out the surface of the mixture and bake for 35 - 40 minutes until the top is a nice golden brown and a knife blade inserted into the cake comes out clean. Don't worry if there seems to be a lot of mixture for the tin compared with, say, a classic sponge cake because this cake won't rise very much during cooking. The cake should remain soft and moist and so be careful to avoid baking for too long.

Allow the cake to cool in the tin a little before turning out onto a rack to cool completely. Be careful when removing the cake from the tin because it will remain quite soft and fragile. (It is a fondant, after all). Once completely cold, you can ice and decorate the cake.

Gradually add a little water to the sieved icing sugar until you get a spreadable consistency and cover the top and sides of the cooled cake evenly. If you want it to look like an authentic, classy Pithiviers Fondant then take a lot of time and care over this stage. Personally I'm a bit too busy to worry about perfection and, as I admitted earlier, I have no class. If you have the time and inclination, embellish with suitable cake decorations arranged in an attractive pattern.

12 comments:

  1. This sounds good, Phil. Just my kind of cake as I love almonds in any form. I dislike glacé cherries too, and angelica. Where we lived in France, angelica was a speciality - liqueur, sweets, cakes ..... you name it and I'm sure it would have angelica in it!"

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    1. I think angelica is a very odd thing and I can't see much chance of me changing my opinion. I'm normally happy to see any liqueur but I make an exception for angelica.

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  2. I remember buying savoury puff pastry Pithiviers pies in Sainsbury's many years ago. They seem to have gone from the shelves now and why shouldn't they, being mere newcomers in town.
    I love the decoration using fruit jellies here, they remind me of my childhood. My dear grandmother always wished for a box of them at Christmas and we the grandchildren were more than happy to help her eat them. I remember using some to decorate the trifle, so why not a cake? I shall get a box immediately........or at least when I feel up to braving the scrum in Tesco.

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    1. I was looking for something colourful to decorate the cake with and among all the more sophisticated bits and bobs were these little jellies intended, I assume, for children's cakes. Let's face it, I've not been entirely successful at growing up.

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  3. I haven't seen little jellies like that adorn a cake since the 80s- similar to shellsuits, can we start a hashtag campaign to bring back the jellies? They could be 2018's ingredient of the year, adorn all creations by next year's bake off contenstants... and all thanks to this lovely cake!

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    1. I've got to agree, they really do look very 80s. I'd love to say that I had them specially made in order to promote a retro revival but the fact is that I just wandered into a supermarket and there they were. I'm definitely in favour of seeing more of them, though.

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  4. This sounds a good antidote to the excess of dried fruit at this time of year. Don't misunderstand me - I love mince pies and fruit cake etc, but sometimes you need something simpler.

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    1. I must confess that I tend to long for something that isn't dried fruit and Christmas spices at this time of year - at least now and then. I think it might be a sign of me getting to be an old codger.

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  5. Phil, I don't find your baking nerd persona at all irritating. Never apologize to me for baking nerdery! Now I have to look into that new-fangled 18th century puff pastry thing you mentioned. I love doing puff pastry! I would like this almond cake, too. Of course, I'd scrape off the pretty frosting and jellies from my portion, as I always do.

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    1. Without trying to sound too nerdy, I've always thought that the classic pastry pithivier should really contain frangipane. I've come across a lot of savoury pithiviers, though, and some of those can be excellent and some considerably less than excellent. But if you can put any filling you want in a pithivier then they're not so different from a pie or pasty, except that a pithivier should always have a spiral decoration on top. At least, that's my very humble opinion.

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  6. It's always nice to see something different. There are only so many ways to make a christmas cake and only so many variations on mince pies. This looks very nice.

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    1. Well, it's definitely not a traditional Christmas cake but I'm not very traditional either and I could do with something a bit different at this time of year. Especially if it's something that's easy to make at a busy time in the kitchen.

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