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.