One of the novels I read as a boy has stuck with me ever since. It is Eugénie Grandet by the 19th-century French author Honoré de Balzac.
There would have been no James, Proust or Dickens without Balzac. Sorry to begin so highbrow but there’s a point, I promise.
The little I’ve read of him has always conjured up vibrant images of kitchen life and food. It stands to reason: Balzac was French and his stories were set in his homeland, whether in Paris or further afield. Eugénie Grandet is set in Saumur, a beautiful town on the Loire river with crisp white wine and mostly average food. It is neither Brittany with its delicate white fish, nor the Languedoc with its angry cassoulets. But it looks like a postcard.
Saumur also has a venue called the Liverpool Bar, a dimly lit, red-painted cauldron of activity where old French men in high trousers play two-euro pool, a brace of dartboards line the back wall, and French madames, holding the microphone as they would a baguette, sing karaoke. It is the best sort of French madness and the beers are locally made, delicious and cheap.
It might have been the sort of bar Balzac’s character, Eugénie, stifled and ruled over by her domineering and abrasive father, would have adored. She was trapped, alas. No karaoke for her.
But there is a page or two – I read it so long ago – where she manages to persuade Nanon, her housekeeper, to make a galette, one of those famous flat French cakes usually made with puff pastry. This might sound unimportant, but those who have read the story will know how relieving the moment was. Her father, though wealthy, was miserly, and so mostly she just bumbled about the large house so close to luxury but ultimately without it. I remember being happy when the fruit galette came to pass.
As good as a fruit galette is, nothing rivals a galette des rois. It arrives on Epiphany, traditionally, January 6, and is a dessert apparently designed to honour the three kings who travelled to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. Yet chef Raymond Blanc says this is nonsense: “It was really created in more modern times by an enterprising French pâtissier who saw the chance to make a quick profit. Nevertheless, it is a marvellous party dessert as traditionally two little figurines or “fèves” are hidden in the almond cream; whoever finds one of them will become the king or queen for the day.”
Today, the cake takes many forms. Cyril Lignac, another French chef who has opened a restaurant in the UK, is known for his conventional techniques but use of modern and global ingredients. Here, he adds the East Asian flavour of yuzu in the cream filling. At his restaurant, this cake costs £14 a slice. Eugénie would probably not have been allowed any.
Lemon and yuzu galette
Makes 2 galettes, each serving 6
2x 320g ready-rolled puff pastry sheets; or home-made puff pastry (see below)
Almond yuzu cream
140g almond powder
15g custard powder
110g icing sugar
25g barley water cordial
1 whole egg
Lemon and yuzu confit
125g Lemon peel
125g Yuzu peel
2 whole eggs
Lignac recommends making your own puff pastry (you can find his recipe online) but if that’s a step too far, the recipe would work with shop-bought. Two rolls of ready-to-bake puff pastry from any grocer would be enough. With it, roll out discs of 22cm, 1.8cm thick.
For the Almond yuzu cream
Peel the lemon and yuzu and extract the juice. Cream the butter, add icing sugar, and mix with almond powder and custard powder. Slowly add the egg, and finally the juice. Put aside in the fridge.
For the Lemon and yuzu confit
Peel the lemon and yuzu, blanch the skins five times to remove the bitterness, add the sugar and cover with water. Simmer for 30/40 minutes.
For the galette
Heat an oven to 180°C (adjust for fan). Take the two discs of puff pastry, brush water around the edge of one disc at a 2cm width from the edge. Pipe almond cream on top of the first puff pastry disc, garnish with lemon and yuzu confit. Put the second puff pastry disc on top of the first.
With a knife, chip the edges nicely to seal the edges of the puff pastry. Make an egg wash by beating two whole eggs together with water. Brush the egg wash on top and score as smoothly as possible.
Cook at 180°C for 45 minutes. Garnish the cooked galette with the zest from a lemon and a lime.