It was a circuitous route that brought me to le pain de Gênes, the sunny yellow French cake rich with butter, eggs, and almond paste,
and I never would have made it without a former New York cabbie and his Citroën.
It all began one day in the mid-1990s, in the parking lot of an Albertsons grocery store in Oklahoma City. My father, the ever-willing food shopper, paused with his grocery bags to admire a Citroën parked near his (beloved but ridiculously unreliable) Alfa Romeo. Because Burg was that sort of guy, he struck up a conversation with the owner of the Citroën, and, to make a short story shorter, they became best friends.
Every Saturday for years to follow, Burg and Michael would go for a morning walk together, leisurely strolling the neighborhood for an hour or so and finishing with an elaborate lunch, never without a frothy beer or a bottle of wine. Michael was a transplanted New Yorker, a cab driver turned writer and, with his partner Becky, a successful business owner. Intense and pensive, he devoured books of poetry and loved encouraging me—then an angsty, slightly punk, and borderline nerdy teenager—in my own stunted “career” [she writes, wincing] as a poet.
Michael was also a tremendous cook, and he loved feeding us in his airy kitchen with its dark wood floor and cabinets. He often prepared dishes that he and Becky had discovered in their nomadic hippie days in Mexico, and I still get weak-kneed just thinking of his roasted Coca-Cola chicken with hominy and his boiled yucca with olive oil and sea salt. We’d talk Adrienne Rich or poems about popes and poodles until it came time for dessert, when all attention would turn to Becky, an artist and skilled baker. As it fate would have it, one evening in late 1997, after another simple but haunting meal, Becky served an almond cake. Plain and unpretentious, it was rich and dense, imbued with sweet almond. I quite nearly scrapped my plans of leaving for college—my kingdom for almond paste!—just so I could stay there and eat the stuff forever.
But I didn’t. Life continued apace, albeit sans almond cake. And years later Michael and Becky, ever nomadic, moved to Paris, which is only appropriate, for it was there that I was reunited in fall 2001 with my lost love of the cake variety, what I would come to know as a pain de Gênes.
I’ve always felt pretty lucky, but Fortune really smiled on me when she gave me apartment only a few blocks from Au Levain du Marais, one of the best boulangeries in Paris. Occupying an ornately tiled corner space on boulevard Beaumarchais (at rue du Pasteur-Wagner, just north of Place de la Bastille, 11th arrondissement; also at 32, rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement), Au Levain du Marais is best known for its fine baguettes and its crusty, rustic pain au levain. I, of course, partook liberally of these, but I also acquainted myself with the pastry case, driving the women behind the counter crazy with my perpetual whimper, “Euh, euhhhh…j’ai du mal à choisir…euhhh…” (Uh, uhhhh…I’m having trouble choosing…uhhh…).
One day, I spotted a buttery-looking square of yellow cake behind the glass, topped with a snowy dusting of powdered sugar. Pointing to it eagerly, I asked for its name. It was a traditional pain de Gênes (“Genoa bread”), I was told, a cake made with almond paste—those two magic words!—invented to commemorate the 1800 siege of Genoa, when the city’s inhabitants survived largely on almonds.* Without a moment’s hesitation, I ordered a piece and carried it home gently, tucking my nose under the neatly folded, butter-soaked paper wrapper for a whiff of almond paste, heady and almost liqueur-like. After years of abstinence, there could be no keeping us apart.
In the time since, I’ve certainly eaten my fair share of Paris’s pain de Gênes, but here in Seattle, I’ve yet to find a bakery that offers it. But I’ve got two hands, a decent kitchen, a stack of cookbooks, and a Whole Foods at my disposal. So when Viv of the illustrious Seattle Bon Vivant announced that nuts were to be the theme of Sugar High Friday #4, I, nearly panting with anticipation, wasted no time.
After consulting a few recipes, I settled on the “Montmartre Square” in Dorie Greenspan’s fantastic Paris Sweets, which, if you are an aficionado of la pâtisserie, you must buy. Having been too kind to steal my mother’s KitchenAid stand mixer last Thanksgiving, I borrowed one from my generous next-door neighbors, and, at long last, I had a humble and painfully delicious pain de Gênes in my very own kitchen. From the first bite, I couldn’t help myself: my most visceral French—only the finest in slang, gleaned years ago from a reggae-jivin’ Parisian boyfriend—came rushing forth: “J’hallucine grave! C’est trop bon!” (I’m seriously trippin’! It’s too good!). It’s in moments like these that I’m at my most eloquent. Michael would surely be proud of the little poetess in me.
*For more information, see Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets, pages 38 and 52, and the introductory paragraph here.
Montmartre Square with a Few Changes, or Pain de Gênes
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Paris Sweets
This is one of two slightly spiffed-up versions of a pain de Gênes featured in Greenspan’s book. I’ve de-spiffed this one a bit, leaving off the almond-paste cloak that covers the original. Someday I’ll try it as it’s written, but I’m awfully partial to just a homey dusting of powdered sugar. Also note that Greenspan recommends using a stand mixer for this, since the cake batter is beaten for a full fifteen minutes—plenty long enough to wipe out the usual handheld beaters.
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 ½ Tbs potato starch (available in the baking section of must supermarkets)
14 ounces soft, pliable almond paste (I used two tubes of Odense brand), broken into pieces
4 large eggs
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled (but still liquid)
1 Tbs Grand Marnier or kirsch (I used Jim Beam; honey, work with what you’ve got)
Powdered sugar, for dusting
Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8-inch square pan (preferably metal, with nice, straight sides and corners), dust the inside with flour, tap out the excess, and put the pan on a baking sheet.
Sift the flour and potato starch together and set aside. Put the almond paste and two of the eggs in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for five minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, remove paddle, and put whisk attachment in place. Return the mixer to medium speed and beat in the remaining two eggs one at a time. Once eggs are incorporated, beat the batter for another ten minutes, scraping down the bowl frequently, until the batter is creamy. It should remind you of mayonnaise.
Stir a couple of tablespoons of this batter into the cooled melted butter. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the Grand Marnier, followed by the dry ingredients, mixing only until just incorporated. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the butter.
Turn the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove cake from the oven, unmold onto a cooling rack, reinvert if you like, and cool to room temperature.
Dust powdered sugar (through a sieve or special powdered sugar shaker, if you have one) onto the top of the cake. Serve.