[A few months ago, I started writing for the righteous noise zine Offerings, which is edited by a group of my Toronto friends. It's worth it just to read Doc Dunn's far-out astrology readings, trust. Anyway, they asked me, however, not to write about music, but food. I thought hard about column ideas and eventually came up with 'Fancy on the Cheap,' a series of short little essays centering on the quandary of how to bring luxury into your life when you are as perpetually broke as I am. The first column was on DIY creme fraiche and my very favorite cake in the world — Lulu's walnut gateau, which I love so much I have also written about it for Kinfolk Magazine — and I've reproduced it below, here! Enjoy. Oh and the photo above — there's a jar of creme fraiche in there somewhere.]
Great restaurant food, as we all know, can be fantastically expensive. Perfect for the 1%, but not for the average citizen whose financial state tends to oscillate between “despairingly broke” and “mildly poor,” with occasional spikes of “temporary, illusory wealth.” My experience as a baker has taught me sneaky ways to still enjoy elusive culinary luxuries, and this column is all about sharing those strategies with you.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s often the simplest things that are the best. I live in Montreal, a pricey dining city, so I prefer to spin my own culinary magic in my humble apartment. I gravitate towards pastry and confection, and cheapish ingredients like flour, eggs, and sugar let me play around as much as I want. (Dirty secret: Some people substitute margarine for butter, with no one the wiser).
In the last year or two, I became obsessed with the curmudgeonly, indomitable, brilliant food writer Richard Olney, whose legendary volume Simple French Food singlehandedly changed my life. (You want cheap and easy? Make his luscious, neon-hued ratatouille in the height of summer). One of his finest cookbooks is Lulu’s Provençal Table, which features gorgeous, inventive recipes straight from the brain of the eponymous Lulu Peyraud, the second-generation proprietor of Provence’s famed vineyard, Domaine Tempier.
I was immediately drawn to Lulu’s recipe for walnut gateau, which has a complex, mysterious flavor and an unleavened, moist crumb. Despite its rustic origins, this is a delicate, elegant puck of a cake, impressive in its simplicity. I make it often, for birthdays, dinner parties, or just for myself, and it never disappoints. The ground walnuts and butter are worth the splurge, and the results are grand.
Even better is pairing a slender wedge of gateau with homemade crème fraîche, which seems difficult to make but is disturbingly easy. Store-brand crème fraîche is prohibitively expensive; this is a no-brainer way to enjoy it at a fraction of the price. This tangy, lightly fermented crème is terrific with everything, and it’s an effortless way to fancify pantry soups, potato salad, salad dressing, pot roast, or a bowl of cut fruit. Try finishing your next sauce with a dollop of crème fraîche; its high-fat content will ensure that your sauce will not curdle but stay silky and supple.
Please, bake this gateau for your next dinner party, and serve it with a cheap, cold bottle of cider or ice cider. It’s just great restaurant food, except you get to pick the music.
Lulu’s Walnut Gateau
(Recipe slightly adapted; serves eight)
8 tablespoons butter, softened
1 ½ cups white granulated sugar
5 eggs, at room temperature
½ lb walnuts, ground finely
¼ cup carrot, grated
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 orange, zested
—Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly butter a 12” cake pan, and fit a circle of parchment paper at the bottom. Set aside.
—In a medium-sized bowl, cream butter, sugar, and salt until smooth. (This can even be done with a wooden spoon if you have the fortitude and forearm strength).
—Add eggs, one at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon.
—Then add nuts, gently folding them in, then carrots, then flour, then orange zest, until just combined, being careful not to overmix.
—Pour into pan, and bake 40 minutes, or until set.
—Slightly cool in the tin, and serve immediately with a big spoonful of crème fraîche.
1 cup heavy cooking cream (look for 35% fat)
1 tablespoon buttermilk
—Gently bring the cream to just warmer than room temperature, stirring occasionally.
—Remove from heat, and stir in 1 tablespoon of buttermilk.
—Transfer cream mixture to a clean mason jar, and loosely screw lid on. Leave in a warm area (I keep mine on my kitchen counter) overnight, or at least 8-12 hours.
—Remove lid and give a good stir with a fork. The cream should have considerably thickened.
—Screw the lid on tightly, and put in the fridge. Let sit for at least 12 more hours.
—The crème fraîche has finished its brief ferment, and is ready to eat. It should last in your fridge, tightly closed, for at least a week.
—Note: Now you have a lot of leftover buttermilk, right? I use leftover buttermilk for quick breads like scones, muffins, or cornbread. Don’t let it go to waste!