The Simple Secret of French Baking

Master the classics, then improvise.

Three illustrations of French cakes on plates.
Getty; The Atlantic

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.      

Small epiphanies seem to arrive when good food is on the table and great friends are gathered around it. And so it was that I came to understand the secret to French baking one weekend in East Moriches, on Long Island, with our friends Delphine and David and their four kids.

After several years in New York, they were moving home to Paris, and my husband, John, and I were bereft. It was the sort of moment in a deep friendship when you realize how important ritual is in celebrating a bond. We were, we sensed, finding a way to not say goodbye, while full of the happy certainty that we would tend to our friendship. Of course, little did we know then, in the spring of 2020, that more than a year would go by before we’d be able to gather together once more.

Our group feasted without fuss. Nobody hovered over a hot stove; nobody fretted about their recipes. Yet somehow, by our first supper, Delphine and David’s daughter, Lila, had thinly sliced fruit for a dough her mother had made and rolled, while her father had made a tarte tatin. Nathan, the eldest son, had made canelés in copper molds for a late-afternoon snack, and Lila had put a bowl of madeleine batter in the fridge to rest overnight. John and I had brought large loaves of miche, those great rounds of sourdough, and a tote full of good cheeses from the city. Salads were assembled, fish grilled, wine bottles opened, verbena leaves picked for a late-night tisane. The next morning brought café au lait and piping-hot madeleines, straight from the oven. A quick dark-chocolate cake was made before a hike that ended with a swim.

There was ease to our meals. Everything was more or less served at room temperature, so there was no rush to the table. We ate with immense relish and pleasure, but all of the elements seemed part of a larger ensemble. It was in bed at the close of our three days together that I noted the sheer amount of baking that had been done. Yet it was almost impossible to remember when any of the measuring and mixing had actually happened.

Having lived in Paris for many years as a child, I knew that the French bake at home far more than we imagine. But perhaps more important, they bake far more simply than we imagine, and mostly from a range of classics that lend themselves to seasonal riffing and improvisation. What they don’t do is labor over the grand and intricate patisserie that is what we’ve come to think of as French baking. They wisely leave patisserie to the pâtissiers—people who, after long apprenticeships, studied at the venerable schools, honed their skills, and built their reputation. But it is equally true that I’ve never been in the home of a Parisian who was not a natural cook, or one who didn’t finish dinner with a little something sweet, effortlessly made and casually served. And so, though Delphine and David are particularly generous hosts, their way of cooking and eating is—remarkably—not altogether out of the ordinary in France.

The world’s captivation with all things French, and particularly all things Parisian, is not one I would ever wish to dispel. I fall squarely into the Francophile camp. But whether it is tying a silk scarf or rolling a genoise, far less time is expended than would seem fair for such fabulous results. So allow me to let you in on the secret. It’s very simple: The French master the classics. These recipes have stood the test of time and are inratables—foolproof. The trick, then, is having an arsenal of recipes that, once learned, become mere blueprints, allowing for a multitude of variations, depending on what’s in season and what’s in the cupboard. It is a practical approach, and the French are nothing if not practical. That, more than anything, is the essence of savoir faire, that distinctly Parisian know-how that blends style and functionality in every aspect of life—including popping a gâteau in the oven without anyone even noticing. When you know what you’re doing, there’s no need to overthink it. It looks easy because it is easy.

The cover of Gateau.
This article has been adapted from Aleksandra Crapanzano’s new book, Gâteau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes.

Perhaps because I’d seen it so often, this Parisian ease was not something I had ever considered, let alone articulated, in my 12 years writing a dessert column—but my little epiphany came with the urgent desire to preach it. I’ve structured my new cookbook, Gâteau, around that very premise of mastering, then riffing on, the classics, as it is at the heart of how the French cook, be it boeuf bourguignon or a cake. A recipe for gâteau au yaourt, for example, is so easy that it’s taught in nursery school. But add a heady splash of crème de framboise and a pint of raspberries, and suddenly you have a very grown-up dessert. Or substitute some of the wheat flour with almond flour, add a few spoonfuls of orange-blossom water, and the cake takes on yet another dimension. Or perhaps you want the zest of lemon and the herbal astringency of rosemary. Friends showing up for dinner? Drizzle on a little glaze to dress it up.

Although the core French recipes remain a comforting constant, frequently requiring no more than the most basic and least expensive of pantry staples and sometimes dating back to the Middle Ages, they are surprisingly modern—not only in their versatility but in their confident simplicity. Notable is that French cakes tend to be low on sugar and rarely iced. The focus shifts away from pronounced sweetness to the flavors, letting, say, the pureness of an apple, a pear, a hazelnut, or a rose petal take center stage. And more and more today, those pantry staples reflect the global diaspora of Paris. The Moroccan spice mix ras el hanout might perfume a simple crème-fraîche cake, and Makrut lime leaves may accent the buttercream of that most beloved of French cakes, the bûche de Noël.

In an age when rituals and traditions have grown scarce and diluted, I am drawn to the very French belief in the power of celebration—and in the fabulous, largely unchanging cakes that embody and express it. But never worry that celebration must be synonymous with formality or even with the holidays. Celebration might be as intimate and casual as a weekend by the water with the closest of friends—and very much as poignant. So, to start you baking, I’ve included a recipe for that most traditional and sturdy of French cakes, the pain d’épices, but in a moist, tender, and modern rendition. This is a cake for breakfast in bed, afternoon coffee, and midnight snacks. After dinner, it likes a dollop of crème fraîche, and really, don’t we all?


Pain d’Épices Moelleux (Spice Cake)

This is not your traditional pain d’épices, which is made with rye flour and no butter, and is significantly stiffer and drier. This version is a tender loaf cake, also made with honey and spices, but moist and baked for more or less immediate consumption. This will perfume your house with spice. It’s less of a dessert and more of a tea cake. Ideally, serve it with black tea. The first day, it is delicate of crumb and lovely. The second day, the top has a slightly sticky chewiness that is equally hard to resist. Giving a pain d’épices to friends around the holidays is a time-honored custom. This recipe is easily doubled, but it’s best not to make a larger loaf, as that will alter the cooking time and texture. Instead, make two medium loaves. If you are a fan of chai, you can also make this using ground chai spices.

  • 1/3 cup whole milk              
  • 1/2 cup wildflower or orange-blossom honey                             
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, preferably European                            
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup / 60 grams light-brown sugar
  • The grated zest of 1 organic orange                               
  • 1 1/3 cups / 160 grams cake flour                        
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Mes Épices (recipe follows) (You can also use the Floyd Cardoz garam masala blend from Burlap & Barrel.)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Preheat the oven to 315 degrees Fahrenheit. Generously butter an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2–inch loaf pan or line it with parchment paper.

In a medium saucepan, heat the milk and honey over low heat, stirring, until warm to the touch and well combined. Set aside.

In a small saucepan or microwave, melt the butter and set aside.

In a stand mixer or using handheld electric beaters, beat the egg yolk with the brown sugar until smooth. Add the orange zest. With the mixer running, pour in the warm milk and honey and beat until well combined.

Place a sieve over the bowl and sift in the flour, spice mix, baking soda, and salt. Fold in these dry ingredients with a rubber spatula. Add the melted butter and fold that in.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50–60 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to come to room temperature on a cooling rack, as any cake containing baking soda needs an hour to settle and rid itself of any lingering baking-soda taste.

Mes Épices

This is the mix of spices I use when making pain d’épices. I happen to like a little less star anise than is customary and so break one in half, and I like a little more cinnamon and ginger. I also add a touch of mace. It’s a gentler mix than what the British use in gingerbread and a less-sweet mix than American pie mix. This recipe yields enough for two loaves.

  • 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mace           
  • 3 cloves
  • Half a star anise
  • Half a small nutmeg, grated
  • 3 green cardamom pods                                   

Combine all of the ingredients in a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, and grind to a fine powder.


This article has been adapted from Aleksandra Crapanzano’s new book, Gâteau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes.