Thursday, July 19, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake

Maria, playing with salt dough.  Her apron was a gift that Donnie bought during his trip to Assisi. He bought a matching one for me :)

Maria has a long-standing interest in cake. Not that she has eaten many cakes in her life (until recently). We think it began last summer when she saw an older neighbor girl making "cakes" in the sandbox by our building.  Whatever it was that sparked the interest, eating cake and making cake have been recurring subjects in Maria's imaginative play.  When my parents gave Donnie some Ideal Blox, for his birthday back in November, she commandeered them and made pyramid cakes. Later in the winter, she stripped off her legwarmers to make legwarmer cakes.  Our experiments with playdough and salt dough all led to more cakes.  Some kids makes cities.  Maria makes cakes.

So it was that in late May, while scouring the shelves of our lovely, but expensive local toy store for Maria's birthday gift, I latched onto this little set.   The set includes of three mini-discs stackers, where the discs represent cake layers. The child experiments with different ordering of the layers to come up with new confections. The layers are wood and felt, but the end results resemble the exquisite creations on display at the patisseries in town.  The set seemed a little pricey for a bit of play food, but I justified the expense, saying that not only would this be a beloved toy, but a souvenir of France.

The purchase was a good one.  Maria has enjoyed this toy and still comes to me, holding out one of her creations, "Mommy, a cake for you."

Maria's birthday cake set, along with play baked goods made from salt dough

In this way, Maria had been thinking of cake and building "cakes", but her interest in real baking took off during our visit to the US.  Maria and Muschi made muffins almost every morning, to the delight of all. And once we transferred over to the Sheehys, Maria "helped" Meme and Colleen in several baking projects.

Returning to France, we've been met with a series of unseasonably cold, wet days. Baking has turned out to be a great way of keeping Maria occupied and everyone in good spirits. We've made cookies. We've made several rounds of rhubarb cake.  One afternoon, we made salt dough and rounded out Maria's  inventory of play food by adding croissants, a baguette, a boule, and a number of brioche buns.  For me and my little toaster oven, this qualifies as a streak.

And then, last week, I began reading Bringing Up Bebe, a book that has been making the rounds in the Anglophone playgroup we attend.  Bringing Up Bebe explores the differences between French and Anglo-American parenting styles, and highlights the positive aspects of the French approach.  It was with  pleasure that I learned that family baking sessions are a weekly or bi-weekly ritual for French families.  The author sees baking as one of the ways French families encourage their children to develop patience and self control:

All this baking doesn't just make lot of cakes. It also teaches kids how to control themselves. With its orderly measuring and sequencing of ingredients, baking is a perfect lesson in patience. So is the fact that Franch families don't devour the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, as I would do. They typically bake in the morning or early afternoon, then wait and eat the cake or muffins as a gouter --the French afternoon snack.

The gouter (pronounced "goo-tay") is a facet of French life that we'd already come to enjoy.   It's less of what we tend to think of as a snack--which in my mind has a rather informal connotation.  It's more of an established mini-meal, at least for children.  It's my understanding the gouter is when many of the luxuriant, flour-rich sweets come into play: cookies, cakes, crepes, chocolate-stuffed croissants, pastries, madelines, etc.   Boxes of cookies come printed with chirpy serving recommendations:  "four cookies + half a mango + a cup of milk = a balanced gouter!"

I love that in French eating culture has a special, ritualized place for this type foods, where they take center stage and are not tacked on the end of a complicated meal.  If the French are any indication, giving cake its due place on the weekly menu--if not daily menu--seems to encourage moderation.

So I'm delighted to find that Maria and I have happened upon a pastime that ties in with an aspect of French dining culture.  I'm looking forward to trying the carrot cake we baked yesterday during today's gouter.  Yes, it's lovely to eat cake.  Now the challenge is not over-doing it...

Maria enjoying her apricot and rhubarb yogurt cake
Pamela Druckerman writes that the first cake French children learn to bake is gateau au yaourt, or Yogurt cake.  Yogurt is added, then the empty yoghurt tub is used in lieu of a measuring cup.  The recipe is simple and forgiving--very nice for young children.  We've made it once, adding fresh apricots and chopped rhubarb to the basic batter.   

Gateau au Yaourt (Yogurt Cake) from Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe

2 tubs plain whole-milk yogurt (the individual portion-sized tubs, about 175 g/ 6oz)
2 eggs
2 tubs sugar (or just one, depending on how sweet you like it)
1 tsp vanilla essence
just under 1 tub vegetable oil
4 tubs plain flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Use vegetable oil to grease a 9-inch round pan (or a loaf tin).

Gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla and oil. In a separate bowl, mix flour and baking powder. Add dry ingredients to wet ingreidents; mix gently until combined--don't over-mix!
You can add 2 tubs fozen berries, a tub of chocolate hcips, or any flavouring you like. Cook for 35 minutes, then 5 minutes more if it doesn't pass the knife test. It should be almost crispy on the outside, but springy on the inside. Let it cool. The cake is delicious served with tea and a dollop of creme fraiche.


  1. Wow! How wonderful! I especially like that you have encouraged and embraced Maria's love of cakes. You were reflective enough to notice her little interest and have turned it into something you can bond over and celebrate. Maria is learning skills and virtues. How lovely! I can't help but think this is a much better reaction than say... "my daughter is obsessed with cakes, i must counter this with forcing her to play with salt dough carrots" or something of that sort. :)

    1. Thanks, Nikki! Of course, we do sometimes resort to putting the carrots in the cake. :)

  2. Make me a birthday cake tomorrow. I will enjoy it with you vicariously and with all my heart!


  3. Oh Julia! How lovely. And I love the little salt dough creations you made to go with her set. (I haven't done it lately, but sometimes we sit down to "tea" after G's nap, which makes the pm snack more like a special event, like the gouter. Lately it's been a handful of crackers thrown her way, but I want to try the yogurt cake, so we'll get back into it. :))

  4. That one's written in my little handwritten cookbook from when I first moved to France. How classic! And what a great way to teach self-control. I love the gouter tradition.