Quatre-quarts or secrets of French cake
I remember my first meeting with a French cake. It came with the meeting of my dear French friends, who, when inviting me to our kids' play dates or dinner would always say that they would make the cake. For a Latvian girl, cake means layers of cream and sponge, so I was disappointed that the cake never arrived. Whether I was leaving first or last, it never arrived. Until one day, after months of meetings, I gritted my teeth and asked why they never served the cake they promised. And the truth was revealed at that exact moment – and it was disappointing: the cake they were referring to was a classic pound cake. Instead of saying quatre-quarts, which is the real name, they just say cake. Lesson learned.
So, after 12 years of all that disappointment, I understood that I have to dig deeper and finally understand what is the story behind that extra moist and dense yet light pound cake, I've been eating it in France more than I should. It is not just a pound cake, it is something more.
Let’s go one step back to the beginning of the 18th century when pound cake was introduced and as the name says – there is something to do with pounds. The basic recipe (from Brittany where butter flows instead of water, just like in every quatre-quarts) says you need a pound of each or quarter of each. Simply said, you measure the eggs and then put the same amount of the other ingredients. The airiness of the cake is due to ..... beating the eggs for a long time until they are strong and airy. Only afterward were leaveners, such as soda and baking powder added. Later came the idea to substitute part of the butter with oil. Later, Americans added sour cream instead of all that butter. And then there are flavours like vanilla, lemon, orange, and many more.
But talking about French cake, I always knew there was something more to it. It wasn't just four parts of everything and even if it was, there was some secret,that they did not mention in the books. And there are, not one, but many secrets, for which I'm thankful to pastry chef Julia Balinska (from our local patisserie Bel Etage @beletage).
So basically, to make a real French quatre-quarts cake you have to follow these principles:
The eggs are beaten in a hot water bath, giving the cake a dense, yet airy texture
The butter makes the difference in the taste and is often used is beurre noisette
When the cake is cool, it is slowly lowered into an infused sugar syrup, letting the cake soak up the flavours
And then comes the important part – decorating. Every cake is usually decorated according to its flavour. The closer to a celebration like Christmas or Easter, the more special the decorations.
So when we talk about French cake or quatre quarts, it is not just an ordinary pound cake. It is something special. Something you have to master with practice, passion, and with style.
Story and pictures: Signe Meirane
Camera: Sony Alpha 7s