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Gateau Basque: A Perfect Cake For The Holidays

Gateau Basque is kind of like a tart, or a pie, or a cookie -- and the filled cake is one of the more unusual desserts in cookbook author Dorie Greenspan's repertoire.

"It's a dry cake, but delicious," she tells NPR's Michele Norris. "I'm always a little afraid to use the word 'dry' with a cake, because it sounds like a fault, but in this cake, it's not at all."

But it's a great cake to make for the holidays because it's sturdy and easy to transport and can be eaten at any time of day.

The author of Baking: From My Home to Yours says she pretty much ate gateau Basque morning, noon and night while she was traveling recently in the Pays Basque region of France.

"It's great with coffee or tea," she says. "It's great anytime."

What makes a gateau Basque so intriguing is that the cake has a clue as to what's baked inside. If filled with pastry cream, there's a crosshatch pattern on top. If filled with black cherry jam, another regional specialty, there's a Basque cross -- a cross shaped like a rounded pinwheel -- baked flat on top.

Greenspan learned how to make gateau Basque by happenstance. While driving along the winding roads in southwest France with her husband, she came across a road sign for the museum of gateau Basque.

"The idea that there could be a museum devoted to just a cake, it won my heart, of course," she says. "We followed the signs and there was a house and there was what I assumed a museum. And we're the only people there -- we poked our noses around, and by the time we got back to the kiosk, the place was jammed. And it turns out ... it wasn't so much a museum as a baking demonstration."

The chef who ran the museum, Bixente Marichular, grew up in Basque Country, but he had worked in New York with a chef Greenspan knew quite well. He even told Greenspan where in Manhattan she could get the coarse sugar his recipe calls for.

But for her own gateau Basque dough, Greenspan mixes regular sugar and brown sugar -- she says it creates the perfect consistency. She's no traditionalist when it comes to fillings, either: She has used blueberry jam, sweet cranberry relish and even lemon curd.

The cake's sturdiness impresses Norris -- it's simple and compact, and the line of jam in the middle makes it very elegant when sliced.

After enjoying a sample, Norris says, "I mean no disrespect, but it tastes like what a Pop-Tart would taste like, if a Pop-Tart moved up in the world."

"A grown-up pop tart," Greenspan says with a laugh.

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