Wednesday in France is unofficial "family day". Children don't have school on hump-day, and so very often one parent makes the choice to work a bit less to take care of the kids during this mid-week break. In our family, that parent is me. I love that this arrangement gives me that Friday afternoon feeling on Tuesdays, I love that I get to spend the day just hanging out with my girl Uma, and I love that it gives both of us some downtime. As you'd guess, there are plenty of things to do with the kids on Wednesdays here, but sometimes, like this week when the temperatures have dropped and the roads are slick with ice, I don't feel like venturing out to play-dates, the park, soft-play areas or the movies. I just want to hunker down, turn on some tunes and putter around my kitchen. And so, apparently, does my three year old.
Not in the mood for the usual kiddy line-up of drop cookies, cupcakes and banana bread, I want to do French. Flipping through my stacks of cookbooks in search of something easy and tasty to bake on this grey day, I find myself a little lost. French baking isn't exactly child-friendly. The last few times I tried it, the soufflé looked like a deflated basketball and the madeleines failed to rise into golden domes. Probably not all Uma's fault, but pointing the finger at her resetting the timer on the oven while my attention was on cleaning up the eggs she had dropped on the floor seems fair to me.
I call my husband's aunt. An early childhood educator and the owner of both an acclaimed French South-West restaurant and a wine shop here in Paris, it's a no-brainer to give her a ring and ask what Uma and I should whip up on this Wednesday afternoon. After all, if someone's going to give me some tips on French food and entertaining a toddler who just wants to get as much flour as possible on herself, it's got to be Tata Nelly.
"Yogurt cake," is her immediate reply to my question. "It's simple and Uma will have as much fun making it as eating it." She doesn't have much time to chat, but says she'll e-mail me her recipe in plenty of time for the bake-off this afternoon.
Wondering how a cake made of yogurt will taste, I go to the fridge. No yogurt. As I've already (unwisely) told Uma that's what we'll be making I have no choice but to get our coats on and head out to the grocery store. This may sound like a real chore with a toddler in tow, but not with this toddler. Uma loves the supermarket; eyeing the lobsters and crabs in the massive tank, asking the names of the different fish laid out on the piles of ice, and confirming what she sees for sale with questions formulated as statements like, "Mummy, we can eat snails?" This little errand will definitely keep her happy and kill an hour or so of our chilly Wednesday while we both wait for lunchtime.
In the yogurt aisle, I'm overwhelmed. If you're wondering why, then you've never seen a yogurt aisle in a French supermarket. And I do mean yogurt aisle, not dairy aisle, for here yogurt is taken very seriously indeed. So seriously the aisle has just one big sign over it: YAOURT. Nothing else to be found down this florescent-lit track seemingly the length of a soccer pitch but fermented milk. Of course I've bought yogurt in France before, but I've never given it much thought; usually I just pick up whatever looks like it will mix well with my granola. Now, I'm faced with shelf after shelf of flavored varieties, plain varieties, full-fat, low-fat, non-fat, organic, labels like AOC, label rouge, yogurt from the Pyrenées, from Normandy, from the Alps. Yogurts that promise to make my child more resilient to the flu, to clean me out, to establish good intestinal flora growth.
Turning to my companion I ask, "What do you think?" Uma goes straight for the chocolate and candy-topped one right at her eye level, but I manage to convince her of the merits of a plainer choice for making the cake. She pauses for a moment in front of one brand with cute cartoon cows on the packaging before spying the big, white, fluffy sheep on another. "Just like Lamby!" she screams excitedly, referring to a stuffed animal that she has clutched in her fist every night since she was just weeks old. Uma's fat little hand landed on the most expensive brand in the aisle; a hand-pressed organic raw sheep's milk yogurt from the Roquefort region, sold in little old-fashioned glass pots. Hesitating momentarily over the astronomical price, I figure, go hard or go home. It is Wednesday, after all.
Back home we get our kit out. I help Uma find the mixing bowl, the whisk, the wooden spoon, the flour and the sugar and the baking powder in the pantry. She brings each item to the counter, one at a time, with a certain gravitas, and lines everything up according to size, including the eggs. I print out Nelly's recipe, put the iTunes on shuffle, and we roll up our sleeves.
Turns out the recipe really is, well, a piece of cake. No cups or spoons needed, just use the yogurt pot to measure out the flour, the sugar, the vegetable oil. Brilliant! Uma and I swing to a little Charlie Parker as I show her how to crack an egg, whisk everything while remaining reasonably clean, and smear butter inside the cake pan. With the cake in the oven, we stand at the counter, Uma on a chair and I leaning on my elbows, to wipe out the bowl with our fingers and lick them clean.
When the cake comes out of the oven, golden and filling the kitchen with the smell of vanilla, I cut into it and place a slice on each of our plates. Uma laughs at how its lightness makes it spring back when she presses a tiny finger on it and smiles with her eyes shut tight when she takes her first bite. And so do I. Wednesdays rock.
Tata Nelly's Perfect Every Time Yogurt Cake
A 4 oz (1/2 cup), single-serving container of plain yogurt (or get creative and use lemon yogurt, vanilla yogurt...)
2 yogurt containers of flour (or 1 cup)
2 yogurt containers of granulated sugar (or 1 cup)
1/2 a yogurt container of vegetable oil (or 1/4 cup)
1/2 a tablespoon of baking powder
1 tablespoon of vanilla sugar (or a 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract)
Preheat your oven to 425°F and get a 9" round cake pan or 8"x4" loaf pan ready by generously buttering it. Great fun for little hands.
Scoop the yogurt out of its container into a large bowl. Give the container a quick wipe to clean it and use it to measure out the flour, sugar and oil, adding them to the yogurt. Add the eggs, baking powder and vanilla sugar or extract. Watch out for dropped eggs on the floor.
Mix it all up with a wire whisk (or let your little one do it) until you get a smooth batter, then pour into your pan. Bake for 30 minutes then check on it. When a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, it's ready. Great with a scoop of ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream or crème fraîche.
Yogurt cake is just as versitile as its English cousin, the pound cake. Add lemon or orange zest, chocolate chips, cocoa powder, cinnamon, nutmeg... the sky's the limit.
©2011 Lise Charlebois-Ludot