Tourists flock to New England every fall to see the changing colors of the trees during the peak foliage months. It’s beautiful, it’s enchanting and very unique. But something needs to be said about spring in New England because it should be as popular of a destination as it is during the September-November window.
Traveling through New England at this time of year is as exquisite – and maybe even more! – as anything you can experience during the fall. The atmosphere gets warmer, the trees start to bloom, the sun nourishes the entire northeastern corner with soft rays, the snows have melted and the colorful flowers proudly display their new petals… in other words, New England is brought to full bloom and back to life in April-May. Hands down, this beats any overcast gray rainy French spring – except maybe in the South of France.
‘Tis the season when you still don’t know what to wear quite yet. Mornings are brisk, afternoons can sometimes be too warm and you most likely will end up carrying your coat on your arm towards the end of the day. The AC is not yet turned on but windows are left open all day and night long to let the crisp air of spring come inside your house. You know you will wake up in the middle of the night to put on a t-shirt or unroll that comforter at the foot of the bed. But if birds are singing, you know you’re on the right track.
At the onset of sunny days, and even though the coast is still a bit windy and cold, celebrating the new season with a tasty dessert is a must. Something light, something easy and something that can give you a cooling sensation after an over-indulging lunch of lobster boil and steamers: a breath of fresh air. Just as if you were standing on the beach of York Harbor, ME observing the gentle surf while engulfed by the soft cool wind.
The gâteau au yaourt is the most traditional French cake ever! It’s an institution. It’s a rite of passage. It’s the first cake French kidlets learn how to bake at school. If you don’t know how to make a yogurt cake, you’re not part of the “in” crowd. But mention “yogurt” as a baking ingredient to an American and you will only see bewilderment in their eyes.
Why is yogurt cake so popular? Because it’s extremely easy to make – anyone can do it and it’s fun for kids. It starts with one simple, basic ingredient: a small plain yogurt pot. And why is it easy? Because the empty yogurt pot is used as a measuring tool for all other ingredients. So once you know the ratio, you can’t go wrong. And isn’t the best part of a small yogurt to lick the lid and make some noise with your spoon at the bottom of the pot? Because even when you’re done with it, there’s always a tiny bit more leftover yogurt that you could almost get with the tip of your spoon. Unfortunately, in the majority of U.S. supermarkets plain yogurt is sold in a gigantic 32 oz (908 g) pot and not in a 6 oz (170 g) small container. Yes, millions of American kids deprived from the joys of making yogurt cake with a small yogurt pot!
The usual ratio – and everyone in France has their own variations with grandma’s secret recipe or magic ingredient – is 1 pot of yogurt, 1 pot of vegetable oil, 2 pots of sugar, 3 pots of flour. As easy as 1, 2, 3, or in this case un, deux, trois. Add 3 eggs, a bit of baking powder, a pinch of salt and a drop of vanilla extract and you’re good to go. You can make it in a round or rectangular cake pan. You can add chocolate chips, apples, bananas, orange zest, rum, coconut etc. the yogurt cake is your canvas and you can make it however you please. Bake it for 45 minutes at 370 °F (185 °C) and it will never fail. The yogurt cake should almost be featured on the French citizenship test – make it, bake it and you’re French… voilà!
The one I make has evolved a bit from the easy 1, 2, 3 pot combination. I glaze it with a lemon syrup to bring out the flavors of the citrus and I serve it with a home-made lemon sorbet. It’s bright with a nice warm yellow color, the glaze gives it a shiny sticky texture and the pairing with the sorbet makes for a wonderful refreshing cool splash down the spine. Have fun and enjoy!
Lemon Yogurt Cake
1 small plain yogurt pot (I use a 6 oz or 170 g one)
1 organic lemon (you will scrape the zest)
2 1/2 cup (250 g) of flour
1.5 cups (300 g) of sugar
9-10 Tbsps (15 cl) of vegetable oil
2 teaspoons of baking powder
the juice of 2 lemons
Preheat the oven at 350 °F (180 °C). Prepare a round or rectangular cake pan. I use a French rectangular cake pan which is narrower than an American one.
Separate the egg yolks from the whites in 2 different bowls. Add 1 cup (200 g) of the sugar to the yolks. Keep the remaining 1/2 cup (100 g) on the side. Mix well until the yolks and the sugar are blended together.
Wash the lemon and zest it (add the zest of a second lemon for an extra lemoney taste). I like to chop it very finely in the end. Add the zest, the yogurt and the oil to the sugar/yolk mix. Mix well. (Add 2-3 Tbsps of lemon juice in the batter for an extra lemoney taste).
Add the flour, the baking powder, and mix well until you get a smooth batter.
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Add to the batter slowly. Pour into the cake pan and bake in the oven first at 350 °F (180 °C) for 30 minutes. After that time, change the temperature to 400 °F (200 °C) and continue to bake for an additional 30 minutes. I find that the cake becomes moist and fluffy without being dry when cooked gradually for a longer period of time than traditional recipes.
In the meantime, while the cake is baking, prepare the syrup with 1 cup (25 cl) of water, the remaining 1/2 cup (100 g) of sugar and the juice of 2 lemons. Boil in a sauce pan and stir for 20-30 minutes until the spoon is coated. Let stand.
When your cake is out of the oven, turn it upside down and coat it with the syrup. Use a pastry brush to spread it. Flip the cake once more and continue to brush it with the remaining syrup. You can also use the syrup dripping on the sides to continue coating the top of the cake.
Place in the fridge and serve cold along a home-made lemon sorbet.