What were your favorite cakes or snacks when you were growing up?
I'm sure if you were to ask people on the street, you would get some pretty strange answers. French fries dipped in ice cream (American version), cheese dipped in coffee (French version), or chicken liver on skewers, which just might be delicious. Although you'll never see me dipping cheese in coffee, fries in ice cream, or fries in coffee for that matter, I enjoy discovering the cultural differences that appear during childhood.
Most of the time, though, you would probably get the more traditional responses: peanut butter and jelly, brioche with butter and sugar, or something of the sort. I'll admit that I was never a PB&J kind of girl, and I have my maman to thank for that. During lunch, when everyone had their weird sandwich, I would snack on hummus and veggies and come home to a snack of bread with a little milk chocolate. Oh, and ants on a log--remember those? Creamy peanut butter on celery stalks with cute little raisin ants? I inherited a strong dislike for what I thought was really a bizarre mix of ingredients, and I don't believe I ever really enjoyed them. I might now, though, considering that I've become quite a fan of fluffernutter anything and Funfetti cakes--it wouldn't hurt to add peanut butter on vegetables, right?
In France, you won't find any Funfetti cakes, but there's a long list of desserts appreciated by children and adults alike. Many of them are made with some kind of mix of milk and rice or semolina: riz au lait, semoule au lait, and the ubiquitous gâteau à la semoule. True to my not-so-old self, I had never had semolina cake until last month. See, my maman is a fan of rice pudding, so I had quite a bit of that. But my gâteau à la semoule revelation came along when my aunt Mimi told me about desserts she enjoyed growing up. Like every time someone talks about cake, I guess I couldn't hide how excited I was. I was especially happy to learn more about my family's culinary history and all those little things passed on from one generation to the next.
The next time I arrived in Saint Dié, I stepped into the kitchen and there it was: LE gâteau à la semoule. Needless to say, I devoured it, probably like any other French child--or adult--would. The texture is firm but soft at the same time--huh? that doesn't make sense! Yes it does! Make it and you'll see!
And the caramel? It makes the cake company-, child-, anything-worthy. And you can't really say that about ants on a log, can you?
Gâteau à la semoule
100g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar + 50g (1/4 cup) more for caramel
100g (1/2 cup) semolina
1/2 liter (2 cups) milk
vanilla extract (1/2 TS should be enough)
Bring milk and vanilla to a boil in a saucepan. Slowly sprinkle semolina onto milk (in French we say "ajouter en pluie", which means sprinkle it like rain, cute right?) and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently so nothing sticks onto the bottom. Remove from heat and cover; let sit for another 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, beat egg yolks with sugar. Add semolina mixture and stir until blended.
Beat egg whites to stiff peaks and delicately incorporate into the rest of the ingredients.
Make a quick caramel: place 50g sugar and a few drops of water in a heavy bottomed saucepan on low heat. Wait until sugar dissolves and bring heat up to medium. Stir frequently to avoid scorching and remove from heat when caramel is the color you want it--ideally, it shouldn't be too dark here, otherwise the taste will be overpowering. Pour and brush caramel onto the bottom and sides of a greased 8-inch round cake pan.
Pour batter into pan (wrap in aluminum foil if you're afraid of water seeping in), and place pan in a larger roasting pan. Once in the oven, fill larger pan halfway with boiling water.
Bake for approximately 40 minutes, and cover top of the pan with aluminum foil if you feel like it's browning too fast. Cool completely and invert onto a plate. Serve at room temperature.