I’ve been a part-time Parisian for almost 20 years, but you wouldn’t know it if you judged my assimilation by how lightly I tread in high heels, how stylishly I toss a shawl over my shoulder or how capable I am of eating a croissant without covering myself in buttery crumbs. However, there’s one thing I learned early on in my French life that I perfected immediately: the yogurt cake. It’s as Gallic as a Duncan Hines cake is American, and it is as easy as the boxed mix, although it’s homemade.
For the most part, the French aren’t ambitious home bakers the way we Americans are, but every French person I know, baker or not, can make a yogurt cake. And does. For Sunday lunch. For a kid’s birthday. For an anniversary. For mama coming to town. For that time when you need a cake and can’t get to the pâtisserie to buy one.
And, by the way, when the French say “cake” (as opposed to gâteau), they mean one baked in a loaf pan.
The accompanying recipe has typical cake ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour. But instead of butter, there’s oil, and there’s always the eponymous yogurt. It’s a very plain cake - think pound cake - with subtle flavor, firm texture, minimum sweetness and the ability to be just right, no matter the moment.
I decided to take the recipe to the shores of the Mediterranean, substituting thick Greek yogurt for the yogurt ordinaire that’s standard; swapping out vegetable oil for a mild olive oil; and flavoring the cake with more vanilla than is traditional as well as orange oil; and the hyper-aromatic zest of a couple of clementines, winter’s sunniest fruit. I top the cake with the clementine pieces and glaze it with a few spoonfuls of warm honey, an optional touch, but one I like: For two minutes of effort you get a shine that’s as good as a smile in the rain.
To get all the flavor out of the clementine zest, grate it into the bowl with the sugar and use your hands to rub the two ingredients together until the sugar is slightly moist and very fragrant; if the mixture turns orange, so much the better. The rest of the recipe follows the usual add-and-beat progression. I use a whisk and a little vigor to beat the sugar with the yogurt, eggs and flavoring; a whisk and a little less vigor to incorporate the dry ingredients; and then a spatula and a softer touch to gradually stir in the oil.
Turn the batter into a loaf pan, smooth the top, press the clementine segments into it, slide it into the oven, sit back and dream of Greek Islands, beaches in Spain, the French Côte d'Azur or any other paradisiacal port. This cake is a passport to your own personal Club Med.
MAKE AHEAD: The cake tastes even better after a day’s rest, covered at room temperature, and can be stored for up to 5 days that way. Stale cake is delicious when toasted.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
Mediterranean Yogurt Cake
10 servings (makes one 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf)
Unsalted butter, for greasing the loaf pan
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup plain, low-fat or nonfat Greek-style yogurt
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure orange oil or extract (optional)
1/2 cup mild-flavored olive oil
2 tablespoons honey, for glazing (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with the butter.
Put the sugar in a mixing bowl. Use a quality zester such as Microplane to grate the zest from the clementines directly over the sugar, then use your clean fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar is aromatic and moist.
Use a sharp knife to peel the fruit, removing all the white pith. Cut between the membranes to release the fruit segments; place them between sheets of paper towels to blot-dry while you make the batter.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl.
Whisk the yogurt into the zest and sugar, then energetically beat in the eggs one at a time to form a smooth mixture. Whisk in the vanilla extract and the orange oil or extract, if using.
Add the flour mixture to the yogurt mixture, whisking less vigorously than before. Once there’s no trace of dry ingredients, switch to a flexible spatula and stir in the oil; do that in a few additions. You should have a smooth, shiny batter; pour it into the loaf pan, making sure to get it into the corners, and smooth the top. Scatter the clementine segments over the surface.
Bake (middle rack) for 50 to 60 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a tester inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool for 5 minutes, then invert it to dislodge it from the pan. Turn the cake right side up on the rack; cool to room temperature.
If you’d like to glaze the cake, warm the honey very briefly in a microwave on LOW, just to liquefy it, then brush it over the top of the cake. Let it sit at room temperature.
Nutrition per serving (using nonfat Greek yogurt): 280 calories, 5 g protein, 37 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar