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.
Because I’m in Paris this month, and January’s days are short, nippy and often gray, 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.