Do Les Bonnes Femmes Bake?

This week’s recipe comes from a new cookbook called The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food that French Women Cook Every Day by Wini Moranville. It’s pretty darn nice stuff. Though I admit when Harvard Common Press’ PR agency contacted me about it, my first thought was oh no, not another “French women” book title! An Amazon search of those key words turns up an astounding 30,000+ results. (As an aside I must say I’m at al loss to explain why American women seem so fixated on their French counterparts, but that’s a subject for another time).

But The Bonne Femme Cookbook isn’t your average bit of book aisle French-envy. It’s a highly useful — and highly readable — manual for femmes and hommes who simply like cooking good food at home. Here is where I could go into an exhaustive (and exhausting) overview of the book’s recipes à la the New York Times book review section. I’ll spare you that and simply say that what I especially like about The Bonne Femme Cookbook is that it provides a window not merely into the what of French home cooking but the how. Which is to say it is in large part a techniques book, and I’ll take that over a recipe collection any day. As the old cliché goes: give a man a recipe and he eats for a day — teach a man to cook and he eats for a lifetime (or until somebody physically restrains him). Moranville seems genuinely concerned with teaching, and I respect that immensely.

But anyway. On the day the book arrived, being who I am, I rapidly skimmed the front of it and headed straight for the baking section — especially the desserts. I was curious to see what Moranville had to say regarding the eternal question: do French women really bake at home? I’ll say that right away I was impressed that Moranville largely came clean on the issue. French women do bake, but not the things we non-French are frequently led to believe. Charmed, I decided to call Wini up to get more of the skinny on what French women actually do in their kitchens when nobody’s looking. Here’s how the conversation went:

JP: In the book you talk about all the time you’ve spent, and still spend, in typical French homes. So you of all people should know whether French women really bake.

WM: (Laughs). Well first I should say that I’ve never been served a fancy homemade French pastry in a French home. But having said that they absolutely do bake, they just bake certain kinds of things.

JP: So what I infer from that is that when it comes to “real” French pastry, they don’t bake.

WM: (Laughs again). Don’t ever tell a French person that French women don’t bake!

JP: So now we’re getting to it. They don’t make their own pastries, but they don’t want anyone to know about it.

WM: They’re sensitive to that. But they’ re sensitive in a very sweet, sort of typically French way. I love the French. They’re so proud. And yes they do bake, but when they bake a dessert it’s a home-style dessert.

JP: Such as…

WM: Clafouti. Also upside-down cakes, quatre quarts [pound] cakes and tarte tatin. I have seen crème caramel and crème brûlée.

JP: But never something like gâteau St. Honoré.

WM: Like I said I’ve never been served a homemade French pastry in a French home. When I have stayed with French families they’ve always brought out something that they have proudly gotten from a local patisserie. Especially if it’s a special occasion. They’re very proud of their local patisseries.

JP: But they’d never make something like puff pastry at home.

WM: Few French women would make something like that at home. But they serve lovely, lovely desserts at home. I think that’s really important to know. They serve lovely desserts, but not the master dessert. French women may have cooked like that at one time, but they don’t have time to cook like that anymore.

JP: They feel the pressure of the modern world just like everybody else in other words.

WM: Oh sure. French women don’t spend much time in the kitchen. And they cheat, certainly they do. French women cheat in the kitchen just like we do.

JP: Do they make crêpes at home?

WM: Yes, absolutely.

JP: Do you make them much yourself?

WM: I do. I make them, stack them and refrigerate them until dinner time and warm them. That’s how crêpes are normally prepared in French homes.

JP: Have any special tips on crêpe making?

WM: Nothing that isn’t in the book!

JP: Thanks, Wini. It’s been fun.

So there you have it. Talk about a grilling — move over Morley Safer! But I think we really blew the lid off something here. Or not, actually, now that I think about it. But what I think this underscores is something I’ve written many times here on Joe Pastry: that even modest home pastry successes are big successes in the broad scheme of things.

We home pastry bakers can be pretty tough on ourselves. But we stack ourselves up against some pretty stiff competition. When we make a French pastry we’re not comparing our work to that of average French home cooks, but to professional French pâtissiers. An important thing to remember the next time your sponge fails. Making real pastry at home is an extraordinary thing, something to take a lot of pride in.

But as usual I digress. Many thanks to Wini Moranville. Buy her book. You’ll have a good time with it and very probably make some excellent, excellent food.

2 thoughts on “Do Les Bonnes Femmes Bake?”

  1. It is as I’ve noticed, then, from my limited observations of French women! When I visited my family in Paris over New Years ’10, for family gatherings, we ate delicious but humble home-baked desserts like a simple almond tarte… But for the big New Year’s celebration, we had a humongous and gorgeous charlotte from the local patisserie.
    I’m excited for this new book! It would make a great Christmas gift for cooking/baking aficionados.

    1. It’s pretty nice, I have to say. The design and layout are also very simple and elegant. It doesn’t have any photography but still manages to be fun to look at.

      – Joe

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