By the time we moved to Paris in the late ’90s, I felt comfortable there. I’d visited dozens of times, published stories about the city’s food and restaurants and even co-written a book with a Parisian pastry chef. I knew some French people in town and some American expats too. I could crisscross the city by Métro with ease, even if I was (and sometimes still am) flummoxed by the bus routes — in a serious breach of logic, the streets that you catch the bus on don’t always match the names of the stops. I knew that a droguerie was where I could get straw market baskets (although I originally thought it was where I’d find aspirin); that a quincaillerie (a word I eventually learned to pronounce) was the place for screwdrivers and a staggering assortment of spot removers; and that Monoprix was where I could buy everything from saucepans and fresh fruit to that bright yellow raincoat that I still wear. As I settled in, French friends helped me open a bank account, taught me the etiquette of cheese (the most important rule: never cut the nose off the Brie) and shared the names of their favorite butchers, fishmongers and wine shops. But no one ever told me what they bought at Picard.
Picard, which sells hundreds of kinds of frozen foods, from snacks to full meals to babas au rhum, is hardly a secret. There seems to be one every few blocks, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a French person who hasn’t shopped there. But I’ve also never met one who brought a Picard dish to the table and fessed up to its provenance. Guests had to know — they probably bought the same thing at some point — but wouldn’t let on. It was a Gallic “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I’m still amused by an experience I had shortly after we got into our first apartment. I looked out the window on a Saturday night to see a very stylish neighbor making her way across the cobblestone courtyard, her heels ratatatting, her scarf billowing, a chic shopping bag in her hand. She deposited the bag in the recycle bin and returned home just minutes before I spied her guests at the door. Later, when I went out, I saw that her pretty pink bag had held empty boxes from Picard — she had stashed the evidence just in time. Now, like a good Parisian, I, too, shop at Picard. It’s where I discovered the cake salé.
In France, anything baked in a loaf pan is called cake. And while I already knew and had baked my own versions of the standard sweet cakes found in almost every French bakery, the cake salé — salé means savory or salty — was new to me. It was a quick bread, like so many American loaves, but it was lighter, pleasantly drier and significantly less sweet than our zucchini, pumpkin or tomato breads, and it was served — like nuts, chips or skinny slices of saucisson — alongside wine as an aperitif, a nibble before dinner. At Picard, the cakes were miniloaves, and the instructions suggested heating them before serving. They looked appealingly rustic, and the ones that had a little ham in them smelled lovely fresh from the oven. It was these small frozen loaves that set me on a hunt for others and a quest to make the cake at home.
Just as when you learn a new word you soon hear it repeatedly, I learned about savory cakes and suddenly saw them everywhere: I was served a delicious cake flecked with herbs when I ordered sparkling wine at a bistro; had one with caramelized onions at a friend’s house; saw recipes for the cakes in French food magazines. At a cheese shop, I picked up a card and discovered an especially great-looking cake salé recipe on the back of it — it’s the recipe I’ve been riffing off ever since.
Cheese turns up often in savory cakes, in part because it’s so good with white wine, an aperitif standard. The first cake I made featured Comté, a cow’s-milk cheese, then others included cubes of Cheddar or crumbles of pungent blue cheeses. My latest loaf depends on small bits of soft goat cheese for intermittent tang. And while many cakes salé have nuts (and this one could, too; walnuts would be good), I folded in chopped dried figs because I had them and then liked the combination so much that I made them a regular part of the recipe.
And that’s the thing with a cake salé — it’s game for change. The recipe is elemental — flour and leavening, eggs, oil and milk — so you can bend it to your preferences by playing with the seasonings and the add-ins. Once I put the goat cheese and figs together, I started to think of the cake as Mediterranean, and so I used a fruity olive oil, stirred in a handful of parsley (for brightness), a little rosemary and thyme (to set the mood and further establish the locale), some honey (always good with goat cheese) and, at the end, scrapings of clementine zest (mostly for surprise). That the cake could as easily have had olives or dried tomatoes instead of figs, basil instead of parsley or lemon instead of orange is one reason that I find it seductive.
That it’s exceedingly easy to make is another. You mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, the wet in another, and then you stir the two together, giving the batter a couple of quick beats and turning a blind eye to thoroughness — a ragtag mixture and a measure of benevolent neglect make a tender cake that’s pretty in its plainness, remarkably tasty and honestly homemade: You’ll never have to race to the trash bin ahead of the doorbell.
Recipe: Goat Cheese and Fig Quick Bread