Who was Ginette Mathiot? And Why Should You Care?

Ginette Mathiot wrote books that bring up long-lost taste memories in France, much as Marcel Proust’s oft-quoted prattle about about madeleines. Only her work proves infinitely more readable and enjoyable. She also basically sticks it to Julia and makes French cooking seem less like a prolonged session at the dentist’s.

One of her books, Je Sais Faire la Patisserie, appeared in an English translation on bookshelves on November 5, 2011. It’s a book that just might crack open the mysteries of French pastry making. Like all such translations, quirks and surprises abound.

You may well ask, Why a book on pastry making in France?

French cooks don’t really need to do much baking, for a couple of excellent reasons.

After all, in France, pastry-making and cake-baking tend to be the domain of bakeshops (patisseries) that appear everywhere in French cities. Patisseries definitely pose a danger to passersby because of the tantalizing aromas seeping out as the door opens and closes with the comings and goings of customers clutching bags or boxes of sweets. How is it possible to resist that brilliant little gold-flecked chocolate cake in the window? (Answer: it’s not.)

In addition to the patisseries, another factor precludes baking in the French kitchen: most French ovens in the home seem to require a Ph.D. in astrophysics in order to operate them without mishap.

Ginette Mathiot

But this state of affairs did not stop French home economist Ginette Mathiot from writing what became one of the most popular baking books ever published in France.

Just who was Ginette Mathiot?

Ms. Mathiot first wrote Je Sais Cuisiner, France’s version of The Joy of Cooking, when she only needed to blow out twenty-five candles on her birthday cake in 1932. Je Sais Cuisiner sold over six million copies. The recognized expert on French home cooking, Ms. Mathiot went on to write over thirty other books, including Je Sais Faire la Patisserie (Albin Michel, 1938). In a country where male chefs rarely released their stranglehold on the whole concept of cooking, Ginette Mathiot defiantly titled many of her books with the words Je Sais or I Know (How to). She earned the Legion d’Honneur for her efforts in promoting French culture and cuisine. And interestingly enough, she wrote Je Sais Cuisiner Autour du  Monde, with recipes from Mali, Bénin, Sénégal, and the countries of North Africa.

I suspect, though right now I cannot prove it, that her book sat on shelves in French homes when families left France to follow the father of the family to one of France’s overseas colonies.

English speakers may now enjoy the simply written recipes that enabled three generations of French women to cook in an increasingly servantless and busy world.

Phaidon Press, publisher of Ms. Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner as I Know How to Cook (2009), offers English-speakers another of Ms. Mathiot’s books in Phaidon’s signature attractive format: her 1938  Je Sais Faire la Patisserie, published in English under the title of The Art of French Baking. Again with the expertise of well-known French food blogger Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate & Zucchini), who also worked on Je Sais Cuisiner, the editors modernized and clarified various aspects of the 350 recipes. Among the changes made in Je Sais Cuisiner, one included leaving out instructions for gutting and cleaning rabbits. In the Foreward to The Art of French Baking, Ms. Dusoulier mentions a change made in the English version of Mathiot’s book: the stipulation that cooks mix baking powder and flour together, something not done in the French edition.

Like most cookbooks on baking, The Art of French Baking starts off with a discussion of essential ingredients and techniques, followed by a chapter containing “Basic Recipes.” Here the cook finds information about the primary components that make French baking so unique: pastry doughs, frostings, fillings, sauces, and syrups. Individual chapters cover “Small Cakes,” “Gateaux,” “Tarts and Pastries,” Cookies,” and “Milk and Egg Desserts.” The last section of the book features recipes from “Celebrated Chefs” of today, like Gail Gand and Pierre Hermé. The 150 full-color drawings and photos throughout the book provide cooks with some visual guidelines for the recipes.

And those recipes make Julia Child’s long-winded recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking seem like a Tolstoy novel in comparison. Short and to the point, Ms. Mathiot’s recipes may well appear too brusque at first for North American cooks.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Take the recipe for Sablés, a type of shortbread cookie that requires rolling out the dough to ¼-inch and cutting it with a cookie cutter. Six ingredients and about eighty words of instructions will likely make the trepidant cook think, “Well, I can make that.” The dough came together well and rolled out smoothly. Everything worked well, although no definitions appear in the book for “superfine sugar” – which appears in most of the recipes. And so making the sugar involved an extra step: whirling it in a food processor until it looked like a cross between powdered and granulated sugar. Another odd bit in the recipes turned out to be the requirement for seven or nine tablespoons of butter, requiring the cook to cut off an extra tablespoon from a stick of butter, sold in eight tablespoon sticks in American supermarkets. The Sablés won approval by tasters, who couldn’t (and wouldn’t) stop at just one.

Other tantalizing tidbits in The Art of French Baking include Madeleines, Auvergne Gâteau, Jelly Roll, Chocolate Log, Parisian Custard, and Vanilla Soufflé. Most of these sweets taste far less sweet than American desserts, making it possible to really savor the flavor of orange or butter or other ingredients. With less sugar, the recipes become more accessible to some diabetics.

Novice American cooks may find The Art of French Baking a bit of a challenge, being used to having very precise measurements and expecting recipes to fit together precisely like Lego blocks. Paris Sweets: Great Desserts From the City’s Best Pastry Shops (2002), by Dorie Greenspan, likely will appeal more to bakers and cooks just starting out on their kitchen adventures. On the other hand, experienced cooks and bakers will enjoy the thrill of working with recipes written like the ones our ancestors cooked from, demanding flexibility and ingenuity.

So that’s why you should care about  Ginette Mathiot. She makes the French home-cooking tradition accessible on a daily basis, in a way that Julia Child really never did.

Making Sablés: A Visual Essay

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Mixing the dough until crumbly …

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Gathering the crumblies into a ball …

Photo credit: C.; Bertelsen

Rolling out the dough …

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Ready to bake …

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Baked …

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

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