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Jacques Torres' Holiday Dessert: Gâteau Pithivier

The traditional almond-cream cake offers a look into the early traditions of the renowned chocolatier
Photo by: Jacques Torres; Robert Nguyen
A favorite Provençal treat, the pithivier has lush almond notes that pair well with dessert wines like Sauternes.

Samantha Falewée
Posted: December 16, 2016

On a Saturday morning in New York City, chef Jacques Torres’ gâteau pithivier sits freshly baked in a display case. The round cake is the color of honey and unadorned save for painstakingly detailed swirls cut into the flaky surface. The wafting aroma is intoxicating, but comforting. The first bite presents flavors of warm buttery pastry and lush almond cream. Torres has memorized the details of this traditional French dessert by heart—he’s been working on it since he was 16 years old.

Today, Jacques Torres is a renowned chocolatier. His namesake shops dole out signature boxed chocolates, giant cookies and insanely rich hot cocoa to loyal fans. His path to acclaim included work at Le Negresco in Nice and Le Cirque in New York; currently he is dean of pastry arts at the International Culinary Center, a leading training ground for professionals. Torres’ success is linked to his culinary creations from the cocoa bean, but less known is his love of another ingredient: the almond.

As a teen, Torres’ first culinary apprenticeship was at a pastry shop in the Provençal seaside resort town of Bandol, France. The shop, Pâtisserie Frangipane, specialized in pithiviers ("pee-tee-vee-YAY").

“We weren’t free to eat anything we wanted in that pastry shop,” says Torres. “Every time I could get my hands on one—this is one of my great memories of doing the apprenticeship in France and having that cake.”

Back at home, an almond tree grew in his backyard. “We used to put fresh almonds on the stove and let them roast very slowly, and the whole house used to smell like almonds,” he remembers. “Provence almonds are really good; they have great flavor.”

These memories are embodied in Torres’ pithivier. The dessert gains popularity in the wintertime due to its similarity to the galette des rois, the traditional king cake that celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. The difference between the two, explains Torres, is slight.

“The galette des rois usually has a little less puff pasty, and the decoration is going to be a bit different,” Torres says. “But the main ingredients, the puff pastry and the crème d’amande, will be the same.”

The pithivier is made of simple ingredients, and, to make it even easier for the home baker, Torres recommends buying premade puff pastry and almond flour. That leaves timing as the main consideration.

“You cannot bake a pithivier in 10 or 20 minutes; it takes a minimum of 40 minutes,” he says. “This is one of the things that a lot of pastry chefs make a mistake with. You have to let that puff pastry bake a long time at a low temperature.” Otherwise, the chef runs the risk of under-cooked pastry and an unpleasant mouthfeel.

Traditionally, pastry chefs created a shine on the cake by dusting powdered sugar over the top and cranking up the oven temperature to melt the sugar into a caramelized layer. But sugar burns easily, and it’s often difficult to achieve even distribution. The easier method is to use an egg wash. But Torres has his own solution. With 15 minutes of baking time remaining, he adds a very thin layer of corn syrup and increases the oven temperature by a few degrees. The syrup adds sweetness, creates shine and enhances color and crunch.

A holiday dessert isn't complete without a tradition of sharing it with family and friends. “When friends invite me to their home, a lot of times they expect me to bring a cake,” Torres quips. He keeps a handful of pithiviers in the freezer uncooked and brings one to holiday get-togethers.

Torres has the process down to a T: “During dinner, I stick it in the oven, the middle of dinner I go and put on the corn syrup, and by dessert the whole house smells like buttery almonds—it’s delicious. People jump on that thing like you have no idea,” he laughs.

As the enticing aroma fills the room, the only thing left to do is pair the cake with an appropriate after-dinner wine. Torres recommends a dessert wine that will complement the buttery mouthfeel of the gâteau. As with everything else, he’s enthusiastic: “Oh my god. A good Sauternes. That I think will be really, really perfect.”

Below, Wine Spectator recommends 12 white sweet wines that have scored 88 points or higher, including some of the more reasonably priced versions from the French regions of Sauternes and neighboring Barsac, along with other wines from diverse regions and grape varieties that share flavor characteristics well-suited to this style of dessert.

Gâteau Pithivier

Recipe courtesy of chef Jacques Torres, Jacques Torres Chocolate.

For the almond cream:

  • 1 cup slivered almonds
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose almond flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 large egg

To make the almond cream:

1. Thoroughly blend ingredients, place in a pastry bag (or large Ziploc bag) and set aside.

For the egg wash:

  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup whole milk

To make the egg wash:

1. Whisk together the ingredients in a small bowl until well combined. Set aside.

For the corn syrup glaze:

  • 1/4 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons water

To make the corn syrup glaze:

1. Whisk together the syrup and water. Set aside.

For the pithivier:

  • 1 3/4 cups almond cream (see recipe above)
  • 1 sheet puff pastry
  • 1 sheet of parchment paper (approximately 10 inches)

To make the pithivier:

1. Preheat the oven to 375° F. For a convection oven, preheat to 350° F.

2. Cut the sheet of puff pastry in half and roll each half into an 8 1/2-inch circle. Each circle will be about 1/8-inch thick. Place one of the circles on a parchment paper–covered baking pan, and set aside the other.

3. If using a plastic bag instead of a pastry bag for the almond cream, cut a corner off the bag, then pipe the cream into the center of the puff pastry. The mound of cream should be about 1-inch high.

4. Lightly brush the rim of the pastry circle with the egg wash.

5. Place the second circle of puff pastry over the almond cream. Gently press down the outer edges to remove any trapped air. Seal the edges of the two layers by pressing the top edge into the bottom edge. This will keep the almond cream from running out as it bakes.

6. Use a sharp knife to give the circle a fluted edge. It should look like a flower when finished.

7. Use a sharp knife to pierce a 1/2-inch slit in the top layer at the center of the cake. This will allow steam to escape during baking.

8. To create the classic pattern on the surface, use a sharp knife to score a curved line from the center to the edge of the cake. Repeat this line every 1/2-inch, but be careful not to cut through the top layer of puff pastry.

9. Let the pithivier rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour before baking. (At this point, you can wrap the pithivier in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 2 weeks.)

10. Bake the pithivier for 25 minutes. Take out, lightly glaze the surface with corn syrup.

11. Increase baking temperature by 5° F and immediately return the cake to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Serves 6.

12 Recommended Sauternes, Barsac and Other Dessert Wines

Note: The following lists are selections of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More dessert wines rated in the past year can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.

Sauternes and Barsac

Château Doisy Daëne Barsac 2013 Score: 94 | $46
Plump and forward, this delivers peach, nectarine and candied lemon peel notes gilded with lots of honeysuckle and heather. A flash of bitter almond helps streamline everything through the racy finish. Best from 2017 through 2027. 2,208 cases made.—JM

Château de Myrat Barsac 2013 Score: 92 | $31
Plenty plump and unctuous in feel, this doesn’t quite have the cut of the top 2013 Barsacs, but it does deliver maple, singed orange, bitter almond, and creamed peach and apricot notes in spades, backed by a hint of burnt matchstick on the finish. For midterm cellaring. Best from 2017 through 2028. 1,665 cases made.—JM

Château Rieussec Sauternes Carmes de Rieussec 2013 Score: 90 | $28
This has maple, bitter orange and singed almond notes, but there’s good vivacity as well, with clementine and tangerine threads extending throughout. The lovely, unctuous finish is open and ready now. For fans of the richer style. Drink now through 2028. 6,000 cases made.—JM

Château Bastor-Lamontagne Sauternes 2013 Score: 89 | $30
A very bright, floral-styled version, with lots of honeysuckle, green plum and green almond aromas and flavors allied to a medium-weight, fairly creamy mouthfeel and backed by a lemon sorbet note on the friendly finish. An estate to watch, as the owners of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte are managing this since 2014. Drink now through 2020. 1,500 cases made.—JM

Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes La Chapelle de Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2013 Score: 89 | $44
A plump, open, forward style, with friendly green plum, glazed pear and creamed apple notes, threaded with a lively crystalized ginger accent on the finish. Drink now through 2020. 1,422 cases made.—JM

Château Lamothe Guignard Sauternes 2013 Score: 89 | $21
A light matchstick hint gives way quickly to juicy honeycomb, creamed peach, mango and apricot flavors, with a light note of warm piecrust threading the unctuous finish. A bit more open and obvious in style than the best examples, but still tasty. Drink now through 2020. 1,667 cases made.—JM

Various Dessert Wines

Maculan Breganze Torcolato 2011 Score: 92 | $40
Rich and creamy, with truffle and butterscotch notes underscoring flavors of peaches and cream, glazed apple, chopped hazelnut and crystallized honey. Well-balanced, presenting a lasting, spiced finish. Drink now through 2026. 1,500 cases made.—AN

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Late Harvest Waihopai River 2015 Score: 92 | $19
Fresh honey and sweet creamed butter notes are supple and elegant, with mango, peach and spice flavors lingering on the long, succulent finish. Drink now through 2026. 1,000 cases made.—MW

Domaine Cauhapé Jurançon Symphonie de Novembre 2012 Score: 91 | $25
Luscious and complex, this sweetie sports rich marmalade, honeysuckle, hazelnut and white chocolate notes, woven together with lively acidity. Floral, spice and heather accents line the lingering finish. Drink now through 2030. 1,000 cases made.—GS

Seifried Riesling Nelson Sweet Agnes Winemakers Collection 2015 Score: 90 | $25
Fresh floral notes of honeysuckle and peach expand with lemon marmalade and fleshy mango flavors, showing intensity and hints of candied ginger on the finish. Drink now through 2026. 1,000 cases made.—MW

Bacalhôa Moscatel de Setúbal 2013 Score: 88 | $22
A richly spiced sweet white, with concentrated orange punch, apricot and cream flavors. The supple finish offers honeyed and floral notes. Drink now. 2,000 cases made.—KM

Librandi Val di Neto Passito Le Passule 2011 Score: 88 | $30
Creamy and lightly juicy, this balanced sweetie features apricot tart, white chocolate, ground cardamom and vanilla pudding notes. Bright finish of candied orange zest. Mantonico. Drink now. 1,250 cases made.—AN

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