Gourmet's 50 Women Game Changers in Food: # 40, Elena Arzak

Elena Arzak is the third generation of chefs to work at restaurant Arzak in the Basque city of San Sebastian in Spain. She started working during the summer when she was 11. "I was the one doing the dirty work, like cleaning squid," she says. It is a family of chefs. Her grandmother was a chef, her mother ran the accounts and an aunt was also a chef. Elena says San Sebastian is very matriarchal and there are lots of female chefs.

In 1989, her father sent her abroad abroad, first for a diploma from a fancy Swiss hostelry school, then for stints with members of the Michelin all-star fraternity. She went to work at Le Gavroche in the UK. She was young, but learned a lot, not only about cooking, but about British life. However: "Here I was in 1989," Elena muses, "doing this classic French food at La Gavroche, in London, thinking how sophisticated it was--totally out of touch with what was happening at Arzak and in the rest of Spain." 

What was happening in Spain was Ferran Adrià, the Catalan visionary who forever changed the way Spanish chefs look at food.

In fact, her father sent Elena to do a stint at Adrià's restaurant El Bulli. But instead of following in Adria's footsteps, Elena discovered what she wanted was to reconnect with her Basque roots. "I knew nothing about my culture's cuisine, so I tasted endlessly and read old cookbooks," she says. She returned to San Sebastian to work with her father. The Basque gastronomic culture has its own code of flavors, a sort of heritage that has been built up over the centuries.

The important thing about working with her father is that he encourages everyone to develop their own recipes. Elena is adamant about acknowledging her debt to her father. "Paradoxically, his greatest influence on me was to leave me alone to develop my own vision," she explains. "I went through a phase of sticking bay leaves into everything, and he'd just smile."

Even though her father is not cooking as much as usual, father and daughter meet daily and Elena presents her ideas and dishes they talk about them. "I'm into agar and chamomile flowers; he goes for hake and parsley. He always wants to clutter the plate. I like clarity," Elena says, laughing. He's ebullient, she's composed. One would never know she's into black leather jackets, scooters and rock concerts!

Elena may now be the pillar of Arzak's operations, but otherwise the restaurant is the same, the décor is the same, even the staff is the same. Though her father remains intimately involved in the restaurant and works in tandem with his daughter, Elena Arzak is the one who is now the driving force of creativity within the restaurant. Elena remains very modest: An interviewer mentioned to Elena that she considered her the most exciting woman chef on the planet. Elena shook her head furiously and implored her not to publish such nonsense. But there's no denying: "The menu stays interesting because Arzak's daughter Elena arrives early each morning to create new dishes for him (her father) to try." 
The Arzaks live their own "Arzak fusion" of tradition and innovation. "She is 43 and he is 69, but they have a professional symbiosis.

In 2011, Elena was nominated for best female chef by the San Pellegrino Awards. The same awarding body awarded Juan Mari Arzak a lifetime achievement award. In fact, Arzak has been in the top 10 ranking of the World’s Top 50 Best Restaurant Awards and is ranked number 8 for 2011.


There are precious few Elena Arzak recipes available so I turned to Basque recipes in general. One of the most popular dessert dishes seems to be
 Gâteau Basque. I remembered having seen a recipe for this in Dorie Greenspan's book, Around My French Table, so I pulled the book out to investigate. The French word "gâteau" means cake. But interestingly, this is NOT a cake. Basically, it's a filling between two cookies, but made in cake form and cut like a cake. Traditionally, it's made with a filling of brandied cherries and pastry cream. You can buy the  cherries at Amazon, but I used a dark cherry jam. If you use only jam as Dorie does, it certainly makes it simpler to serve, store and perhaps take to a picnic, but I wanted to make it as close to the original Basque recipe as I could, so I included the pastry cream.

From Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 to 1 cup thick cherry jam or an equal amount of vanilla pastry cream (recipe follows)
1 egg beaten with a splash of water, for the glaze

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and keep at hand.
Working in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer, beat the butter and both sugars together on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until smooth. Add the egg and beat another 2 minutes or so, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The mixture may look curdled, but that's OK. Add vanilla and mix for about a minute more. Then reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients in two or three additions, mixing only until they're fully incorporated into the dough.

Place a large sheet of parchment paper on your work surface and put half of the very soft and sticky dough in the center of the sheet. Cover with another piece of parchment paper, then roll the dough into a circle just a little larger than 8 inches in diameter. As you're rolling, turn the dough over and lift the plastic or paper frequently, so that you don't roll it into the dough and form creases. Repeat with the other half of the dough.

Put the dough on a cutting board or baking sheet and refrigerate it for about 3 hours or for up to 3 days.( I didn't do it this way. I placed the dough in the refrigerator before I rolled it out. Then allowed it to warm a bit and then rolled it out.)

When you're ready to assemble and bake the gateau, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350. Generously butter a 2-inch high, 8-inch round cake pan. (I used a springform pan)
Remove the layers from the refrigerator and let them rest on the counter for a couple of minutes before peeling away the paper. Fit one layer into the pan — if it breaks, just press the pieces together. If there's a little extra dough running up the sides of the pan, you can either fold it over the bottom layer or cut it so that it's even. 
Spoon some of the jam or pastry cream onto the dough, starting in the center of the cake and leaving one inch of dough bare around the border. Add more filling if you don't think it will squish out the sides when you press down on it with the top layer of dough. (I find that 3/4 cup is usually just the right amount, but if you're using a very thick jam, you might want a bit more.)

Moisten the bare ring of dough with a little water and then top with the second piece of dough, pressing down around the edges to seal it. If you'd like, you can work your finger between the top dough and the edge of the pan, so that you tuck the dough under a little. Because of the softness of the dough and the baking powder, even if you only press the layers together very lightly, they'll fuse as they bake. And, no matter how well you press them together, it seems inevitable that a little of the filling will escape.

Brush the top of the dough with the egg glaze and use the tips of the tines of a fork to etch a cross-hatch pattern across the top.

Bake the cake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack and let it rest for 5 minutes before carefully running a blunt knife around the edges of the cake. Turn the cake over onto a cooling rack and then quickly and carefully invert it onto another rack so that it can cool to room temperature right side up.

Storing: Wrapped well, the jam-filled cake will keep for a day or so at room temperature. You can also keep the cream-filled cake overnight, but it will need to be refrigerated. However, because refrigeration can dry cakes, I think it's best to serve the cream-filled cake the day it is made.

Dorie Greenspan's Pastry Cream
2 cups whole milk
6 large egg yolks 
1/2 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits at room temperature

Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan.
Meanwhile, in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the egg yolks together with the sugar and cornstarch until thick and well blended. Still whisking, drizzle in about 1/4 cup of the hot milk– this will temper, or warm, the yolks so they won’t curdle. Whisking all the while, slowly pour in the remainder of the milk. Put the pan over medium heat and, whisking vigorously, constantly and thoroughly (making sure to get the edges of the pot), bring the mixture to a boil. Keep at a boil, still whisking, for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat.
Whisk in the vanilla extract. Let sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in the bits of butter, stirring until they are full incorporated and the pastry cream is smooth and silky. Scrape the cream into a bowl. You can press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the cream to create an airtight seal and refrigerate the pastry cream until cold or, if you want to cool it quickly–as I always do–put the bowl into a larger bowl filled with ice cubes and cold water, and stir the pastry cream occasionally until it is thoroughly chilled, about 20 minutes.

Join Mary from 
One Perfect Bite and all the other participants in this fun series.


  1. Oh, divine! A wonderful cake. I love the filling.



  2. This is a tantalizing tribute to a rising star in the culinary world. I could never aspire to create the dishes she prepares at Arzac but it would be a fun experience to dine there.

  3. I am fascinated by Basque culture and the few recipes that I have made from Colman Andrews cool cookbook on the cuisine. It is a bit of a warp with many influences. It has always seemed a wild, untamed culture.
    Loved your piece on her... she is just my kind of person to learn classically and then find your own path. Also, how lucky to have a father like that... makes all the difference to be allowed to blossom your own way.
    The cake is fun... and i LOVE cherries. It's like the whole tortilla thing in Spain and Mexico... so different and confusing!

  4. I confess that this isn't a food genre I know at all. Maybe I should change that! I wonder what I have locally...

  5. I'm so glad that Mary started this project. It has added immensely to my dishes to make. I'm showing this one to The Baker and have high hopes that he will make it.


  6. Barbara, I know Elena and read about her! and this dessert is awesome dear!

  7. I too turned to just Basque cooking. This was one of the harder ones. I love your recipe. You picked a great one. Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. What a lovely choice, Barbara. It looks wonderful and you have made me curious to try it. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

  9. Oh my goodness - that looks fantastic! I can almost imagine cutting a bite off with my fork and seeing the beautiful filling squirt out. YUM!

  10. This looks great! I've got to make this really soon. I printed it out and put it on my fridge!


    Grandma Kat

  11. I have learned so much from the Game Changers project. I knew very little about Elena, her father, their restaurant, and Basque cuisine in general. I would love this gateau with cherries and pastry cream.

  12. Delicious looking cake, looks divine! I love the game changer posts, I learn so much, never knew about Elena Arzak. Amazing woman!

  13. Too bad there aren't more of her recipes available. This cake of Dorie's looks so delicious in any case. Love the filling!

  14. Wow! This is a different take on cherries ... I found a wonderful Dried Cherry pie recipe from a cookbook honoring Basque cuisine ... good to see a different take on cherries! It's a beautiful cake! Excellent post on Elena Arzak, too!

  15. Of course I love the recipe and I scrolled down really fast so as not to allow your beautiful creation to tempt me to abandon my quest to loose the "excess baggage" which has attached itself to my midsection and won't let go! But more than anything I loved learning more about this awe inspiring woman who creates simple recipes that are so complex and elegant. And thanks too for being so gracious in welcoming me to this amazing group. Cheers!

  16. You really found some interesting information about Elena. Who would have known that she like to dress out in black leather. It's the little details that make these women more real to us.

  17. Love the cherry filling with pastry cream...I could even just eat the filling as it is.

  18. hello Barbara I am from the french basque country and for tradional basque cake it is either with cream or with cherries jam ; you have chose both and why not !!!

  19. It is interesting to learn the little tidbits as I knew nothing about this type of food. Love your presentation and choice!

  20. The filling of this sweet looks divine! It is always interesting and educative to learn about the new generation of chefs!

  21. the layers are lovely, and i'm particularly excited about the ratio of cake to innards! :)

  22. Gateau Basque has to be my favorite cake... at least when it's on a menu. The story of Elena is remarkable. Too bad she didn't write a cookbook! I'd like that a lot. It would be too sad if she were not to pass on her creations to a wider fan base.



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