Long before his name became synonymous with viral delicious sensations like the Cronut, Dominique Ansel had been exploring different foods since his childhood in the small town of Beauvais, just north of Paris.
“Growing up in France, my mom didn’t really know how to cook and our family didn’t have much, so a lot of my early food memories were trying different fresh fruits and vegetables and local cheeses,” he told Travel + Leisure this week. “Looking back, it seemed so simple, but I miss that now.”
Eventually, he started picking up some recipes, including one for gâteau au yaourt, or yogurt cake, a classic that many French kids learn — and one that’s so simple he still has it committed to memory, with a creative hack.
“I remember making it with my mom, using the yogurt container as a measuring cup for the ingredients,” he said of baking it when he was about 6 or 7. “It’s a pretty resilient recipe, so you can’t really mess it up, and there’s something so satisfying and nostalgic about it.”
Fast forward to 2022, the famed pastry chef has taken that recipe and upgraded it, partnering with Icelandic Provisions to substitute the traditional yogurt with skyr, a thicker and creamier yogurt made with whole milk, that’s been a favorite for Icelanders for nearly 1,000 years.
To celebrate, from now through Sunday, April 10, the Soho location of Dominique Ansel in New York City will sell his exclusive Cherry and Almond Skyr Yogurt Cake, with all proceeds going to City Harvest.
However, for those not in Manhattan this weekend, Ansel thankfully has made the recipe available online, complete with directions featuring measurements in terms of the yogurt container, like he used as a child.
“It’s such a simple cake, but it’s addictive and you can’t just take one bite,” he said.
While the recipe uses Icelandic Provisions’ Fruit and Nut Cherry and Almonds flavor, which he noted gives the cake a “nice texture” and helps it stay moist, he also encourages playing around with the flavors.
“You could try it with any of their other flavors like lemon or coconut too, or try with plain skyr and serve it alongside some fresh fruit,” he noted. “Skyr is a great alternative for everything from regular yogurt to sour cream, crême fraîche, mascarpone, or cream cheese.”
Recreating the recipe has helped Ansel reach back for more early memories in the kitchen, like eating his “comfort food” of warm apple beignets “which are fresh sliced apples dipped in batter and fried until golden” — as well as one crazy moment.
“I have a very vivid memory of my uncle bringing a live lamb from a farm to our house and slaughtering it in our kitchen,” he recalled to T+L. “It was pretty traumatic, and there was blood everywhere, but looking back now, it really taught me to understand where food came from and how important it was not to waste anything.”
Now the James Beard-winning pastry chef has taken those early lessons with him, as he’s added Dang Wen Li by Dominique Ansel in Hong Kong in 2020 (growing to three shops in the middle of the pandemic) and Dominique Ansel Workshop in New York’s Flatiron in 2021 — and looks forward to his first Las Vegas location at Caesars Palace this summer, which he said will have some exclusive new pastries in addition to the signature ones.
“I’ve always loved the way [the people of Hong Kong] celebrate their culture in all of their food,” Ansel tells T+L. “From street food stalls to egg tarts still warm from the oven, taking the ferry to Lamma Island for fresh seafood at Rainbow Seafood, trying a different dim sum spot each time, the old-school cha chaan teng for breakfast — and now, there are so many young chefs pushing the boundaries with modern food too.”
Taiwan also specifically holds an especially dear place in his heart as his wife is from the island nation.
“She’s taught me all about Taiwanese food over the years and the love that Taiwanese people have for their heritage and cuisine,” Ansel said. “It’s one of those places where people show their love with the food they cook for you, whether it’s family or stalls at the night markets. We cook a lot of Taiwanese food at home for our son, who is just about to turn 2, so he’ll grow up appreciating the food too.”
Of course he also cherishes the food back in his native France, calling out the small bistro Le Baratin, run by a couple with the wife in the kitchen and husband at the bar and front of house.
“It’s the kind of home cooking you’d expect in France,” he said. “I also love visiting all the streetside open-air markets, with all the amazing fresh produce, olives, and cheeses. For serious foodies, Rungis Market, further out in the suburbs of Paris, [is] where a lot of chefs in the industry shop for their ingredients…It’s really interesting to see how the French chefs shop.”
When it comes down to it, he said the best meals don’t always require a plane ticket or a coveted reservation.
“During the past two years, we dined out less than we did before, and found ourselves staying in more or going over friends’ apartments to cook for one another,” he said. “So, whether you’re a New Yorker or you’re visiting someone here, sometimes it’s not just about rushing to try the latest spot, but also taking time to cook together with friends.”