The Tarte Tropézienne is easy to describe; the cult surrounding it, less so. Pierre Hermé introduced me to it more than twenty years ago, and he told me it was "mythique." I’m sure I nodded, but I know that I hadn’t a clue what he meant or really how mythic the cake truly was. I didn’t get an inkling until I went to Saint-Tropez, where the streets are lined with pastry shops, and each one has a Trop.
The story goes that a bread baker, Alexandre Mika, had a shop in Saint-Tropez and that he made this cake using a recipe that he brought with him from his native Poland. But it wasn’t until 1955, when a film crew set up across from the shop, that the dessert became the “it” cake. The crew included a bunch of then-unknowns: the actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Curd Jürgens; first-time director Roger Vadim; and starlet Brigitte Bardot. When Mika started making meals for them, the cake became the most requested item on the menu. It was so beloved that Bardot is said to have advised Mika that he should have a special name for it and that’s when it was christened “La Tarte Tropézienne.”
The cake itself is an egg and butter-rich brioche dough, rolled into a freeform round, washed with egg and speckled with pearl sugar—the original was probably made with crushed sugar cubes (still an option)—and baked. Once cooled, it’s split like a layer cake and filled with a combination of creams: in some cases, buttercream, pastry cream and heavy cream. Here, I opt for thick vanilla pastry cream lightened with a little whipped cream. I’ve seen Tropéziennes flavored with rum (my favorite), kirsch (regionally incorrect, but delicious) and, most commonly and most authentically, orange-flower water. These days, the Trop can be found studded with berries or filled with chocolate, and every shop in the beautiful Riviera town has a picture of Bardot.
A word on size: This recipe makes a big cake, just right for parties. If you’d like, you can divide the dough and make two smaller cakes; freeze one to cut and fill at a later time.
A word on pearl sugar: Sometimes called Swedish Sugar, pearl sugar is nugget-like, crunchy and as white as a perfect pearl. You can find it in specialty stores, Ikea or online from King Arthur Flour.
And a word on mixing: You need a stand mixer to make this dough— I’ve never found a hand mixer strong enough for the prolonged beating that the heavy, sticky dough demands.