All this came back to me when my friend Stephanie Johnston arrived for dinner at our Paris apartment with her family and her bakewell tart, a classic British dessert. Even before it was uncovered, it caused a stir. ‘‘Mum’s brought the bakewell!’’ her daughters, Margaux and Caroline, exclaimed. Tim, her husband, just grinned.
The Johnstons are restaurateurs in Paris: Tim, originally from Scotland, founded the wine bar and bistro Juveniles, just blocks from the Louvre, 30 years ago; Margaux now runs it with her husband, Romain Roudeau, its chef. Caroline is the manager of Clamato, a seafood restaurant in the 11th Arrondissement. Stephanie, born in England and the only family member not in the business, is a fine cook and a rare bird in France, a home baker in the land of patisseries.
Sometime after midnight — Parisian dinner parties go late, even on weeknights — we turned our attention to the tart, a descendant of the mid-19th-century bakewell pudding. Its crust was thin; there was a bed of raspberry jam and then a thicker layer of almond spongecake. The look was, as the British say, homely, but the textures, the tartness of the jam and the lovely, soft, slightly chewy and not very sweet cake made it the kind of dessert you come back to, finishing it sliver by sliver and dashing any hope you had of tucking some away for breakfast.
I was tasting something new and already thinking about when I could bake it myself, but the Johnston women were tasting three generations of family tradition. The tart line started with Granny Annie, Steph’s mom. The recipe she used was passed on to Stephanie when she moved to France, and Steph has since given it to Caroline. As for Margaux, she told me impishly, ‘‘I try not to bake things that others bake better.’’
Everyone had a special tie to Granny Annie’s bakewell, but hearing Steph talk about her mother, whom Caroline describes as ‘‘a discreet mouse of a woman with huge strength,’’ I was struck by how little the homemade jam and flaky crust had to do with the dessert’s tug. A footnote to the tart’s family history held the key.
For 13 years after she was widowed, Stephanie’s mom carried on the family business, a pub and restaurant in Hampshire, doing all the cooking and then returning home to care for her family. As Steph talked about how hard she worked and the food she made for the pub, I realized she didn’t mention the…