November 2009

We leave Provence and travel west to Bordeaux and discover the regional speciality that is the Cannelé.  Customarily, these little pastries are eaten for breakfast, a snack as a dessert.  Anytime!  Fresh out of the oven, the fragrant rum and vanilla infused delicacies boast a crunchy and golden crust that gives way to a dense, yet creamy, custardy centre. 

A unique trademark of the Cannelé is the baking technique, which traditionally uses copper moulds coated with beeswax.  Beeswax will not burn at the high temperatures necessary to bake these pastries, and aids the caramelisation process that provides the characteristic golden crust.  The drawback with using copper moulds is they are not cheap.  But the good news is somewhat similar results can be achieved baking with tin and silicon moulds.

Of interest, the name Canelé de Bordeaux is reserved for the custardy cake found exclusively in the city, with Cannelés Bordelais the label given to any version outside of Bordeaux.

{ Cannelés Bordelais  }

Adapted from various sources including Ripailles by Stéphane Reynaud, Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook by Martha Stewart, and Lenôtre in Paris

Despite using copper and beeswax as part of the process, these pastries did not crust as dark as I would like.  Perhaps the oven should be even higher?  But now that investment in copper moulds has been made – and I have enough beeswax to coat them 100 times over! – a perfect excuse for more trials until I achieve that perfectly dark crust.

Note: this is not a recipe you can pull together last minute.  The moulds need preparation, and the batter must be refrigerated for 1-4 days in advance.  But well worth planning ahead.

* Ingredients *
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
½ vanilla pod or ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste
2 large egg yolks
2 cups icing sugar
1 tablespoon dark rum
3/4 cup flour
Pinch of salt
* Directions *
Bring half the milk, butter and vanilla to a simmer and cook until butter has melted.  Allow to cool.  In a bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, rum and remaining milk.  Add the flour and salt and whisk to combine.  Add the hot milk mixture to the egg yolk mixture in a slow steady stream.  Strain through a sieve.  Cover and refrigerate for 1-4 days.   Preheat the oven to 400F or 200C.  Prepare the moulds.  (See tip below.)  Remove batter from the refrigerator and whisk vigorously.  Fill each mould to 1/8 inch or 3mm from the top.  Bake, rotating sheet halfway through, until Cannelés are dark brown and slip easily from their moulds, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. 
Makes 8 Cannelés
{ Tip… }
If you are using tin moulds, coat with butter or oil and freeze for 30 minutes prior to baking.
If you are using silicon moulds, you have two options.  Due to the non-stick nature of the silicon, you can use as is.  Alternatively, you can brush with some butter or oil, and freeze for 30 minutes in a similar fashion to a tin mould above.
If you are using copper moulds, you also have two options.  Heat the moulds in the oven at the same time as melting some beeswax.  Then carefully coat the hot moulds with a thin layer of wax.  Let the excess drip for a few minutes.  Alternatively, you can brush with some butter or oil, and freeze for 30 minutes in a similar fashion to a tin mould above.

{ Where to buy the moulds? }
Find tin moulds at retailers such as Sur La Table
Find silicon moulds at retailers such as Amazon
Find copper moulds at retailers such as Sur La Table and Amazon


It is hard not to fall in love with the all-sensory feast that is Provence.

The heady scent of lavender, rose and jasmine, that envelops Grasse, perfume capital of the world.  The gentle sound of the beach that lures you to bathe in the soothing sunshine along the French Riviera.  The aromatic flavour of fresh seafood at a small, yet lively, fishing village near Marseille.  The picturesque markets that boast local produce that burst in seasonal taste and fragrance.  The sweeping landscapes, majestic fields, orchards and vineyards, that embrace you along your journey.

It is no surprise when I recount my trips to France – and travels around the regional areas – that Provence has featured most prominently.  From Avignon in the west to Nice in the east, and passing through a land of contrasting terrain in between, for me, it was love at first sight.

Back home, it is fruitless not to dream of returning to this spectacular part of the world.  But until then, I have my sun-drenched tarte aux abricots to warm me with memories.

{ Apricot Tart } Recipe courtesy Jacques Torres

* Ingredients *
2/3 recipe Pate Sablée, recipe follows
1/2 recipe Almond Cream, recipe follows
10 Fresh Apricots (or canned)
1/4 cup slivered almonds
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting

* Directions *
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Roll the dough into a 12-inch diameter circle that is about 1/4-inch thick. Transfer the dough to a 10-inch tart pan by rolling the dough around the rolling pin. Line the tart pan with the dough. Dock the dough and set aside.   Make the almond cream. Spread a layer of almond cream inside the tart. Pit and quarter the fresh apricots. Arrange them on top of the almond cream by standing them on end. Sprinkle slivered almonds on top of the tart and bake for about 40 minutes. Dust with confectioners’ sugar.

{ Pate Sablée }

* Ingredients *
1/4 cup almond flour
Scant 2 cups cake flour
Generous 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
Pinch salt
3/4 cup powdered sugar
l large egg

* Directions *
Place the almond flour, cake flour and cold butter in the mixing bowl and mix until combined. Add the salt and powdered sugar. Mix until combined. Add the egg and mix until combined. Shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 1 hour to chill dough. Roll the dough to the desired size on a lightly floured work surface. Baking instructions vary and will be specified in any recipe using this dough. The dough will keep, well wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for 1 month. Thaw the dough in the refrigerator until ready to use. If you want to store the dough already rolled into a tart pan, wrap it in plastic wrap.  Yield: enough for 2 (10-inch) tarts

{ Almond Cream }

* Ingredients *
To make almond flour:
1 cup (125 grams) slivered almonds
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon room temperature unsalted butter
1 large egg

* Directions *
It is possible to buy almond flour (use 1 cup if you do) but it just as easy to make your own. Place the slivered almonds (no skin preferred) and granulated sugar into the food processor. Pulse until the almonds and sugar reach the consistency of flour. It is best to pulse because the heat of the blade will cause the release of the oil from the almonds.  Mix in the flour. Mix in the butter. Add the egg and mix until the mixture becomes light and creamy. Do not overmix or the gluten in the flour will overdevelop and the almond cream will lose its delicate texture when baked.  Yield: 1 3/4 cups

6 to 8 servings

Calisson single

You feel you are there with them.  Peter Mayle and his wife in Luberon, Provence, in the vivid, light-hearted autobiographical story, A Year in Provence.  Before the end of the first page, I was utterly charmed.  You are transported to the south of France, and share the adventures of a year, with Peter and his wife, in this striking part of the world.  I close my eyes and instantly see every inch of detail described.  From the 200 year old stone farmhouse the author bought, the grape vines on his property, his charming and sometimes unconventional neighbours, the clandestine tricks of the locals during truffle hunting, the dramatic changes in weather, and the endless food and gastronomic meals.

Peter speaks of a visit to Aix, and colourfully illustrates his observations the local student population.  The entertaining performance of the arrival, greeting and the ritual kissing of the students.  I read with a smile on my face, as I can picture each move.  Then my eyes wander to an illustration in the book.  A young girl sitting in a café, with the obligatory glass of Pastis, joined at the table by a box of Calisson d’Aix.

Calisson d’Aix is a speciality of Aix-en-Provence.  A tiny diamond shaped sweet, made with ground almonds and candied fruits and finished with white royal icing.  They are traditionally served with coffee after dessert.  Admittedly, I have been enjoying any time of day, and believe they would be a delightful addition to any holiday season table.  The addition of orange flavoured liqueur to the almond candied fruit mixture, is simply festive.Calisson set2

They are very simple to make, and a perfect make-ahead sweet.  The almond mixture comes together quickly, and then dries overnight.  The royal icing is then applied and allowed to set.  Lastly, the sweets are cut into the distinctive diamond/petal shapes.

My baking provisions regrettably do not contain such a distinctive shape.  Some recipes suggest cutting by hand yet I lack a steady hand so that was off the cards.  After a few moments staring at my supplies, I had a vision.  I immediately picked up a round cookie cutter with the visualisation of a Venn diagram in my head.  (Bravo my statistics degree is finally paying dividends towards my baking!)

I simply used each side of the round cookie cutter to mimic a diamond/petal shape.  Too simple for words – and no new shape required.  See ‘both A + B’ attached if you are unfamiliar with the Venn diagram.

I noticed many recipes included a candied melon that I was having much difficulty in obtaining.  So I was happy to find this version by Jacques Torres that omitted the melon, and included a healthy dose of Grand Marnier.

{ Calisson d’Aix } recipe courtesy Jacques Torres

* Ingredients *
1 pound plus 2 ounces (500 grams) almond paste
1/4 cup or 2 ounces (50 grams) candied orange peel
2 tablespoons (50 grams) fresh apricots puree or apricots jam
1 teaspoon honey
2 to 4 tablespoons (25 to 50 grams) Grand Marnier
Royal Icing, recipe follows

* Directions *
The candied orange I use is quite soft. You can candy your own or buy it in the store. If the one you buy is hard, rehydrate it in some sugar syrup.
Place the almond paste, candied orange, apricot puree, honey and Grand Marnier to the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with a paddle and mix until combined (you can also knead together by hand). You may need to adjust the amount of Grand Marnier depending on the texture of the paste. Roll out the almond paste mixture to 3/8-inch thick layer. I used some 3/8-inch thick rulers as guides so my almond paste would be rolled perfectly flat. You could use 2 wooden spoons. Let this sit overnight uncovered

Use an offset spatula to spread a 1/16-inch thick layer of Royal Icing on top of the rolled almond paste. Place this in the freezer until the Royal Icing sets, about 30 minutes, uncovered.

Use a sharp chef’s knife coated with vegetable cooking spray to cut the Calisson d’Aix into diamond shapes.

{ Royal Icing }

* Ingredients *
1 large egg white
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 lemon, juiced and strained

* Directions *
Combine the egg white and powdered sugar in a medium-size mixing bowl and whip with an electric mixer on medium speed until opaque and shiny, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice and continue whipping until completely incorporated, about 3 minutes. The lemon juice whitens the royal icing. The royal icing should be light, fluffy, and slightly stiff. You may need to adjust the consistency by adding more egg whites if the icing is too dry or more powdered sugar if it is too wet.

Baba au rhum single

In my childhood home, back in the 1970s, a meal of spaghetti Bolognese was considered exotic.  This rare treat was due, in part, to post-war migration, and afforded the vast land of Australia some much needed diversity in culture!

I schooled with many first generation Australians – myself included – whose families heralded from a variety of European countries.  This first generation Australian was an ever ready participant to visit a friend’s home, to enjoy an afternoon snack (and embrace an array of new flavours along the way).

Since those days as a child, the gastronomic palate of Australia has bulged well beyond the last belt hole.  Cuisine from virtually every corner of the world is available.  From every continent, from every country, it seems a global aroma permeates all the major cities.

I suppose it is no surprise that the introduction of new tastes is common across all corners of the world.  In the 18th century, a variation of the baba au rhum was introduced into France (by way of Alsace-Lorraine), from Poland.  It is believed to be a descendent of the Kugelhopf.

This dessert, traditionally shaped like a Champagne cork, is a rich, yeast bread, baked in a cylindrical mould.  It is liberally (emphasis on liberally) soaked in a sweet rum syrup.  The more modern version includes dried fruit, but this recipe, by Julia Child, omits the fruit and showcases the simplicity of the original dessert.  The classic baba, as recommended by Julia, is finished simply with a few additional drops of rum, a brush of apricot preserve and a carefully topped glacéed cherry.  I opted for the extra rum and apricot but not the cherry.  Personal preference.

There are variations of this dessert with cream or fruit.  Each would serve as a lovely complement to the sweet rum laden bread.  This would be an ideal dessert to finish off a rich, hearty meal.  The rum syrup instantly cleanses the palate, and the hint of sweetness, from the rich bread and sugar syrup, provides a clear note to signal the end of the meal.

Baba au rhum set

{ Babas au Rhum } from Julia Child et al and Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Note: I baked the bread in a larger than recommended mould.  Typically the cylindrical baba mould holds about 100ml of fluid, and is roughly 5cm or 2 inches in diameter and depth – much narrower and smaller than the mould I used.

{ Pâte à baba et babas }

* Ingredients *
60g butter
10g dry active yeast
45ml tepid water
2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/3 cups flour

* Directions *
Melt the butter and let cool.  Blend the yeast and water in the bowl with whisk and stand until yeast has dissolved completely.  Beat in the sugar, salt and eggs.  Mix the flour and the cool melted butter into the yeast with a wooden spoon.

Knead the dough by lifting it, slapping it, and pulling it vigorously against the sides of the bowl for about 5 minutes.  Alternatively, put into a mixer with a dough hook and mix until it starts to detach itself from the bowl.  Form into a ball and cut a cross deep on top.  Sprinkle with a little flour.  Cove the bowl and let rise in a warm place for 1 ½ to 2 hours or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Butter the inside of your moulds.  Lightly break off about a tablespoon of dough, enough to fill a third of a cup, and press lightly into the bottom of the cup.  Place the cups, uncovered, again in a warm place and allow to rise 1 to 2 hours, or until the dough is over the rim of the cups.

As soon as the dough has risen the second time, bake in the upper third of a preheated 180C/375F oven for about 15 minutes.

{ Sugar syrup }

Both the babas and the rum syrup should be lukewarm but not hot before this operation begins.  If the babas are cold, warm slightly.

* Ingredients *
2 cups of water
1 cup sugar
½ cup dark rum (preferably Jamaican)

* Directions *
Bring the water and sugar to a boil.  Remove from the heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved.  When the sugar syrup has cooled to lukewarm, stir in the rum.  Arrange the babas in a dish, with their puffed tops up.  Prick tops in several places, pour the syrup over them and let stand for ½ hour basting frequently.  They should imbibe enough syrup so they are moist and spongy but still hold their shape.  Drain on rack for ½ hour.

After the babas have drained, sprinkle the top of each with a few drops of rum. Pain them with some apricot glaze/preserve, and place a cherry on top of each.

Makes 12 babas

Walnut Cake single

When I was young, a family friend had a macadamia nut tree in their yard.  Even though the macadamia is native to Australia, it is not common to have your own tree.  So it was a treat to occasionally come home with a handful of macadamia nuts after a visit.

Opening a macadamia nut, however, requires patience, persistence and most importantly, brut force – often necessitating a hammer, or some other blunt object, to crack open the stubborn shells.  The macadamia shell is a stark contrast to the softer shell of the walnut.

Majestic groves of walnut trees are common landscapes that grace the valleys of the Périgord region, in the southwest corner of France.  Walnuts feature strongly in cakes and desserts from this area, and this light, nutty Gâteau is one such example.

This recipe comes by way of French food authority, Anne Willan.  It is quick to put together.  And except for the last minute addition of caramel, can easily be made ahead.  It would be a very elegant dessert, and perfect for entertaining.

What a pleasure it would be to see the transformation of the humble walnut from the tree, into this not so humble cake.

On those lucky days as a child, returning home with a handful of macadamia nuts, there was no such dessert, cake or pastry created.  Though admittedly, I am not sure if there was adequate collective patience to crack sufficient nuts required for an entire cake!

Walnut Cake set

This was a very simple cake to bake.  Made easier with the introduction of a new attachment.

Recently, when profiled on the Daring Bakers website (‘Daring Members on the Spot’), I spoke about my favourite kitchen gadget and kitchen appliance.  They were my indispensable silicon scrapers and my KitchenAid mixer respectively.  So imagine my surprise when I got the chance to combine my two favourite kitchen tools, in one!

I recently had the opportunity to trial a BeaterBlade.

The BeaterBlade replaces the flat beater / paddle attachment for your KitchenAid.  It includes a rubber ‘wing’ along each the side of the beater that provides superior mixing – and means you have to stop the mixer fewer times to scrape down the sides and bottom!

To ensure a precise feel of the beater, I tested this blade on three different cake batters (to varying degrees of viscosity).  This was the final batter.  The result?

I relived that feeling of mixing a batter, for the first time, with my very first bench top mixer.  That feeling when you are standing back, watching and listening to the low hum of the machine do all the work – no pesky bowls and handheld beaters involved – while you get on with something else.  That feeling was back, and it was a joy to bake with this attachment.

The flat beater that came with my KitchenAid?  Well, that is now my back up!
I know they have been available in the USA for a while time (as I had read reviews from American pastry chefs including Dorie Greenspan and Rose Levy Beranbaum), and they are now available in Australia through FullyBaked.

{ Gateau aux noix } by Anne Willan

* Ingredients *
2 slices day old white bread
1 cup/150 grams/5 1/2 ounces walnut pieces
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons/140 grams/5 ounces butter, more for the pan
2/3 cup/140 grams/5 ounces sugar
4 eggs, separated
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup/75 grams/2 1/2 ounces sugar
1/4 cup/60 mls/2 fluid ounces water
8 walnut halves
9-inch/23-centimeter cake pan

* Directions *
Heat the oven to 325˚F/160˚C/Gas 3. Toast the bread in the oven until very dry, 6 to 8 minutes. Let it cool, leaving the oven on. Break the bread in pieces and grind it to crumbs in the food processor. Add the walnut pieces and salt and grind to a coarse powder (the dry bread helps keep the walnuts light). Butter the cake pan, line it with a round of parchment paper, and butter the paper.
Cream the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add half of the sugar and continue beating until light and soft, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the egg yolks, one by one, beating well after each addition and scraping the sides of the bowl to be sure all the ingredients are mixed. Beat in the lemon zest. With a spoon, stir in the ground walnut mixture.
Using the mixer with another bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff. With the whisk turning, gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating until this meringue is stiff and glossy, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Fold about a quarter of the meringue into the walnut mixture to lighten it, and then add all the mixture to the remaining meringue. Fold the two together as lightly as possible. Spoon the batter into the cake pan and bake until the cake pulls from the sides of the pan and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean when withdrawn, 40 to 50 minutes. If the cake browns too quickly, cover it loosely with aluminium foil. Let the cake cool 5 minutes, and then turn it out onto a rack covered with a sheet of parchment paper. Strip the lining paper from the cake and leave it upside down (so it has a flat top) to cool completely, at least an hour. 
For the topping, put the sugar and water in a small saucepan and heat gently without stirring until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat and boil until the sugar cooks to a golden brown caramel. Turn the cake top upwards and set it back on the rack. Take the caramel from the heat, let the bubbles subside and at once pour it over the cake, spreading with a metal spatula to make a very thin layer, letting it drip down the sides.  Take care as caramel can burn badly. Decorate the cake at once with walnut halves so they stick to the caramel. The caramel will become crisp as it cools. When starting to set, mark portions in the caramel with a knife so the cake is easy to cut in wedges.

Makes a 9-inch/23-centimeter cake to serve 6 to 8

Far Breton

‘My grand-mère is the best cook in Brittany,’ the child exclaimed defiantly, crossing her arms and eyeing her schoolyard friend.  ‘Not possible, you lie.  My grand-mère makes the best food around,’ boldly cried the opposing child.  Onlookers watched the banter back and forth and knew neither child would back down.  For in Brittany, every grand- mère was the best cook.

This custard tarty cake, studded with rum soaked prunes, is a speciality of the Brittany region and a quintessential dessert from this picturesque area of France.  It is creamy, dense and smooth, and comes by way of my lovely French friend, Ms Couzelin

Ms Couzelin, my macaron-taster cum work colleague, grew up in Brittany, the most western province of France.  Until the age of 20, she would visit her grand-mère almost daily when living close by; each Thursday practically running to the house for her weekly lesson in crepe making (another speciality of the Brittany region).

Marie, her grand-mère, would make Far Breton frequently.  Mostly when milk was plentiful – or on request.  Ms Couzelin still makes it now when she wants to recreate a dish, from home.  She recollects helping her grand-mère in her kitchen, and sometimes sneaking tastes when no one was looking.  Remembers family gathered around enjoying the Far for dessert, breakfast or for a coffee break.  Seated on benches around a heavy, wooden farmers table, or in grand-mère’s kitchen.

I feel blessed to have the recipe that Marie only shared with her granddaughters, sometimes strangers, but never her neighbours! 

Ms Couzelin, merci beaucoup pour ta recette.

{ Far Breton aux Pruneaux } from Ms Couzelin’s grand-mère, Marie

* Ingredients *
2 tablespoons rum
150g pitted prunes
150g plain flour / all purpose flour
½ litre or 2 cups whole milk
Pinch salt
100g sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla

* Directions *
Heat the rum in a small saucepan and slowly heat the prunes for 2-3 minutes.  Set aside.  Preheat the oven to 200C or 400F. Butter a shallow 6-cup baking dish. Add the flour and salt to a large bowl.  Add half the milk and slowly whisk to a paste.  Whisk in the remaining milk until smooth.  Add the sugar and continue to whisk.  Crack the eggs and one by one, add to the batter.  Finally, add the vanilla.   Whisk until completely smooth.  Drain the prunes from the rum and scatter on the bottom of the dish.  Pour the batter on top.  Bake for about 35-40 minutes, or until risen, golden and a skewer comes out clean.

Regional Baking of France large

One of the many charms of cuisine is that it tells you so much about a place.  The culture.  The climate.  The people. 

I am fascinated by how local food can be unreservedly distinctive and diverse. Even in a small country, each region can boast its own unique specialities influenced by traditions, availability of ingredients and geography.

This month, I will be showcasing a small sampling of desserts distinctive to a handful of regions around France.

The characteristic gastronomy of Alsace in the northeast, and the gentle blend of German and French influence.  The rich dairy and farming lands of Brittany and Normandy, and the abundance of cream, crème fraiche, milk, butter and apples.  The characteristic rum and spice of the port region of Bordeaux, a vestige of the trade of yesteryear.  The temperate and sun-drenched climate of Provence and the orchard of citrus, fruits, herbs and nuts. 

I hope you will enjoy the trip around France with me.