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.