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.

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.

lavender-macaron3

My first visit to Provence was nearly 15 years ago.  I was very young, but fortunately travelled enough to appreciate the beauty that shined brightly in this part of France.  Since that time, I have joked (somewhat seriously!) that I would love to retire to that part of the world. 

Retirement is a long way off, so if I ever need a sensory reminder of the beauty of Provence, I simply head to my local L’Occitane store.  I am instantly greeted with gorgeous imagery and aromas of the region … including lavender.  I love the smell and rustic look of this special flower.  My partner, A., has actually planted a few varieties in our garden for me to admire.  (Love him!)  So with my macaron month, I could not go past including a humble lavender inspired version.

I was tempted to incorporate lavender with orange after reading about a quite delicious sounding lavender, orange and almond cake on Melissa’s beautiful blog, The Traveller’s Lunchbox.  I also came across this flavour combination in macaron form by the talented Aran’s of Cannelle et Vanille

I was all prepared to embark on combining these flavours when I hit a bit of a snag.  I carefully added the right amount of red and blue food colour to the macaron batter to create the perfect lavender tint, I carefully piped the batter and then sprinkled with lavender flowers.  So far so good.  All was working like a charm.  But then I baked the macarons.  After 15 minutes in the oven, the colour paled significantly.

Plan B.

I ended up creating a lavender infused white chocolate cream as the filling so I could brighten the centre to enhance the flattened hue of the shell.  I guess I will just have to taste the lavender / orange flavour another day.

Overall, I was fairly happy with the macarons.  The only comment I would make would be the shells were probably thicker than desirable.  I believe I took the sugar syrup slightly too high in temperature – closer to 120C.  My previously attempts were at a lower temperature.

I will have to test that again, next time!

{ Lavender macarons }

* Ingredients *

100g egg whites
3g egg white powder
125g almond meal
125g icing sugar
Red and blue food colouring
For the syrup:
150g sugar and 50ml water

* Directions *

Process the almond meal and icing sugar together.  In a mixer, whip half the egg whites to soft peaks.  Meanwhile, in a saucepan bring the water and sugar for the syrup to 117C (or 242F) on a candy thermometer.  Once ready, slowly add the boiling syrup to the egg whites and continue to whip on medium speed until they thick and shiny and are completely cooled (about 10 minutes).  At the final changes of whipping the meringue, add the food colouring to make a lavender colour.  Mix the remaining egg whites to the sifted almond mixture and fold into the meringue in four parts.

Pipe macarons on lined baking sheets. Sprinkle with lavender flowers.  Double up your baking sheets if you do not have professional grade quality.  Let your macarons sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes. Bake at 140C or 280F for 15-18 minutes.  Fill with ganache or filling of your choice.  Refrigerate to set.

{ Lavender cream }

* Ingredients *

120g white chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp of lavender flowers (Herbie’s)
Red and blue food colouring

* Directions *

Heat cream and lavender flowers until bubbles form around the edge of the pan.  Let cool and rest for about an hour.  Strain the lavender flowers from the cream.  Reheat the cream gently and pour over the chocolate.  Let sit for 2-3 minutes and then stir.  Add food colouring to suit.  Let cool then transfer to the refrigerator to thicken.