If my last post about those buttery Swiss Mailänderli with a hint of lemon was a bit simple for your festive palates, today we are going just about as far from that as is possible. It’s a short hop across the border from Switzerland to France for mendiants, little discs of chocolate studded with all manner of delicious flavours.
You probably know what these things are if you’ve ever pressed your face against the window of a high-end chocolate shop and then been shocked at just how much they are asking for what seem to be little more than chocolate discs covered in “stuff”. I could make those at home, you think. Then you buy them anyway, and usually guzzle them in fairly short order. Or at least we do in our house…
Alright, so my basic description of mendiants not really do them justice, as they really one of those sweets that is so simple but the overall result is so much more than the individual parts. And after that Mailänderli business, this time we’ve got a pretty decent idea about where the name comes from too!
The name mendiants is French for “beggars”, and has a connection with the southern French tradition of les 13 desserts de Noël (the 13 desserts of Christmas). When I first read about this concept, I thought it sounded frankly amazing, and that I really should look into how I could spend Christmas in Provence. I guess I imagined that it would be some groaning assortment of fancy cakes and tarts. It turns out that this is more frugal fare – fresh fruit, biscuits, small sweets etc. I mean, not the sort of thing that I would say no to, but not…well, not 13 different types of yule log!
As part of this selection, four “beggars” were served, which represented four mendicant (begging) monastic orders – Carmelites were almonds, Dominicans were raisins, Augustinians were hazelnuts and Fransiscans were dried figs. The fruit and nut choices were said to refer to the colour of the robes worn by each order. From this, the term mendiant evolved to refer to any discs of chocolate studded with fruit and nuts, and these days, it can include candied citrus peel, spices, petals, salt and event crushed candy or biscuits. So finally…a way that you can have cashews, crushed candy canes, rose petals and preserved mango in one go…well, you try it first and tell me how it tastes!
If you are the sort of person that likes to make things to give to friends as gifts, then mendiants are a great choice – they look beautiful, you can customise them to your heart’s content, they can be prepared ahead of time, and they are so, so, so much easier than trying to knock out a tray of macarons against the clock. And if you’re not obsessed with complete neatness, they are also a fun sweet to make with children. The only things that you need to nail if you want them to look professional is tempering your chocolate.
Yes, tempering. That’s all. Tempering….aaaaaagh!
Basically, this is one of my kitchen demons. I’ve tried for years to find a “foolproof” way to get chocolate to set so that it is glossy, appealing and has that clean snap, but too often I’ve ended up with something that is cloudy and a bit soft when you bite into it. I’ve reached the conclusion that there is no such thing as an “easy” method, and all those “foolproof” methods are just junk. What works is to go out to a kitchen shop, buy a digital thermometer, and temper your chocolate properly. All you need to do is melt it to the right temperature, then all more chopped chocolate, stir it while it cools to a certain point, then warm it slightly. I did this three times with each of dark, milk and white, and the results were always perfect. Basically, I’m completely besotted with my little digital thermometer, and now melting chocolate holds no fear for me! Get one – you won’t regret it.
When it came to actually making my mendiants I had grand ideas that I would try to be true to the original four flavours of the monastic orders. However, fig and raisin was not a combination that was doing it for me, so I raided the cupboards and discovered how much good stuff I had in the house already. And here is the result!
I paired dark chocolate with orange peel, golden sultanas, cranberries and pistachios, plus a gentle sprinkling of sea salt that looked a little bit like frost or snowflakes. These were definitely the most sophisticated, in terms of appearance and flavour, perhaps because the red and green suits the season.
The milk chocolate had toasted hazelnuts and almonds, sultanas, apricots and sour cherries. The result was ever so slightly reminiscent of Black Forest Gateau, and as a cherry fiend, I was smitten.
Finally, the white chocolate was paired with creamy macadamia and pine nuts, a sliver of orange peel, golden sultanas and three pine nuts in a row. If there is one piece of advice that I can offer, I would forget trying to line things up – you do feel like you’re going slightly batty late as night as you are racing against setting chocolate to get your pine nuts to line up. Make life easy. Throw them on, or just use a single nut.
To make mendiants
So…this is a first for me…there isn’t really a recipe for these things!
You just need to melt some chocolate (I found 200g would make a tray of 24 discs) and temper it properly if that’s your thing. You can skip this, just deal with non-glossy chocolate that doesn’t snap cleanly, and you can still be certain you’ll see them fly off a serving plate.
I used greaseproof paper to make my mendiants, and they slipped off like a dream, and you can reuse it later if you want to. I also made a template by drawing round the bottom of a glass – this makes it much easier to get your teaspoons of chocolate into nearly-perfect circles.
If identical mendiants is your thing, it helps to have the various toppings lined up – I made little piles with each topping (e.g. one sultana, one pistachio, one cranberry, one orange peel) so that I could quickly transfer them to the mendiants. You also want to spread out chocolate for 4-6 mendiants, then do the topping – the tempered chocolate will set quickly and if you spread all the chocolate out, the first discs will be set before you can get the nuts and fruit on them. However, you might prefer to go freestyle – in which case, just have everything you need in bowls where you are working, as running around the kitchen while your carefully tempered chocolate sets in the blink of an eye is deeply frustrating.
When it comes to toppings, traditional options include raisins, hazelnuts, figs and almonds. But you can let your imagination run riot. Nuts? Think almonds, cashews, pine, macadamias, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios…and think about whether they might taste even better if lightly toasted. Fruit? If it can be dried, it can go on a mendiant – cranberries and cherries are particularly festive, but preserved ginger and citrus peel also add a lovely seasonal note. YOu could even go for more aromatic flavours such as flower petals, delicate spices, or go all modern with crushed biscuit. I think ginger biscuits or speculaas would be particularly good.
And finally, don’t forget that you can add a delicate sprinkling of fine salt flakes to transform the flavour of your mendiants.
So there you have it – a fun and quick festive sweet treat where your creativity can run wild, and which might also be fun to make with some little helpers!