My tenth recipe in this year’s Twelve Days of Baking is one I had not originally planned to feature. This was supposed to have been something very different indeed. I had planned to make an Icelandic shortbread and prune cake called Vínarterta. The idea is to make between five and eight layers of thin shortbread, then between each add some prune jam, to get an attractive layered effect. Well, I made it, I tasted it, and it was awful. It was the sensation can best be described as an excess of butter combined with thrill of prunes. I think I’d managed to get the whole concept of the Vínarterta very wrong. Plenty of people have made it and seem to like it, so perhaps I’ll have a go at it another time, but this year it just didn’t make the cut. After all the effort that went into the one that didn’t work, I just could not face the idea of going through it all again. So if you every wonder if I try making something and fail at it – yes, it does happen, and those recipes don’t appear on here.
So…what do we have instead of the Icelandic cake of terror? We’ve headed back instead to the loving embrace of la douce France, and I’ve made navettes de Marseille which I came across when I was researching the pompe a l’huile. I had originally made a note that they might be one for next year, so here they are! The word navette might be familiar today as the term for a shuttle bus, but it used to have a nautical connection, which makes sense as Marseille is port town.
Navettes are cookies that can appear as part of the Thirteen Desserts in the Provençal Christmas tradition. They are simple light sweet biscuits made with olive oil and orange blossom water. The texture is rather like biscotti, as they are made with egg as the binding agent, but perhaps less hard and crisp. The good news is that they are an absolute doddle to make (which was also a sweet relief for me – that Icelandic thing had 15 layers in it between the cake and the prunes!). While orange blossom water is traditional, there are other flavours emerging, with one of the more popular being aniseeed. I could imagine they would look very striking if you used saffron, and you could get festive and add seasonal spices, but you’re probably straying rather far from the originals if you get too wacky. Personally I quite like orange blossom so I wasn’t in the mood for any experimentation here.
For me the fun bit was in the shaping. You just roll them into a sausage, pinch the ends, then slice along them. You can open this a little bit, and it opens up a further during baking. They end up looking live a cross between little loaves of bread, a boat, and a pea pod! Now I have seen different sizes of navettes ranging from big to bite-sized. I went for ones on the larger size in part because I’ve got small cookies galore in the kitchen at the moment, and in part because I was too lazy to make them smaller. I think the larger size also avoids them looking too much like doggie treats!
My navettes reminded me of Middle Eastern pastries and would be excellent with coffee or green or mint tea. While my navettes were very hard after baking, they did seem to soften when left out overnight. I sorted this by letting them dry in a very low oven (maybe 70°C) to get that very dry, crisp texture.
To make navettes de Marseilles (makes 10)
• 100g sugar
• 1 medium egg
• pinch of salt
• 250g plain flour
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water
• zest of 1 orange
1. In a bowl, mix the sugar, egg and pinch of salt until the mixture is pale and fluffy (about 2 minutes). Stir in the orange blossom water and orange zest, then gently fold in the olive oil.
2. Gradually add the flour. Start with a spatula, then you will have to finish off with your hands to make sure the dough is properly mixed! If it is too moist, add a bit more flour but it will still have a very slight stickiness. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for an hour at room temperature.
3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.
4. Roll the dough into a long sausage, then cut into 10 equal pieces (or weigh the dough and form 10 equal pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage about 10cm long. Transfer to the baking sheet, then pinch the ends and use a sharp knife to cut along the length of the navette. Gently push the sides slightly open – it should look like a set of lips! Keep going until all 10 are done.
5. Brush the navettes with milk, then put the tray in the oven.
6. Bake for 20 minutes, turning half-way to get an even colour. When done, remove from the oven and cool on a wire rack.