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{7} Calissons d’Aix

Do you like the idea of a grand total of thirteen desserts for your Christmas dinner? Then let’s take a jaunt to Provence in France where they do just that.

But first I will have to disappoint you. If you have visions of a seasonal table just groaning with thirteen separate cakes, it is not that. Not is it a selection of other puddings. Rather it is a selection of festive treats ranging from nuts and dried fruit to festive breads and small traditional sweets, including nougat. But hey, you still get thirteen things in total, and after lots of rich food, some vaguely heathy nuts and dried fruit might be just the little health kick you need as you promise not to over-indulge ever again. And, of course, you know it will happen again next year!

One of the traditional sweets is the calisson. They originate from the town of Aix-en-Provence and are made with several typical products of the area – candied melon, orange peel, orange blossom water and almonds. Everything is ground down to a smooth paste – with a texture similar to marzipan but somewhat fruitier – which is then shaped into almond-like lozenges and glazed with brilliant white royal icing. If you wanted to veganise these, you could even make your icing using aquafaba.


And as with all good Christmas sweets, they have both a bit of history and a disputed origin story.

One school of thought is that they trace their history back to medieval Italy, being mentioned in Martino di Canale’s Chronicle of the Venetians in 1275, and there are other references during the Middle Ages to “calisone” cakes being made from almonds.

The other version involved a bit more drama, and is therefore immediately more interesting. The tale goes that calissons were created after the marriage of René, Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, to Jeanne de Laval in 1454. He was 45, she was 21. Before and after the marriage, the bride was reported to be in a dour mood, what with being basically told to enter into a marriage by her father. After three years of marriage the couple moved to Aix-en-Provence and the duke’s chef was charged with creating something to bring a smile to her lips so that the couple would impress their subjects. He created these sweets from melon and almonds, and upon tasting this new delicacy, she declared “di calin soun” which is “they are hugs” in the Provencal language. Alternatively, the assembled crowd said that the sight of the smiling Jeanne won their hearts and felt as if she was giving them all little hugs. Could one of these be true? It’s certainly a charming tale, and we can only hope the rest of their union was happy.

I’ve had an eye on making calissons for a while, but was always a bit dubious how much work it would take to make. The do look like it will be a lot of effort. Well it turns out that it actually…really easy. You let your food processor do all the hard work, which will blitz everything to a paste. Throw in the candied fruit, blitz to a smooth paste, then add the almonds and it all comes together like magic.


While making the fruit-nut base was easy, I’ll admit the shaping was a bit tricky. You roll out the dough, then place rice paper on top and cut out shapes. I thought this would leave you with a lot of waste, but you can pick off the rice paper and re-roll the scraps. No, the problem is they are supposed to have an almond shape, and I didn’t have that exact cutter. Time for a workaround…

My very practical solution was to use a circular cutter (mine was about 5cm diameter), then offset it to create that almond shape. Place the rice paper on the dough, then press down hard and fast. That means you get a clean cut through the rice paper, and the dough doesn’t get a chance to move position. It’s also marvellously therapeutic after the year we’ve had. Then remove the cut circle, flip it over so the rice paper is on the bottom (if you have the rice paper on the top for the second cut, it doesn’t work as well). Offset the cutter so you can cut an almond shape (this way you will get two from each circle). I found it best to press down, then flip over the cutter and gently run a knife over the rice paper to cut if cleanly. It is a little tricky to start with, but you get the hang of it. It is also important to have a clean cutter – keep a damp piece of kitchen roll nearby, and wipe it often.

The classic fruit in calissons is candied melon. This is something I’ve rarely seen, and it strikes me as something that must be tricky to make given how much water is in a melon. But I managed to order some candied cantaloup melon online, and even then it’s not exactly easy to find. It’s definitely an interesting flavour, aromatic, and it has an attractive orange-pink colour. Many recipes also use a little bit of candied citrus peel, and if you wanted to go for orange overload, you could just use that. Alternatively, any candied fruit will work well, In fact, I’ve made a little selection of different flavours for over Christmas, and the same recipe works as long as you hold to the same weight of candied fruit, candied citrus peel, ground almonds and icing sugar.

I got the idea to experiment because I came across a few websites that have given calissons the full macaron treatment, presenting them in a dazzling rainbow of colours and flavours. I don’t know how traditional this is (and can imagine some French purists throwing their hands in the air with a gasp of quelle horreur!) but I have to admit they do look quite fun. I think you need to be judicious with the flavours, and veer towards the natural. I made some using candied pear, and some with candied peach, both of which were delicious. You could also use different nuts – hazelnuts and pistachios seem like fairly safe bets. I could even see a festive version using dates and gingerbread spices. However, I would steer clear of some flavours like peppermint extract or lavender or rose essence, especially if they are artificial. You could rapidly end up with a tray of sweets that is more reminiscent of soap than the sunshine of Provence. That said, if you’re now fixated on the concept of a calisson that tastes like a candy cane with a red-and-white striped top, knock yourself out!

To make Calissons d’Aix (makes around 40-45)

For the dough

• 150g candied melon (or other candied fruit)
• 30g candied orange peel
• 20g candied lemon peel
• 1 tablespoon orange blossom water (or other flavour) – see note below
• few drops of almond extract
• 170g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar

To shape

• edible rice paper

To ice

• 1 egg white (30g)
• 150g icing sugar
• colouring (optional)
• flavouring (optional)

1. Put the melon, orange and lemon into a food processor and blitz to a paste. Scrape down the sides, add the orange blossom water and almond extract, and blitz again. Scrape down the sides again, and blitz again until the paste is smooth.

2. Add the ground almonds and icing sugar to the food processor. Blitz until it looks like crumbs. Scrape down the sides and base, then blitz again. It should come together to form a marzipan-like dough. If it stays crumbly, pour into a bowl, knead briefly, and it will come together. If the dough is very sticky, add more ground almonds. Wrap in cling film and leave to chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight.

3. Time to shape the calissons. On a piece of greaseproof paper, roll out the dough to 1cm thickness. Place a sheet of rice paper on top, smooth side up. Start to cut out the calisson shapes. For the scraps, peel off the rice paper and re-roll until it is all used up. Check all the calissons – you might need to tidy up the edges or trim some stray bits of rice paper. When you’re happy, turn them all so the rice paper is at the bottom.

4. Time to ice. Make the icing by lightly beating the egg white, then sifting in the icing sugar. Stir until the mixture is smooth – it needs to flow, but a drop on a worktop should hold its shape and not run. Add in any colours or flavours. Use a spoon or a piping bag to top each calisson with a thin layer of icing. Leave uncovered overnight to set.

Note: check exactly what sort of orange blossom water you are using. You can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. I used a fairly light and dilute version from a local Middle Eastern grocery. If you have a concentrated version, you will need just a drop or two unless you want something that tastes like soap!

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Lamingtons

In years gone by I had traditionally written about something from Scotland in honour of Burns Night which falls on 25 January. This year I thought I’d do things a little differently. As Australia Day falls on 26 January, how about something Antipodean instead?

If we’re doing Australian, it just has to be lamingtons. This is not a cake that I see very often, even in a city like London with a decent Aussie population, but I do remember seeing them on Neighbours when I was young and being introduced to the concept of the “lamington drive”. This involved making and then selling lots of these little cakes, and it was pretty much the way of raising money for a good cause. From what I knew, they were pieces of sponge, dipped in chocolate icing and coated in coconut.

They were apparently named either for Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, or after his wife, the surprisingly named Lady Lamington. You can understand why they used his title when looking for a cake name, as his full name (Charles Wallace Alexander Napier Cochrane-Baillie) didn’t really trip of the tongue.


So I set about making a batch of lamingtons. First question: is there some single authentic recipe for making them? It would seem not. There are various different recipes for the sponge (such as genoise, Victoria or pound cake) and chocolate glaze ideas range from a smooth proper ganache to something sweeter and more obviously icing-like. I ignored suggestions to use pink icing on the basis I never saw the Robinson household or anyone else in Ramsay Street making them that way.

I settled on genoise, but then had to decide if I would try to make a deep cake and cut it into pieces, or would I try to include some jam element? Again, I don’t remember seeing jam on Neighbours but I think the right tangy, fruity jam is a good complement to sweet chocolate icing. I decided to make one large thin sheet of cake, which I would cut in two and sandwich the pieces together with apricot jam. That decision was based on what I had in the cupboard, but I think anything that has some sharpness to it would work well, such as raspberry or blackcurrant jam. Something more muted like strawberry would just add more sweetness but no contrast, but if that’s what you like, then go for it.


Many of the recipes that I did see suggested not using cake which was very fresh – you want the cake to be ever so slightly stale (whatever that means) and apparently this was best done but wrapping the cake in cling film and letting it sit in the fridge overnight. I’m not sure whether this really made a difference, or just ensured that the cake really was properly cooled, but it did cut neatly and cleanly into pieces. Given you will be glazing these guys and rolling them in coconut, neat slicing is not really that important as icing can cover a multitude of sins, but I was happy that the pieces didn’t just start falling apart. I took this as a good sign for when I was going to ice them.


For the glaze, I quickly discounted the idea of a ganache. While I have not been to Australia (yet), it is fair to assume it is a warm place for most of the time, and so it would be rather daft to make a cake with an icing that would melt easily in warm weather. So the icing I came up with is made from a warm mixture of milk, butter, dark chocolate and cocoa powder to which you add the icing sugar, then keep the lot warm over a pan of hot water. This keeps the icing smooth and makes it easier to coat the cakes, but then it will set fairly quickly after you’ve rolled the cakes in coconut. While most recipes use just cocoa powder, I also added some dark chocolate to the icing which seemed to help get a good colour and flavour.

The actual glazing process was quite fun – not something I would want to attempt in a hurry, and the first couple of lamingtons took a bit of time to get right. I found it easiest to gently drop one into the icing, then used a spoon to pour glaze over the cake. Once it is coated, you just slip a fork underneath, then allow the extra icing to drizzle off the cake. Then comes the fun part – you need to quickly transfer the cake onto the desiccated coconut, which you have on a large plate right next to you. Then you have to use your hands to form a coconut mountain around the cake, and press it a bit so the coconut sticks to the glaze. Then you need to flip the lamington over, so that all sizes are covered, and then move it to a wire rack. And all the while, the glaze is a bit soft, so you will probably have to fix the shape a bit with your fingers so it looks presentable. After you have done a few of them, you’ll defiantely develop a “lamington technique”.


And speaking of coconut…I was not sure if I should use plain or sweetened coconut for this recipe, so I bought both types. As this is a traditional recipe, I thought it might be made with the sweeter stuff, but to be sure, I tested them both before using them, and this taste test told me that the sweetened coconut was not right. Yes, it was softer and seemed more tender, but it had a rather peculiar aftertaste that I did not like at all – and then I checked the ingredients, it turned out it was just 65% coconut. All that apparent “tenderness” was coming from propylene glycol. I’m not a Luddite, and looked into what this was – it’s safe for food (which I would hope, since it was in that coconut!) but the impact on the flavour meant it was going nowhere near my lamingtons, but straight in the bin. Back to good old-fashioned unsweetened desiccated coconut we went! If you want to try something a bit different, you could toast the coconut, but that’s as far as I would go. You could use chopped nuts if you’re not a coconut fan, but then I think you’re veering away from what a true lamington is.

Finally, I should say that my recipe basically recommends you have a whole packet of coconut on a plate for dipping, but you won’t use all of it. I just think that you’ll struggle to get a good finish if you try to use less, so don’t be puzzled if you have lots left over after your icing escapades.

And how were they? I was all prepared for them to be a bit naff, but I must confess I really liked them. The cake, the set-but-soft icing, the coconut and the jam come together into a really lovely cake. They also looked great piled up high on a plate, so I will definitely be making these again. And not just for 26 January!

To make Lamingtons (makes 16)

For the sponge:

• 2 large eggs
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 100g plain flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 60g butter, melted and cooled
• 130g tangy jam (apricot, raspberry, blackcurrant…)

For the icing

• 120ml whole milk
• 30g unsalted butter
• 50g dark chocolate

• 50g cocoa powder
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• generous pinch of salt
• 450g icing sugar
• extra milk, to thin the icing

To finish

• 250g desiccated coconut

1. Start wit the sponge. Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F). Line a 20 x 30cm tray with greaseproof paper.

2. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a low heat. Put to one side to cool. In a bowl, combine the flour and baking powder and mix well. Set aside.

3. Put the eggs, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl. Beat with an electric whisk until pale, thick and fluffy (around 3-4 minutes). Gently fold in the flour mixture using a spatula. Finally add the melted butter and gently fold it into the mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and gently level off the mixture as best you can.

4. Bake the cake for 15-20 minutes until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Remove from the oven and cover with a tea towel. Allow to cool completely, then cover with film and refrigerate overnight.

5. The next day, time to prepare the sponge. Cut the cooled cake sheet in half. Spread one piece with jam, then place the other piece on tip. Leave to rest for an hour so that the jam holds the two layers together.

6. Cut the cake into pieces – trim the edges with a sharp knife to get good, clean edges. Now cut into 4 equal strips, and cut each strip into 4 pieces. They should end up roughly cube shaped.

7. Make the icing. Put the milk, butter, chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt into a medium saucepan, and heat gently until the butter and chocolate have melted. It will become very thick. Add the icing sugar, and beat vigorously until smooth.

8. Transfer the icing to a bowl, and balance it above a pan of warm water (this will keep the icing warm, and it should set more quickly when coating the lamingtons). Now check the icing consistency – you will need to add more milk to get it to a smooth but thick icing which pours easily – you don’t need much though, I only added a further 3 teaspoons of milk.

9. Tip the coconut onto a large plate.

10. Time to decorate. Drop a piece of the sponge into the icing, then use a spoon to coat it with the glaze. When done, put a fork underneath, lift it up and allow excess icing to drop off. Wipe the base of the cake on the edge of the bowl, then transfer it into the coconut. Coat it in the coconut, then transfer to a wire rack and leave to set (allow 30 minutes).

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