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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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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

{5} Canistrelli

One place that has firmly stood outside of my past festive baking efforts has been France. I’ve only featured one recipe – chocolate, fruit and nut mendiants that form part of the tradition of the 13 desserts in Provence (calm down – this is not 13 actual separate miniature desserts, it includes items like fresh fruit and nuts).  There are, of course, lots and lots of delicious things that the French enjoy at Christmas, including the famous bûche de noël (perhaps a bit too much work for me unless I am making it for a very, very special occasion) and various sweet treats such as candied chestnuts, and the various buttery biscuits that comprise the brederle of Alsace. But I’ve just not found that many French cookies to feature.

Well, today we break that trend. I’ve made canistrelli cookies from Corsica which are made with white wine and flavoured with anise, and they can also include almonds or chestnut flour. I’m not entirely sure that these are a Christmas cookie per se, as they are eaten all year round on their home turf, but I like the recipe, it is a contrast to some of the other things I’m making this year, and they also looked quite easy. Sometimes I like to make things that are complex, and sometimes I’m lazy. And look at the pictures? Those diamond shapes form giant snowflakes!

I don’t know if it is a sign of age, but I increasingly appreciate the flavour of anise. I was not such a fan when I was younger, but I find it a nice alternative to gingerbread spices, chocolate or citrus. It still seems festive but doesn’t have the ubiquity of other flavours of the season. Perhaps it is a sign of an increasingly sophisticated palate, or perhaps it is no longer drinking dodgy liqueurs like sambuca with wild abandon? We can only surmise.

Anyway, to our guest cookies. Canistrelli are reminiscent of Italian biscotti in the sense they are a crispy and crunchy cookie but they are much easier to make than their Italian cousins. No need to roll a log, bake it, slice it and bake it again. You just mix up a quick dough, shape it and bake it. Then just accept that as the dough is quite soft, they will inevitably have a somewhat rustic look, and if that worries you, drink some of the same wine you used to make the cookies and you’ll feel better.

When making these cookies, the method seemed very familiar to me – it is essentially a recipe for making little scones (of “biscuits” if you’re American) as you’re pouring liquid into the dry ingredients, then working quickly with a fairly soft mixture. However you’re not looking for a soft, pillow-like bake which is still fluffy on the inside. You bake them for a longer time so that they turn golden and start to dry out. As you can see, I did not worry too much about the shaping beyond getting pretty rough approximation of a diamond shape using a fluted cutter (actually a Play-Doh tool that I had washed quite intensively!). You can also do this with a knife, and go for any shape you want – squares, longer logs, or even circles if you want to go for the looks-like-a-scone-but-is-rock-hard approach and indulge in some festive trickery. You will just have to adapt the baking time so that they get enough time to properly dry out and harden in the oven.

If you’re keen on some anise action, I can share a little tip. I ended up making these twice, as they vanished pretty quickly. The first batch used just anise liqueur, and for the second I also added some crushed aniseed. The seeds really help give a stronger flavour, especially after you’ve stored them for a few days, whereas the liqueur on its own is a much milder affair.

But if that’s not your thing you can play around by adding lemon or orange zest, roughly chopped almonds or raisins. I think anything that you could imagine being grown and harvested on a warm, sunny island in the middle of the sea would work well. You could even add some chocolate chips if that’s your thing. You’re starting to stray rather far from the Corsican flavours but hey, things move on, and even the most traditional of recipes were new and experimental once upon a time!

For the wine, you want a dry white. Canistrelli should not be very sweet, and in any event they are sprinkled with sugar. However if you don’t want to use wine, you can use water or a mixture of fruit juice and water, which would make them a little more child-friendly. I mean, if you’re baking with kids, you want to recipe to be quick and easy to counter short attention spans, but you probably don’t want to be mixing wine in there. Of course, the alcohol will evaporate off during baking, so you don’t need to worry about serving these to little ones even if they didn’t help to make them.

Oh, and that comment I made about the bûche de noël? It might be a lot of work, but I am planning to make one this year, flavoured with pear and chestnut. But it will be at Christmas, hopefully by the time that I’ve done all 12 festive bakes, so it won’t be on here. Sorry!

To make canistrelli (makes around 30)

For the dough

• 275g plain flour
• 100g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt
• 60ml olive oil (not extra-virgin)
• 2 tablespoons anise-flavoured liqueur e.g. pastis, ouzo
• 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 1/2 teaspoon crushed aniseed or pinch of ground star anis (optional)
• 5 tablespoons white wine

To decorate

• water
• granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

2. Put the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl and mix well.

3. In a separate bowl combine the salt, oil, liqueur, vanilla, aniseed/star anise and three tablespoons of white wine. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix with a fork. Add more wine, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a soft but workable dough rather like when making scones (aka “biscuits”).

4. Transfer the mixture to a workstop dusted with flour. Roll out or press to around 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick.

5. Cut out the cookies – use a fluted pastry wheel or a knife to cut strips about 2cm wide, then cut diagonally into diamonds. Don’t worry too much about getting them perfect as you won’t manage!

6. Transfer each piece of dough to the prepared baking sheets, leaving some space for them to expand during baking. Brush or mist with water and sprinkle with granulated sugar.

7. Bake the cookies for around 25-30 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour if needed. Watch them closely – you might need to reduce the heat by 10 degrees if they are colouring too fast. When done, remove from the oven and allow to cool. Store in an airtight container.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things