Tag Archives: orange blossom

{9} Pompe à l’Huile

I’ve written recently about my modest luck in the past when tackling festive breads, but I thought I would have another go this year. Meet the pompe à l’huile, which hails from the south of France.

The name refers to the shape of an old olive oil press (rather than an “oil pump” – a pompe à huile). It is a lightly sweetened bread made with young and fruity extra-virgin olive oil, which would normally still be just a few weeks old when making this around Christmas time. It also happens to be natually vegan if you brush the loaf with water rather than milk just before baking.


In addition to olive oil, it is traditionally flavoured with orange blossom water. I must admit I was more than a tad dubious as it can be very much like perfume and it is easy to add too much. But I thought I would give it a try as I could always make another if got too heavy-handed.

If you are using it, a little word of warning – check exactly what you are using, as you can get anything from very dilute to highly concentrated, and when it’s pure it is extremely powerful. Helpfully it is not always clear exactly what you’ve got, so I can’t give a more specific guide other than to say just be careful and remember you can add more but you can’t take away! If you can’t get hold of orange blossom water, a passable substitute is to use orange zest, plus a little vanilla extract and a dash of almond extract. It’s not the same, but you do get a sweet, floral and citrussy aroma that works in a pinch.

The stuff I got was from a Turkish grocery, and two tablespoons were quite enough to give it all the flavour and perfume I wanted. If you’re using the concentrated stuff, you may find just half a teaspoon does you.


As this is traditional French loaf, I assumed there would a clear single way to make it. Oh, how wrong I was. I found there are lots and lots of frankly dodgy recipes out there which are going to provide some strange results. One suggested equal weights of flour and olive oil, which would be marvellous if you just wanted greasy flour, and I discounted that one right away. Another suggested using no pure water, just orange blossom water. Either they were using something that was extremely dilute of they are the sort of person that enjoys swigging Chanel No 5 with their morning coffee. Next!

Anyway, I initially settled on a recipe which was about five parts flour to one part oil. I selected this one on the basis that surely the oil was important and therefore there should still be a lot of it in the dough. All seemed fine during the kneading even if it was a bit greasy, and it was easy to shape and bake, but it ended up being heavy and claggy (great word by the way!).

But I was determined to succeed. I kept looking and saw that several sources refer to this as being akin to an “olive oil brioche”. My first attempt was definitely not like brioche. That made me think that actually what I wanted was to keep the dough light, and that the oil was there more for flavour and aroma than to pool around the base of the bread as it baked.

My second attempt (and the recipe you see below) came out very differently. The dough was much more like an enriched dough and was not oily at all. It rose proved perfectly, and the resulting loaf was golden when it came out of the oven. It got a light brushing of more extra-virgin olive oil and a light sprinkling of sugar. It looked lovely and was light and aromatic when we ate it. You get the orange blossom flavour, but it is not overpowering.


So…I had made a pleasant slightly sweet dough. Had it all been worth it? Well, I also read that traditionally this would have been eaten with grape jam, which is not something I have in the house or actually ever see when I’m out and about. So instead I used blackcurrant jam made with fruit from my mum’s garden (and I carefully carried that container of berries all the way back from Scotland in the train to London to make that jam!). It was, quite simply, amazing. A complete flavour sensation. The bread is light, sweet and aromatic, and it merges just wonderfully with sharp dark fruit jam. I’m glad I persevered – it’s very different to most Christmas baking, and absolutely delicious.


To finish off, it is worth knowing a bit more about the pompe à l’huile. It forms part of the Provençal tradition of the Thirteen Desserts. While this might sound like a truly epic way to finish a meal, it is not actually a seemingly endless supply of little cakes. Instead it is a tradition that is rich in symbolism, and there are thirteen elements representing those present at the Last Supper – Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.

There is not a single fixed list of the Thirteen Desserts, but you find there are some common treats and then local variations depending on their specialities. For example, you will find fresh fruit, dark and light nougat, dates, and the “four beggars” standing for four monastic communities – almonds for the Carmelites, figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans and walnuts for the Augustinians. Then there are a few regional variations (which probably also reflect the tastes of the host or hostess) and can include calissons from Aix, made from candied melon and almonds, or navettes from Marseille. I really like the idea of this tradition, as it is fun at the end of a meal to have little things to nibble on as you chat about anything and everything with your family and friends. Maybe not the high drama of setting fire to a plum pudding as the British do, but probably one that is more suited to the end of a large meal.

Traditionally there would be one loaf for Christmas Eve, and a second to enjoy for breakfast on Christmas Day. A few people suggest hot chocolate as the prefect accompaniment, which sounds pretty good to me. I just wonder if you would find that it lasted that long if you’ve got hungry people in the house?

To make pompe à l’huile (makes 1 loaf)

For the dough

• 250g strong white flour
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 50g sugar
• 1 teaspoon instant yeast
• 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• zest of 1/2 orange
• orange blossom water (or use vanilla and almond extract)
• water

To finish

• milk (to glaze, optional – skip to make a vegan version)
• olive oil
• caster sugar, to sprinkle (optional)

1. Put the orange blossom water into a measuring jug. Make up to 130ml with cold water.

2(a). If using a bread machine: put everything into the mixing bowl. Run the “dough” cycle. Simples! [But do check the consistency – you might have to add more flour or water if the mixture seems too wet or too dry]

2(b). If making by hand: put the flour, salt, sugar and oil into a bowl and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients and work with your hands until you have a dough. Start to knead it until it is smooth, stretchy and elastic (at least 5 minutes). Leave the dough a warm place for two hours until the dough has doubled in size. Knock back and knead again for 2-3 minutes.

3. Put a piece of greaseproof paper on a baking sheet. On the paper, roll or press the dough out to an oval around 1cm thick. Use a wooden spatula with a straight edge to make a cut in the centre. Make 8 more cuts in the same way so that the dough looks like a wheel. Stretch the dough a little so that the holes are prominent. Put the whole baking sheet in a large plastic bag and leave somewhere warm to prove for at least an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (355°F). Brush the top of the bread with milk if using. Put a pan of hot water into the bottom of the oven to create steam. Add the bread and bake for around 15-20 minutes until golden, turning half-way to get an even colour.

4. When they loaf is baked, remove from the oven, and brush lightly with more extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool.

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Hark, the Royal Wedding! Maids of Honour Tarts

You might remember in the dark days of last winter, the announcement came from the Palace that there would be a royal wedding in 2011. Reactions were…muted.

Fast forward to Spring, and actually, the country seems to be completely cock-a-hoop about the whole thing. And the excitement is not contained to these fair isles, it seems the American media are really only just about able to contain how thrilled they are. We’ve seen Kate launching a lifeboat in Wales, Kate flipping a pancake in Ireland…yes, we (more accurately, the media) just can’t get enough of it. Kate shops, Kate crosses the road, buy Kate’s ring, wear her dress, and from late 2011, see her wax figure at Madame Tussauds. If you’ve got questions, there is a very helpful FAQ website here.

We were all supposed to throw street parties. We all thought “nope, won’t be doing that”. And then the shops were full of bunting and Union Flags for a bit of waving by the masses on the big day, and actually, we’ll probably all be doing it after all. The British, it seems, really do quite like a royal wedding after all. And best of luck to them!

To keep in with the mood of the nation, there obviously needs to be a little culinary nod to HRH Prince William and his future wife, and what could be more fitting that Maids of Honour tarts?

These certainly have a royal pedigree, but as with a lot of cakes that have a story to tell, there are a few versions floating about. Here are some of my more interesting findings:

Theory one: the maids of honour attending one of Henry VIII‘s Queens (possibly Catherine of Aragon) would nibble on these custardy, lemony treats (and the lemon link does fit with Catherine’s Iberian origins). So far, so nice. However, there is a darker element. The King, upon seeing how much the ladies enjoyed them, tasted one for himself, found it to be very good indeed, and so had to ensure that no-one else could learn the secret. How was this to be achieved? The unfortunate cook was locked up when he or she was not preparing pastry or zesting lemons. It’s probably a good thing we have moved from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

Theory two: these cakes were enjoyed by the maids of honour of Queen Elizabeth I when they were at Richmond Palace. The richness of these cakes (and remember – back in the day, lemons, sugar and butter were luxuries) made them famous and they were small objects of desire for fashionable members of the royal court.

Theory three: Henry VIII called these cakes “Maids of Honour” when he offered one to a future Queen, Anne Boleyn.

So we have learned…that we’re not exactly sure where they came from, but the Richmond link is strong, even to this day, and it seems to be a safe bet that they were around in the times of the Tudors. At this point, I confess that I am a huge fan of the recent TV series. Historically accurate? Maybe not, but a jolly good watch every weekend.


Now, at this stage, I realise two things. The links to the Tudors is probably not the parallel the I want to make with Wills and Kate (to whom I wish the best of luck). I’ve also failed to tell you what these cakes are actually like.

The cases can be made of shortcrust butter pastry of puff pastry. I used shortcrust here, but for the Big Day I will try them again but with puff pastry. The filling is a mixture of eggs, cream cheese, almonds and lemon zest plus a few aromatic “extras”. The filling sets when they are baked, so they are a little bit like mini-lemon baked cheesecakes. Some versions also add a little dash of something else under the filling – either lemon curd (to make them extra-citrussy) or some jam. I liked this idea, so I made some with lemon curd and some with seedless raspberry jam (typically British), but you could also use marmalade, apricot jam, strawberry jam or whatever else takes your fancy.

Now, the practical but – how exactly to flavour the filling? Lemon is a constant in all recipes, but as we are looking to make Maids of Honour for a Royal Wedding, I looked back to what would only have been available only to a royal kitchen back in Tudor times, and I went for broke: a pinch of saffron, citrus zest, orange zest, ground almonds, almond extract, orange blossom water, a pinch of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg. Clearly not the sort of things your average peasant would have been able to get hold of. For for a queen indeed.

If you’re looking to make these, they are well worth the effort and make a nice treat for a picnic or tea. However, use saffron only if you like the flavour. I know it can be an acquired taste, so if you prefer, just play it safe and stick with the lemon and spices, which will still give a wonderful flavour and delicate aroma.

To make Maids of Honour (makes 10):

For the pastry:

• 125g plain flour
• 80g unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
• pinch of salt
• 2 teaspoons caster sugar
• iced water

Put the flour, butter, salt and sugar in a bowl. Use your fingers and work until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough iced water until the dough comes together (no more than 1-2 tablespoons). Wrap the dough in cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.

For the filling:

• 50ml milk
• very tiny pinch of saffron strands (optional)
• 150g cream cheese
• 40g ground almonds
• 50g caster sugar
• 1 teaspoon orange blossom water
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• zest of 1/2 lemon
• zest of 1/4 orange
• pinch of cinnamon
• pinch of nutmeg
• 50g butter, at room temperature

If using saffron: put the milk in a saucepan and heat until almost boiling. Turn off the heat, add the saffron strands and allow to sit for 10 minutes until the milk is infused with the saffron colour and aroma. Put the cooled milk and the rest of the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

If not using saffron: put all the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a balloon which until smooth.

To prepare the tarts:

Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a cupcake tray with butter.

Roll out the dough as thin as you can – you might find it easier to work the dough with your hands so that it is pliable and does not crumble. Cut our rounds of pastry, put into the to 2-3mm thin, and cut out rounds to line a cupcake tray. Use fingers to press the dough as thin as you can (we want a high filling-to-pastry ratio).

Add one scant teaspoon of jam or curd to the bottom of each case (not too much – or the jam will boil and leak out when baking). Fill each tart two-thirds with the filling mixture – it will puff up slightly during baking.

Bake the tarts for 20 minutes until the filling is puffed and the pastry is golden. You may need to turn the baking tray around half-way to ensure they colour evenly.

Once cooked, remove from the oven, and serve with a light dusting of icing sugar (which would also have been an extravagance in Tudor times).

Worth making? These are very simple but elegant little tarts, which are relatively straightforward to make, and taste great. The filling can be customised depending on exactly what you like in the way of flavours and spices. Will Kate eat them on the big day? We don’t know that yet, but might just be the perfect thing to impress guests are you’re gathered around the television on Friday.

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Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things