Tag Archives: provence

{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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{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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Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things