Eddie Benghanem, former pastry chef at the Hotel Ritz Paris and current pastry chef at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, has accepted our challenge: to create an original, easy-to-prepare Christmas recipe inspired by the Thirteen Desserts of Provence.
The traditional Provençal Christmas is a rite which is increasingly popular from Les Baux-de-Provence to Avignon and from Manosque to Aix. In France, many who have grown weary of stuffing themselves to the gills during the holiday season are now focusing on making Christmas Eve an authentic moment of togetherness and communion.
According to French authors Frédéric Mistral and Alphonse Daudet, the Provençal Christmas of yore includes a wealth of Christian symbolism: the three candles, the three white tablecloths, the wheat sprouting in little bowls of water and the light meal of fish and vegetables served with thirteen little buns with myrtle sprigs - thirteen like Christ and the apostles at the Last Supper. After enjoying a glass of vin cuit de Provence, families would go to midnight mass. Finally, when they came home, they would share the thirteen desserts displayed on the holiday table - desserts which were to be replenished during three days, until 27 December.
The thirteen desserts evoke the rural culture of Provence, a region where oranges and nougats, quince fruit paste and the almond and fruit-paste sweet called calissons d’Aix, candied fruits and the galette flavoured with orange blossom water called pompe à huile or gibassié used to be rare and precious delicacies. Despite their apparent simplicity, these indulgences have maintained their appeal thanks to their artisanal quality and the childhood reveries they suggest.
‘When chosen for their quality, these are exceptional ingredients,’ says Eddie Benghanem. ‘It’s been marvellous to work with them and to use them in an original recipe. We wanted the new dessert to preserve the spirit of the original Provençal Christmas; each of the thirteen products or ingredients has to be present with its distinct flavour. The exception, perhaps, is the pompe à l’huile, which few pastry chefs know how to make nowadays - if one does manage to find some, it might be served separately on the side. When I studied the list of the thirteen desserts of Provence (dark-skinned grapes, white grapes, white nougat, black nougat, walnuts, hazelnuts, dried figs, dates, quince fruit paste, an orange or mandarin orange, an apple, candied fruit and calissons), I saw that all of these ingredients would complement each other brilliantly. So I decided to create a frozen parfait with calissons that brings them all together and is very easy to prepare. I would suggest that you serve the dessert with a mandarin orange sorbet, as it beautifully brings out the flavour of the calissons.’
The perfect partner: le vin cuit de Provence
With such a fine dessert, I would suggest serving a rare nectar called le vin cuit de Provence: fortified wine from Provence (vin cuit literally means ‘cooked wine’), such as that produced by Jean Salen and his daughter Carole at the Domaine des Bastides near Aix-en-Provence; they rejuvenated the genre in the 1970s. This traditional wine, which was generally reserved for family use, is made from the main grape varieties grown in Provence: Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Ugni blanc and Rolle. Once the grapes are pressed, the must is slowly cooked in a cauldron over an open fire. After fermentation, the concentrated juice is bottled; no additives are used.
This Christmas wine is amber with a reddish tinge. The bouquet evokes strawberries, quince jelly, candied grapes and citrus. The palate is exquisite and refreshing, with no heaviness whatsoever. A perfect partner for the frozen parfait with calissons!
Recipe: Frozen Sabayon with Calissons
The iced parfait is made from sabayon custard (the French version of zabaglione): a simple sugar syrup poured over egg yolks. For this recipe, the sabayon is enriched with ground calissons, a marzipan-like Provençal sweet with a distinctive fruit (generally melon) flavour and a layer of icing.
300 g foamy whipped cream (chantilly)
50 g ground Calissons d’Aix
36 g sugar
36 g barley water (sirop d’orgeat)
12 g water
3 egg yolks
6 g kirsch or cherry brandy
Grated zest of one lime
Mix the water and sugar and cook at 120°. The syrup is ready when it thickens and small bubbles form at the surface. Pour the hot syrup onto the egg yolks and set aside to cool. Grind the calissons and mix them with the barley water and kirsch. Add a few drops of lime juice to bring out the calisson flavour and then stir in the cooled sabayon and whipped cream. Finally, pour the mixture into a mould and freeze for 24 hours for a smooth and creamy frozen parfait.
The second part of the recipe consists of making a chutney of dried fruit.
100 g dried figs
100 g candied fruit
2 candied clementines
100 g sultanas
100 g dates
100 g quince fruit paste
Juice of one mandarin orange
Cut all of the dried fruit into small pieces, mix these together and bake at 180° for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, add mandarin orange juice and cool.
To present the dessert, you might use one nice little jar, dish or ramekin per person. Put some chutney in each, add a few nuts for decoration on the side (whole walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds) plus a few white and black grapes for their consistency. Place some frozen sabayon onto the chutney and let soften for ten minutes before serving.
Serve with mandarin orange sorbet and a glass of vin cuit de Provence from the Domaine les Bastides.
Where to buy Vin Cuit de Provence
116, Boulevard Haussmann
Tel: (33) 01 45 22 16 97
Or contact the wine-makers:
Domaine les Bastides
Route de Saint-Canadet
13610 Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade
Tel: (33) 04 42 61 97 66