One of a Baker's Dozen

When I was growing up, I knew I was lucky to have a mom who was, in addition to being a fine cook, a terrific baker. Cakes, cupcakes, pies, cobbles, cookies, squares, bread, biscuits - all seemed to flow effortlessly from her oven. Much later, I learned there is no such thing as effortless baking... or is there?

In searching for a dessert recipe to pair with a bottle of Vin Cuit from Mas de Cadenet ("cooked wine" - a very special dessert wine), in Trets, France, just south of Mont Saint Victoire, I decided to seek out something Provençal.

I started by looking at my friend Susan's blog, The Modern Trobadors. I recall her sharing a story about the traditional Treize Désserts de Noël (thirteen Christmas desserts) served in Provence during the holiday season. The list from which to choose is much longer than thirteen, and begins with the "four beggars" (les quatre mendiants), representing the four mendicant monastic orders: Dominicans (raisins), Franciscans (figs), Augustinian (hazelnuts), and Carmelites (almonds). You may recall that my Mendiant Tart was based on the four beggars. Basically, you can make anything using any one these four and it counts towards your thirteen.

Perusing the list beyond the four beggars, the dessert that appealed to me most was pain d'épices - a spice and honey cake/bread. I made Julia Child's version last weekend; it was the first and only time that Julia has disappointed me. The cake was pretty awful, and lifting it will probably give our trash collector a hernia.

Susan once made us different dessert from her list, Provençal croquants (also called croquets). They are a hard cookie, similar to Italian biscotti. Her recipe came from Patricia Wells but, as usual, I thought I would look a little further for other versions. I found a video of chef Eric Leautey making a very different and much simpler preparation, flavored with orange blossom water, which Mark and I both love.

When watching the video, my French comprehension surprised me, as I understood every word. I found the simplicity of this recipe to be just what I was looking for, and it answered my question: Is there really effortless baking? Yes - and this recipe is it. Okay, while I made it a little more complicated by blanching, peeling, and grinding my own almond flour, you can buy pre-ground almond flour (also called almond meal) in most grocery stores.

My mother never lavished thirteen desserts upon us at any one holiday, although she did make us incredible pies, cakes, cobblers, and cookies to our great enjoyment. While I don't think she ever had an Italian biscotto or it's French sibling, the croquant, I do think she would have loved to dip one of these in her morning coffee. I personally know they are good with cocoa, and you should pop over to the Provence WineZine to see how they paired with the wine.

I wish you a peaceful and love-filled start to the holiday season, and I am ever grateful that you take the time to visit Cocoa & Lavender.

~ David

Croquants - Croquets

8 3/4 ounces (250 grams) almonds, blanched and peeled
8 3/4 ounces (250 grams) sugar
8 3/4 ounces (250 grams) flour, plus extra
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
2 ounces (50 grams) almonds, blanched and peeled
1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 teaspoon water

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).

Place the whole blanched almonds (*) in the bowl of a food processor. (You can also use the same weight in pre-blanched slivered almonds, or - even easier - pre-ground almond flour/meal.) Pulse the nuts until they are uniformly cut into small pieces, then process until they have the texture of sand. If you use pre-ground flour/meal, it already has this consistency.

Add the sugar to the processor and continue to pulse until very fine in texture. The sugar will help in grinding the almonds even finer. Pour the almonds and sugar into a large mixing bowl.

Add flour and whisk to blend. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and orange blossom water. Whisk the eggs and orange blossom water into a paste - as you whisk, the liquids will gather some of the dry ingredients to make a thick paste.

Then, using a large wooden spoon, continue to mix all the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Eventually, you will need to give up the spoon and use your hands. Pour the dough out onto a floured board and knead it to create a homogenous dough – just a minute or two.

Flatten the dough into a long oval. Coarsely chop the remaining 50 grams whole almonds, and sprinkle the nuts on the dough. Fold or roll the dough to encase the nuts (it doesn't matter how you do this!) and knead the dough a few more items to distribute the nuts.

Depending on the size of your eggs, the dough may be a little sticky.

Pull dough into a ball, flatten, then divide equally into six pieces. If the dough is sticky, dust each piece liberally with flour. Then roll the pieces of dough into 6-inch (15 centimeters) long, 1 1/4-inch (4 centimeters) thick cylinders. Add more flour, if necessary.

Line two baking sheets with parchment and place 3 cylinders on each sheet of parchment. Flatten each cylinder gently with the palm of your hand. You want the end view to be an oval. Brush the tops of the cylinders with the egg yolk and water mixture.

Bake in the preheated oven for 38 minutes - they should be quite golden - and remove them to a cutting board. While they are still warm, cut them into 3/8-inch (1 centimeter) slices and return them to the baking sheet standing up with space between each cookie. Place them in the oven for 5 minutes to crisp the cut sides.

Makes about 8 dozen.

* Blanching almonds is easy: bring a large pot of water to a boil, then add raw almonds and return to a boil. Cook them for 60 seconds and drain. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, take each almond between your fingers and squeeze; the skins will slip right off.

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