Lucky Thirteen (Desserts, That Is)
Doesn’t this flower arrangement look good enough to eat? Actually, you could. When I told our florist that I was having a Treize Desserts party and wanted edible decor, he really threw himself into it, hence the oranges, dried fruits, angel cookies, and chocolate bonbons amidst the greenery. But in the end we were all too sugared-out to touch it with anything but a lingering glance.
Because we’re near Provence, but not actually in it, les treize desserts are a vague rumor here, something people have heard of, but haven’t eaten. At least that’s the way it was with our guests, who were French, English, Dutch, and American. When I made little signs explaining each element of the thirteen desserts that are part of each Provencal Christmas I was sure that someone else would be leading the pre-sugar-coma discussion abut the meaning of it all. Mais non! But we’re all experts now, if by expert I mean that we’ve all eaten some of each of the thirteen, as one must, and then a little or a lot extra for good measure.
Certain of the thirteen desserts are formulaic, others more flexible, depending on your region. Since we’re in the region “not really in Provence” I took a couple of liberties with the composition of the table, but not too many. Let’s start with the pompe à l’huile, which in this case is not an oil pump, as you might suspect, but a sweet olive oil bread. I made a giant version, fragrant with orange flower water and a long glug of buttery olive oil, according to this recipe. Mine was trying to look like a leaf, but lost its direction in the oven and ended up looking more like a mutant hand, in a good sort of way. And since you’re not allowed to cut it but must tear off a serving by hand, that was sort of appropriate.
Les Mendiants, or the beggars, are another immutable element, representing in all their brownness the habits of various orders of monks, for this feast has religious significance and traditionally occurs on Christmas Eve. Fresh fruits are always part of the desserts too, and here we have lychees and physalis, chosen more for their small and beasutiful nature than for authenticity. A bowl of apples would have been more usual, but hey, I knew my guests weren’t going to eat apples with all the other treats on the table, so I went easy on the fruit.
Another essential element is the light and dark nougat, representing good and evil. It’s hard to say whether the chestnut honey-flavored light nougat, or the lavender honey dark nougat is more delicious, proving that good does not necessarily win over evil.
Clementines, or mandarines, are also traditional, and on them one may make a wish, as one of our guests told us. Considering the number of these guys that I eat every day, my wishing well should be running over by now.
Prunes and dates stuffed with colored almond paste are also traditional. In this case, the guy who sold me the thumb-sized Medjool dates told me that it would really be a shame to stuff such beautiful fruit and that I should leave them in all their natural glory, so I contented myself with stuffing the pruneaux d’Agen.
It’s also usual to include cédrat confit, or candied citron. And then, because we were just in Aix en Provence where calissons are always a part of the treize desserts table, we had those too. Actually, that’s just an excuse, since I have a mad passion for the little lozenge-shaped delicacies and eat them at any opportunity. So there we have the thirteen, since each of the Mendiant elements counts as one. But I added to that, just because I could,
and because walnuts are another traditional element, a seductive caramelized walnut tart, which is the tarte from Masseube, for those of you who are devotées of The Cooking Of Southwest France,
and this red praline tarte, for those of you who are devotées of food that comes in primary colors. Actually, this tart was the sleeper hit of the party, being not only the reddest thing you can imagine, but utterly delicious as well. And to make it even better, the process of making it is very entertaining.
First, you go to Lyon and buy a bag of pralines roses, a round, incredibly hard red candy ball with an almond in the center. As far as I know, you can’t eat the pralines unless you have a live-in dentist, but someone goes to a lot of trouble to carefully enrobe those almonds in bright red armor. You take them home, put them in a ziplock bag, take them out on the concrete, and bash them to smithereens with a rolling pin. Unless you have a hammer, which I didn’t. Then, just follow this recipe, easy as pie and twice as yummy. I made it just for the color, and the fact that it’s traditionally Lyonnais, and we spend a lot of time in Lyon. I never expected it to be good, and I was really astounded by the results.
So there you have it, our amateur rendition of an ancient tradition. And now, it’s the last day of the year. I’m off to the last market of 2008, and then I’ll be in the kitchen, making a civet de sanglier, a boar stew enriched with red wine and chocolate, to bring to our New Year’s Eve celebration dinner. Remember, if there’s anything you wanted to do in 2008, now’s your chance. Enjoy your last crack at the year that brought us so much change, and see you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the year to come!