Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Off The Shelf: A Year in Provence

When I read the first sentence of A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, I knew I would love the rest of the book: "The year began with lunch." What better way for a book about food, Provence, and life in general to begin!

If you love food and travel and have never read Peter Mayle, I suggest you begin! His first book, A Year in Provence, is my favorite. It chronicles a year in his life as he and his wife settle as foreigners into a house in the depths of the Provencal region of France.

Mayle gives funny little anecdotes of what he finds life to really be like living in a place where most people only go for a week's holiday. He gives special attention to describing the food he discovers and eats throughout the year. Let me give you an excerpt from his record of that first day of the year:

"...when we heard that over in the village of Lacoste, a few miles away, the proprietor of Le Simiane was offering a six-course lunch with pink champagne to his amiable clientele, it seemed like a much more cheerful way to start the next twelve months.

By 12:30 the little stone-walled restaurant was full. There were some serious stomachs to be seen -- entire families with the embonpoint that comes from spending two or three diligent hours every day at the table, eyes down and conversation postponed in the observance of France's favorite ritual. The proprietor of the restaurant, a man who had somehow perfected the art of hovering despite his size...quivered with enthusiasm as he rhapsodized over the menu: foie gras, lobster mousse, beef en croute, salads dressed in virgin oil, hand-picked cheeses, desserts of a miraculous lightness, digestifs. It was a gastronomic aria which he performed at each table, kissing the tips of his fingers so often that he must have blistered his lips."

A Year in Provence is not a recipe book, it's a food memoir. Needing a recipe for this post, I began looking for something quintessential Provence. And then I realized what the 6th of January is: La Fete des Rois or "The Celebration of the Kings" (i.e. Epiphany). In Provence, and all of France, a special dessert called a "King's Cake" will be made (or bought) and served throughout the land in honor of the kings who visited Christ after his birth. It seemed most appropriate.



I had my doubts about how this would taste, having never seen, nor heard, about this cake before. I was pleasantly surprised, along with the others at my table. The feathery light pastry combined with the just-sweet-enough, soft almond filling makes for an amazing dessert. We all loved it and I already have plans to make it again before the month is out.

KINGS' CAKE
(adapted from a recipe found on recipezaar.com)

1 package puff pastry sheets, thawed (my package had 2 sheets)
1/2 c. butter
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. almond meal or flour (I had to grind raw almonds in my heavy-duty blender)
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 eggs
1/4 c. flour

1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water for glaze

Make the frangipane: cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the almond flour and almond extract. Add the eggs one at a time, to gradually incorporate them. Fold in the flour.

Cut a circle the size of your baking pan from one sheet of puff pastry. Place in a 9-inch tart pan (I used my 10-inch springform pan). Spread the frangipane mixture over the top, not quite reaching to the edges. Brush egg lightly around the perimeter so top layer of pastry will adhere to bottom layer. If you want to be authentic, you will at this point hide a bean somewhere in the frangipane to bring "good luck" to the finder. (I was too afraid of dental bills to do that.)



Cut a second circle of pastry. Using a knife, cut a design in the top, or at least make vent holes. Place the pastry over the frangipane and press edges to seal. Brush the cake with egg.



Bake at 350 for 30 minutes (mine took about 42 minutes) until the pastry is golden. Allow to cool.

Serves 12.