Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holy Chocolate: A Holiday Project for Young and Old

Anyone who thinks dessert can't be real work has never read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Provencal Christmas tradition is very serious about sweets; rules and regulations must be respected. There are 13 desserts (Les Treize Desserts) served on Christmas Eve, one for Jesus and each of his apostles. Everyone must taste a piece of each (for luck), and best of all, you must must must leave the dishes and food on the table all night, so hungry travelers can come and dine if they like. (I say, anything that gets me out of doing the dinner dishes is a tradition worth adopting.)

Les Treize Desserts:

almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, figs
dates (often stuffed with marzipan)
white and dark nougat (forces of good and evil)
candied fruit
calisson d'aix (almond paste candies)
pompe a l'huile (olive oil-based brioche - here flavored with orange flower water)
Along with grapes, celementines and winter melon.

Gathering the ingredients was a bit like a scavenger hunt designed by mischievous Keebler elves, requiring at least two visits to the La Bonbonniere in Apt, aka: the most beautiful candy store on earth.
Not strictly required, I couldn't resist a little marzipan car for Augustin. He was confused: eat the toys? don't eat the toys? Oh well, I guess parental consistency can go out the window once a year.
Though I have a real textural thing for nougat (I love chewy candy - hence my obsession with DOTS), my favorite of the Provencal Christmas treats is the mendiant - small discs of dark or milk chocolate topped with dried fruit and nuts representing 4religious orders: raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for Franciscans and almonds for the Carmelites.

I love the idea of wandering monks, combing the country side, looking for a cozy table to pass the winter storm. Of course this legend has a lot more atmospheric possibilities in our new village home. How would said monks have discovered the door code to our Paris apartment building? I once kissed a monk. Costume party. Everyboby relax. Anyway, I'm a storyteller by nature, so I love a side of legend with my meal.

Augustin is a bit young yet, but I think these would be great fun to make at home with your kids. They are essentially puddles of melted chocolate with a scattered fruit and nut topping, so there's no need for aesthetic precision, and lots of opportunities for licking fingers, etc.

Chocolate Mendiants

8 ounces best-quality dark chocolate

If you are being traditional: a generous handful each of dried figs (cut into small chunks), dark raisins, blanched almonds, and whole or halved hazelnuts.

If you are feeling fancy (and don't care much for monk symbolism) - swap in candied orange, lemon or grapefruit peel, candied ginger, pistachio or macadamia nuts.

Place a sheet of waxed paper on a cold cookie sheet or other smooth, cold surface.

Melt chocolate in a microwave oven or in a double boiler.

Place a teaspoonful of melted chocolate onto the sheet, shape into a disk using the back of a spoon. Make several at a time so that the chocolate does not have time to harden on the sheet.

Place a piece of fig, a raisin, an almond and a hazelnut on each disk, and leave to cool completely. The mendiants are ready when the chocolate has hardened and they peel of the waxed paper with ease.

Makes about 50 chocolates.

Wishing you and yours a sweet and merry holiday weekend - however many desserts you're eating.


  1. I ate my fair share of mendiant while living in Provence in 2008. I bought a lot of it at the Arles Prestige Christmas fair. Thank you for reminding me and giving the recipe! I can't wait to make it.
    Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

  2. Arrived via facebook link. Wonderful article.

  3. Long live the mendiant! Paris has made me a holy worshipper. But those marzipan-stuffed dates look divine...

  4. It was so nice of you to visit my blog. I'm looking forward to reading more here - Bonne Annee!

  5. Elizabeth!

    My mother-in-law gave me your book for Christmas, and at this very minute, we are devouring the molten chocolate cakes you so kindly committed to print in chapter two, as the finish to our New Year's Eve dinner.

    You are my new favorite person on the entire planet. Bless you, and happiest of New Year's to you and your family.

  6. Oh my gosh I've been to La Bonbonnerie in Pat! It was where I, as made of honour, selected and purchase the dragées for my best friend's wedding!

  7. Just stopped by to say I found one of your posts here...
    Do check it out

  8. What an amazing tradition! I've had mendiant but didn't know the name of it...til now :)