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Lettres farcies, Liège (Belgium)

14 Jan
Lettres farcies. Note the puff pastry, marzipan and citrus layers.

Lettres farcies. Note the puff pastry, marzipan and citrus layers.

While gazing at the beautiful blocks of massepain at the Traiteur Jean-Marie at the Passage Lemonnier in Liège, I noticed something odd: a customer approached the counter, asked for something in a hushed voice, and the shopkeeper scuttled off to the oven to scoop out a small bundle, placing it furtively in a paper bag. My curiosity was piqued: why was she being so secretive? Always curious to sample new things, especially baked goods, I thus had the temerity to ask her what was in the oven. She asked me if I had ever tried lettres farcies. I quickly replied to the contrary, and she let out a ‘dis, hein!’, perhaps the most oft-uttered pair of words in Wallonia.

Quickly explaining to me what lettres farcies were, she also told me to wait a few minutes as a freshly prepared batch were almost ready to come out of the oven, piping hot. And then they arrived, and she presented me with a number of S-shaped mini-pastries. Upon trying one, I was hooked, and purchased them all….. So what are these lettres farcies? Well, the English translation for them is ‘stuffed letters,’ which I’ll admit doesn’t sound very appetizing. Oh, but don’t be fooled by the name! The term lettres farcies, while perhaps not very toothsome to the ear, is extremely literal: these small objects are in fact puff pastry in the shape of alphabetical letters, and stuffed with a mixture of marzipan and candied fruits. The combination is dynamite: my teeth sank into the light, airiness of the puff pastry, only to meet a denser middle layer composed of the smooth ooze of marzipan and titillating juiciness of the candied citrus, in this case grapefruit. I’m told that the most common fruit used in their production is generally cherry.


Lettres farcies, just out of the oven. *Drool*

‘Tis a pity that these delectable morsels are generally available around the holiday season:  I would be thrilled to gobble them up at ANY time.


Lettres farcies: a scrumptious snack on the train.

Massepain Cuit, Liège (Belgium)

12 Jan

Massepain cuit in various shapes, in Liège.

 

Rather cold after perusing the Christmas market in Liège, I decided to take a break from the frosty weather and check out the Passage Lemonnier, the oldest covered passage in Belgium and reputed for its chic shops. Constructed in the 1830’s, this gallery is nearly as old as Belgium itself. The gallery was simply mobbed with holiday shoppers, making window-shopping difficult, but I quickly stopped in my tracks as I smelled something sweet and freshly baked. As luck would have it, I found a rather modestly decorated shop simply gorged with customers and serving a traditional liegeois (and Belgian) holiday treat: massepain cuit.

Massepain, otherwise known as marzipan, is quite simple, but most delicious: a combination of almond paste and sugar. In Wallonia, it is quite commonly served at Christmas-time, often in a variety of decorative shapes, notably in the form of cochonnets roses or little piggies, in English. While most massepain or marzipan is simply served when the paste dries, in Liège and surrounding areas, it is quite common to actually bake the marzipan with a touch of orange blossom water, and to serve it as ‘massepain cuit‘ or ‘cooked marzipan.’ The massepain cuit that I was able to sample was served in large blocks shaped like leaves.


Massepain cuit.

 

Cooked on low heat for about 20 min, the cooked marzipan forms a thin, slightly crunchy crust, and the interior retains the same texture as  raw marzipan. I love the  lovely combination of textures: a lovely crunch from the crust, and then a smooth, slightly sour middle layer from the marzipan loaf, and then a lip-smacking citrus-y aftertaste from the few drops of orange blossom water. Cut into small pieces, this massepain cuit is a perfect accompaniment to coffee, as the hint of bitterness from the almonds pairs well with a rich, strong, inky black espresso. Keep a block or two on your countertop, and it’ll be difficult to resist!


Cross-section of the massepain cuit. Note the thin crust, and the more traditional-looking marzipan center.

 

For those of you who’d like to create massepain cuit, albeit not necessarily moulded into a decorative shape, at home, the recipe is MOST simple:

  • 125g (4.4oz) almond powder (crushed almonds)
  • 125g (4.4oz) caster sugar
  • 3 or so drops orange blossom water, to taste
  • 80g (2.8oz) softened butter
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten

In a large bowl, knead the butter with the almond powder and sugar, in order to form dough. Then add the egg white and orange blossom water and knead the dough until it is firm and not very sticky. Then cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Once the dough has been refrigerated, preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F. Then roll dough out with a rolling pin and place the dough on a lined and greased baking tray. The dough should be about 5cm/2in thick.

Bake the dough for about 5 min, and then turn off the oven. Let the dough sit in the oven for about an hour. Then take out the massepain, and cut it into 6 to 8 pieces.

Then preheat the oven to 150°C/300°F and place the rack in the grill position. Bake the massepain for about 5 min in order to make the top golden, and then flip over the massepain and let the other side grill for 5 min. Then let cool and serve…yum!


Couldn't resist cutting a few slices for myself....

Boukète, Liège (Belgium)

28 Dec

Boukète, next to the crêpe with Nutella.

 

After my brisk walk from the Liège-Guillemins station to the center of Liège, I was feeling a tad peckish and in need of a nice mid-morning snack. The streets of the Carré and surrounding areas were in holiday mood, and the Village de Noël was in full swing, so I decided that the best place to find something tasty would be at one of the many market stalls, found either surrounding the holiday ice-skating rink in the Place de la Cathédrale or a few streets away in Liège’s main square, the Place St Lambert.

While many of the Christmas markets I’ve been to seem to specialize mostly in selling cheap tat, I was pleased to discover that in Liège, the market was quite different. I thought to myself, Liège has the right idea, for the city’s reputation as a food-and-drink loving place was certainly à l’honneur here: the stalls seemed to simply ooze with a mind-boggling collection of fattening foodstuffs and heavily alcoholic beverages. Though I arrived at the market at a mere 11 o’clock in the morning – in most places, even in Belgium, considered a bit too early to tuck in to a hearty portion of fries or to down the first beer of the day – the stalls were filled with market-goers happily guzzling beer and pekèt, a locally distilled jenever mostly served in shot-glass form. As these customers imbibed, they also availed themselves of the many foods available at the market: huge sausages served with onions, giant portions of fries, smoutebollen (here known as croustillants), waffles, crêpes, churros, empanadas, massepain….

 

Traditional Liégeois waistline.

 

Though I tried to convince myself that I should follow the locals’ example and have a nice heavy dish, I was more in the mood for a light snack to tide me over until I could sit down for a more hearty lunchtime meal. I decided that a crêpe would be perfect. But not just any crêpe: a boukète, a Liégeois specialty, would be my selection of choice. Typically consumed either at the Fête du 15 Août, the traditional celebration of Liège, or around Christmas-time, the boukète is a simple buckwheat-and-egg crêpe, pan-fried with a bit of lard, and covered with plump Corinthian raisins and dusted with cane sugar. Alternatively, the boukète is filled with sirop de Liège, a form of apple and pear butter that I find to be diabetes-inducingly sweet, but fortunately there was none to be found in the delicious crêpe at the Christmas market stall.

 

Preparing the boukète.

 

Formerly known as the ‘boukète à rètchon‘ or ‘spit crêpe’ in Wallon, referring to the rather disgusting way that crêpe makers used to spit in the pan to make sure it was hot before pouring in the dough, boukète is derived from the Dutch ‘boekweit,’ or buckwheat in English. Often used in savory crêpes in France, buckwheat creates a mixture much less sweet than the traditional crêpe dough, made using plain flour, milk, butter, eggs and sugar. Pairing the more savory buckwheat with a dusting of sugar is a lovely combination, as the sugar provides just a smidgen of sweetness, without becoming overpowering. Though I’m not at all a fan of raisins (see my post on the cramique bread), the Corinthian raisins in the boukète I tried were plump and juicy, and did not have the gnarly, chewy texture that I so dislike. Indeed, they burst with flavor in such a way that I suspect that they had been soaked in liqueur for a few hours, which is generally the only way that I’ll even consider eating raisins. The boukète is thus simple but tasty, and I very much enjoyed the subtle layering of textures: the eggy smoothness of the crêpe, the juicy, yielding flesh of the raisin, and the oomphy crunch of the cane sugar.

As the crêpe mixture used to make boukète is fairly standard, I will not provide a recipe here. If you desire to make boukète at home, simply substitute regular flour for buckwheat in your dough, soak juicy raisins in liqueur (preferably rum or a white eau-de-vie) for as long as possible, and dust the whole thing with brown sugar. Voilà!