Chestnut honey squares that satisfy in one bite

Time after time, the students in my cooking classes in Paris or Provence tell me “I don’t bake.” These same students are often delighted when I assign them a dessert, for they know that they will at least learn to make one wonderful sweet. I think that they also secretly hope that by week’s end, they may actually get over their fear of baking.

When it comes to cooking, my philosophy is to keep it simple and make sure it’s delicious. One foolproof recipe in my repertory is for chestnut honey squares, a confection that satisfies in a single bite. It can be made ahead, does not require exotic equipment, is relatively simple (you pat the crust in the pan) and it’s beautiful, with a glistening glaze. Stored in an airtight container, it stays fresh for days.

The inspiration came from the Paris bakery Moulin de la Vierge. I was sampling a wide selection of sweets, and as I bit into the honey-kissed square, I stopped, almost stunned at how special it was, something you could eat out of hand with a bit of crunch and only a hint of sweetness.

The crust is butter-rich but not too much so, an easy blending of flour, almond meal, unrefined sugar, butter, an egg yolk, vanilla extract and a touch of fine sea salt to brighten the flavors.

A quick pulse in the food processor with a bit of water, and the pastry is ready to pat in the pan and bake. We all think our ovens are sometimes temperamental; I love that this crust will turn out just fine at a range of temperatures.

I find that most home cooks tend to underbake, especially pastry, so I instruct my students to make sure the pastry is golden and crisp, not pale and limp. I don’t even mind if it is really, really dark. As my friend Eli Zabar likes to say, “Burnt is best!” I might not go that far, but it must be fully baked.

The topping comes together in minutes while the pastry bakes. Sweetened with just 2 tablespoons of intensely flavored honey, like chestnut honey, it is a simple blend of butter, sliced almonds, cubed candied orange or lemon peel, and vanilla extract, just melted in a saucepan over low heat. The darker honey is crucial; you can find it online if not in a specialty store.

Once the pastry is golden, spread on the topping, bake until deep golden, remove from the oven and let cool. I cut it into tiny squares (32 is a good number) to produce a bite-size dessert.

I am thinking of creating a variation with the flavorful organic Sicilian pistachios I find at my local co-op, toasting the nuts, grinding some to a powder and chopping the rest for the topping. I’ll make it with the organic lavender honey from our farm in Provence. It will glow, and I’ll pat myself on the back.

This article was originally published by the  New York Times, December 17, 2013 Photo by Jeff Kauck

I share this recipe from my latest book, The French Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Lessons from Paris and Provence.


For the Pastry:

120 grams (3/4 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour

45 grams (1/2 cup) almond meal (see note)

35 grams (3 tablespoons) sugar, preferably unrefined vanilla sugar (see note)

1/2 teaspoon salt, preferably fine sea salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the Topping:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

80 grams (1 cup) sliced almonds

30 grams (1/3 cup) candied orange or lemon peel, cut into tiny cubes

65 grams (1/3 cup) sugar, preferably vanilla sugar

2 tablespoons chestnut honey or other intensely flavored honey

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a 9 1/2-inch-square baking pan with parchment, letting it hang over the sides for easier removal later.
  2. Prepare the pastry: In a food processor, combine flour, almond meal, sugar and salt. Pulse to blend. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add egg yolk, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of water. Pulse to incorporate. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of water through the feed tube, tablespoon by tablespoon, pulsing until just before the pastry forms a ball. You may not need all the water.
  3. Turn the dough out into the prepared baking pan. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan. Place in the oven on the center rack and bake until the pastry begins to brown around the edges, 12 to 15 minutes.
  4. While the pastry is baking, prepare the topping: In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the almonds, candied peel, sugar, honey and vanilla extract. Heat just until the ingredients are incorporated.
  5. Remove the pan and spread the almond-honey mixture evenly over the pastry. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the topping is a deep gold, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove and transfer to a rack to cool in the pan. Once it has cooled, remove from the pan and cut into 32 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Makes 32 squares

NOTE: Whole, unblanched almonds can be finely ground in a food processor to make almond meal. To make vanilla sugar, cut 1 or several vanilla beans in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and reserve for another use. Dry vanilla bean halves at room temperature and place in a large jar of sugar. Store for several weeks to scent and flavor the sugar.

A food loving baker: Gontran Cherrier

Gontran Cherrier's Tart au Chocolat 4 29 12

Gontran Cherrier’s Tarte au Chocolat, Miel, et Noix

In researching The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris application for the iPhone, I kept returning again and again to baker Gontran Cherrier’s breads and pastries, all stand-outs, all delicious. This chocolat tart is totally decadent and totally delicious. A very slim wedge is truly satisfying.

8 ounce (250 g) all-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen (see Note)

3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces; 45 g) butter

1/2 cup (3 ounces; 90 g) brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon (15 g) honey

3 tablespoons (45 g) maple syrup

2 tablespoons walnuts, coarsely ground

2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely ground

2 tablespoons hazelnuts, coarsely ground

2 tablespoons dried apricots, preferably organic, minced

2 tablespoons dried figs, preferably organic, minced

2 tablespoons candied lemon or orange peel, preferably organic, minced

1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream

8 ounces (250 g) bittersweet chocolate, such as Valrhona Guanaja 70%, broken into pieces

Equipment: A 9-inch (23 cm)  tart pan with a removable bottom.

Center a rack in the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).

Arrange the pastry in the tart pan, trimming the edges so that the pastry neatly fits the pan.

In a saucepan, combine the butter and brown sugar over low heat just until melted. Stir to blend. Stir in the salt, honey, and maple syrup. Spread the mixture over the bottom of the prepared pastry. Sprinkle with the nuts, and the dried and candied fruit.

Place in the center of the oven and bake the crust is dark golden and the topping is bubbly, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the ganache topping. In a saucepan, heat the cream over moderate heat. Add the chocolate and stir to melt the chocolate. Stir to blend. Spread the ganache over the top of the tart. Refrigerate for 3 hours before serving, cutting into very thin wedges.

16  servings

Note: In France we use Marie’s all-butter puff pastry. In the United States, we favor Dufour brand frozen puff pastry, available at most Whole Foods grocery stores.

Gontran Cherrier’s treats can be found at two locations in Paris:

GONTRAN CHERRIER, 22 rue Caulaincourt, Paris 18

Tel : +33 1 46 06 82 66

Métro : Lamarck-Caulaincourt

Open: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday 7.30am-8.30pm. Sunday 7.30am-7.30pm. Closed Wednesday

GONTRAN CHERRIER (Wagram), 8 rue Juliette-Lamber, Paris 17

Tel : +33 1 40 54 72 60

Métro: Pereire or Wagram

Open: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday 7.30am-8.30pm. Sunday 7.30am-7.30pm. Closed Wednesday



Verona almond polenta cake

Verona Almond Cake

I have never entered a recipe contest in my life, but when I saw that Neff would be giving away an oven I have had my eye on for awhile, I thought I'd try. The oven is a dream, with a door that slides down inside the oven so it's not in the way, a low temperature setting for long slow roasting, special settings for bread and pizza, as well as an option for turning it into a steam oven! So I am entering one of my favorite desserts (and one that always gets raves from my students), the Verona Almond and Polenta Cake. With almonds, polenta, lots of butter, flour,  and a single egg, the mixture ends up much like dough a cookie dough, which is then dropped by little handfuls onto a parchment paper lined baking sheet. When served, the entire "cake" is brought to the table and guests simply break off a piece for pleasant feasting. If anyone wants to enter the Neff contest, visit Recipes must be sent by December 31. The oven of course is 220 and the site is in French. I'll let you all know if I win!

Almond Polenta Cake


It means a lot to say that this will be one of the most delicious tastes and textures you will put in your mouth in a lifetime. I first sampled this sandy cookie/cake/snack/dessert in a lovely Italian country restaurant near Verona – Osteria Valpollicella – one Saturday in March. This cake came as a surprising close to a splendidly modern lunch that included a pristine white ball of homemade cheese set atop the region’s spicy mostarda; paper-thin slices of home-cured beef; a stunning risotto laced with wild herbs and greens from the mountains; and a slab of local cheese teamed up with a mound of wilted wild greens and a crisp slice of grilled bacon. The recipe for this local specialty comes from Rosetta Gasparini, a fine cook who is part of the kitchen team at Villa Giona, owned by the Allegrini wine family. If you go into the town of  Mantua, you will hardly find a shop window that does not display this buttery, crumbly, irresistible cake. Traditionally, it is sampled with sweet local wines such as Recioto. Sbrisolona is a rustic dessert, baked as a slab on a baking sheet and set on the table as one whole piece. Guests break off an end and enjoy with a sip of sweet wine. I use salted butter for this cake, for I find it brightens the flavors.

Equipment: A food processor; a baking sheet lined with baking parchment.

8 ounces (250 g) whole unblanched almonds, reserving 10 almonds for garnish

2 1/4 cups (315 g) whole wheat pastry  flour

7/8 cup (105 g) quick-cooking polenta

2 sticks (8 ounces; 250 g) salted butter, melted

3/4 cup (150 g) vanilla sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).

2. Toast the almonds: Place the almonds in a large, dry skillet over moderate heat. Shake the pan regularly until the nuts are fragrant and evenly toasted, about 2 minutes. Watch carefully! They can burn quickly. Transfer the almonds to a plate to cool. Set aside. (The almonds may also be toasted on a baking sheet in the preheated oven.)

3. In the bowl of a food processor, coarsely chop the almonds.

4. In a bowl, combine the chopped almonds, flour and polenta. Toss to blend.

5. In another bowl combine the melted butter, sugar, egg, and almond extract,  and stir to blend.  Add the dry ingredients to the liquid ingredients and stir to combine until the mixture is homogeneous. The texture should be like that of cookie dough.

6. Drop the mixture onto the baking sheet in handfuls, rubbing the dough between your fingers to make its characteristic uneven surface. Scatter the reserved whole almonds on top of the dough.

7.  Place in the center of the oven and bake until deep golden and crisp,  20 to 30 minutes. MAKE SURE THAT THE CAKE IS GOLDEN AND CRISP! THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT. Let cool before serving.  The crumbly almond cake is not cut with a knife but simply broken into pieces by hitting with your fist o breaking with your fingers.  It is ideally matched with a sweet red wine, such as Recioto, but can also be served with a generous sprinkle of grappa. The cake keeps well, and can be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.

40 servings

A sweet, red-letter day!

Today at the Vaison weekly market, our beekeeper Christine Tracol cermoniously presented me with four 1-kilo jars of golden nectar. Last November she placed 10 busy beehives behind the little stone cabanon in our vineyard, and left them there until sometime this summer, when it came time for them to feast in the lavender fields near Mont Ventoux. But as our honey shows, as the bees feasted at Chanteduc  on the nectar of various rosemary, thyme, and zucchini blossoms, they must have spent a lot of time in the two giant linden flower -- or tilleul trees -- on the property. The honey is payment as "rent" for the use of the property. Nice exchange! Our honey is a golden amber, with an intense, floral flavor. I confess that it is not as extraordinary as her mountain lavender honey, but nothing is!   I'd like to share a favorite melon and honey sorbet recipe:

Cavaillon Melon Sorbet

A ripe, juicy melon emits the most intoxicating perfume. Even before the fruit is sliced open, it offers up its rich, pleasantly musky aromas. Choose a melon that feels heavy for its size, a sign that the fruit is dense and ripe. In Provence, the fashion is to offer melons that have exploded at the bottom – like a little volcanic eruption – a sign that the fruits were ripened in the fields and not waterlogged in a greenhouse to give better weight.  I like to sweeten this sorbet with a mild yet fragrant and distinctive honey. For a truly creamy, almost fluffy sorbet, whip the mixture in a blender at highest speed for a full minute.

One 2-pound (1 kg) ripe cantaloupe (to yield about 1 pound, 500 g fruit)

1/2 cup (125 ml)  honey

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tablespoons vodka

Equipment: A serrated grapefruit spoon; a blender; an ice-cream maker.

Halve the melon. With the grapefruit spoon, remove and discard any fibrous pulp and seeds. Slice the halves into 4 wedges. With a sharp knife, run the knife between the rind and the pulp, being careful not to include any green bits of pulp. Chop the pulp coarsely. Transfer to the blender. Add the honey, lemon juice, and vodka and blend for a full minute, until creamy and  smooth. Chill thoroughly. At serving time, transfer the mixture to an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For best results, serve the sorbet as soon as it is made.  Do not re-freeze.

3 cups (750 ml)

WHY VODKA? Without the added alcohol, this all-fruit sorbet would have a tendency to become gritty. The alcohol does not freeze, resulting in a smooth and creamy dessert.