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Food

A Small Slice of Versailles

Posted June 12, 2018 7:35 p.m. EDT

People tend to belong to one of two opposite camps: those who like their food to impress and surprise, and those who want it to comfort and delight. These days, I find myself steadily drifting from the contrived faction to the comfort camp. This, I suspect, has to do with age and a certain wish to reconnect with my childhood.

But my interest in that other extreme was recently piqued by the exhibition “Visitors to Versailles,” which is on view through July 29 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I am hosting an evening there this month to celebrate the exhibition, and I asked a group of world-class pastry chefs to create highly elaborate cakes inspired by the court of Versailles.

The art of cooking was undergoing a particularly dramatic transformation during the period in France covered by the exhibition — 1682 to 1789 — and nowhere was this more evident than in pastry-making and confectionery in aristocratic and royal houses.

For particular events, tabletops were designed to imitate landscape architecture, using materials such as sweet pastes, pastry dough and colored sugar to create miniature, often edible gardens, broken up by vertical structures or pyramids of food. (Croquembouche, the French wedding cake made of choux pastry balls bound by caramel into a pyramid, is a remnant of these structures.)

These elaborate edifices, and the popular association of pre-Revolution decadence with Marie Antoinette and her famous cakes, made it almost inevitable that I should choose confections to capture the spirit of Versailles. Now, as it was back then, it is often the pâtissiers who push the boundaries of cooking through all kinds of technical and artistic inventions.

The two desserts featured here are loosely inspired by that period. Apricots, and stone fruit in general, were highly regarded and often set into those impressive pyramids. Poaching and cooking down fruit was particularly popular, as was combining it with nuts — almonds and pistachios are prominent — and orange blossom water.

The tart, which is as far as I could have taken the spirit of Versailles and still expect mere mortals to actually make, also features marzipan, both a luxury then and a staple in the hands of high-end pastry chefs. On top of the tart there is a layer of crème pâtissière, one of a variety of cooked creams that were gaining popularity in the 18th century.

For those who prefer more casual comfort, my pared-back dessert — poached apricots with pistachio and amaretto mascarpone — echoes all these flavors, but without all the hard work.

Apricot Tart With Pistachio Frangipane

Yield: 8 servings

Total time: About 1 hour, plus several hours’ cooling

For the pastry shell:

All-butter pie dough, enough for 1 tart crust (either homemade or one 7- or 8-ounce/200-gram package, thawed if frozen)

Butter, for greasing the pan

For the poached apricots:

Scant 1/2 cup/100 milliliters Sauternes

1/2 lime

1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

1/3 cup/67 grams granulated sugar or caster sugar

6 medium ripe apricots (about 2/3 pound/280 grams), halved and pitted

For the frangipane:

1 scant cup/100 grams raw unsalted pistachios, toasted in the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit/170 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes, until fragrant

1/4 cup/75 grams good-quality marzipan

1 egg, plus 1 yolk

5 tablespoons/75 grams unsalted butter, softened

1/4 cup/50 grams granulated sugar or caster sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch (cornflour)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

1/8 teaspoon salt

For the crème pâtissière:

4 tablespoons/50 grams granulated sugar or caster sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch (cornflour)

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (plain flour)

4 egg yolks

1 1/4 cup/300 milliliters whole milk

2 tablespoons/30 grams unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

For serving:

1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water

1 teaspoon granulated sugar or caster sugar

1. Start with the pastry shell: Heat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit/190 degrees Celsius. Prepare a 9-inch/23-centimeter nonstick tart pan with a removable base by lining the bottom with parchment and greasing the sides with butter. If needed, on a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a circle roughly 1/8- to 1/4-inch/3- to 5-millimeters thick and large enough to line the base and sides of the tin, plus extra to poke above the edge by about 1/2 inch/1 centimeter. (Some store-bought doughs may be the perfect size right out of the package.) Carefully line the pan with the pastry and press it down so it covers the base and sides, with excess overhang.

2. Cover the pastry with parchment paper or waxed paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Place pan on a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the paper with the beans. Prick the pastry base and sides with a fork about 15 times, then bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Set aside to cool.

3. Poach the apricots: Add Sauternes, lime half, vanilla, sugar and 3 tablespoons/40 milliliters water to a saucepan that is just big enough to hold the apricot halves in one layer. Place the pan over high heat and cook until the sugar has melted and the liquid boils.

4. Remove the pan from the heat and place the apricots in the hot liquid, cut-sides down. Leave them to poach in the residual heat until they are soft but still hold their shape (20 to 40 minutes, depending on how ripe they are) flipping them every 10 minutes. Transfer the apricots to a covered container and refrigerate until needed. Squeeze the lime into the syrup and then discard it; return the saucepan with the syrup to medium-high heat and simmer until reduced to 2 tablespoons, 5 to 8 minutes. Set aside at room temperature until needed.

5. Next, make the frangipane: Set aside 2 tablespoons of pistachios for serving. In a food processor, blitz the remaining pistachios until coarsely ground. Add the marzipan and blitz to a coarse crumb. Add all the remaining frangipane ingredients and blitz for 30 seconds, until everything just comes together.

6. Once the tart shell has cooled completely, spoon the frangipane back in and spread it flat with the back of a spoon. Cut 3 1/2 ounces/100 grams of the apricot halves (3 or 4 of them) into quarters (or sixths if larger) and arrange evenly over the frangipane, pushing them down gently. Bake tart for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown and just set. Set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove the tart from the tin and set on a wire rack to cool completely. If making the recipe over two days, wrap the pastry in plastic wrap (cling film) once it has cooled completely.

7. While the frangipane is baking (or the next day), make the crème pâtissière: In a medium bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons sugar with the cornstarch (cornflour), flour and yolks until smooth. Add milk, butter, vanilla and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar to a saucepan over medium-high heat and cook until warm but not boiling. Remove the milk from the heat. While whisking, pour a third of the warm milk into the egg mix, and whisk well. Pour the mixture back into the pan with the rest of the milk and return to medium-low heat. Continue cooking, whisking vigorously, until mixture bubbles and becomes very thick. Remove pan from heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes, then spoon on top of the cooled frangipane, smoothing with the back of a spoon. Cover surface with plastic wrap (cling film) and refrigerate for 2 hours until completely set.

8. Just before serving, cut the remaining apricot halves into quarters (or sixths if larger). Arrange the apricots evenly in circles over the crème pâtissière, cut-side up, leaving a 2-inch/5-centimeter gap between each apricot (push them into the crème slightly as you go). Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the reduced poaching syrup evenly over the tart, then drizzle the orange blossom water over the tart. Roughly chop the reserved pistachios and mix with 1 teaspoon sugar. Sprinkle the pistachio mix in the gaps between the apricots to cover the crème pâtissière and serve at once with the remaining syrup drizzled over each piece once sliced.

Poached Apricots With Pistachio and Amaretto Mascarpone

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: About 35 minutes

For the apricots:

Scant 1/2 cup/100 milliliters Sauternes

1/2 lime

1/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract)

1/3 cup/67 grams granulated sugar or caster sugar

6 medium ripe apricots (about 2/3 pound/280 grams), halved and pitted

For the pistachio and amaretto mascarpone:

3/4 cup/80 grams raw unsalted pistachios, toasted and finely chopped

2.8 ounces/80 grams hard amaretti cookies, such as Lazzaroni brand, roughly crumbled (you’ll need two 2.3-ounce/65-gram packages)

1 tablespoons granulated sugar or caster sugar

8 ounces/140 grams mascarpone, at room temperature

1/2 cup/100 grams heavy cream (double cream), lightly whipped to soft peaks

1 teaspoon orange blossom water

1 teaspoon lime zest

1. Poach the apricots: Add Sauternes, lime half, vanilla, sugar and 3 tablespoons/40 milliliters water to a saucepan just big enough to hold the apricot halves in one layer. Place the pan over high heat and cook until the sugar has melted and the liquid boils.

2. Remove the pan from the heat and place the apricots in the hot liquid, cut sides down. Leave them to poach in the residual heat until they are soft but still hold their shape (20 to 40 minutes, depending on how ripe they are) flipping them every 10 minutes. Set the apricots aside to cool slightly. (If not serving immediately, transfer the apricots to a covered container and refrigerate until needed.) Squeeze the lime into the syrup and then discard it; return the saucepan with the syrup to medium-high heat and simmer until reduced to about 1/4 cup/70 milliliters, 5 to 6 minutes. Set aside at room temperature until needed.

3. Prepare the mascarpone mixture: Combine pistachios, amaretti cookies and sugar. Add three-quarters of this mixture to a bowl with the mascarpone and mix it all together until combined, then fold in the cream.

4. To serve, divide the apricots and the amaretti cream between four bowls. Pour the syrup over the apricots and sprinkle the remaining amaretti and pistachio crumble over the cream. Finish with orange blossom water and lime zest and serve.