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A Small Slice of Versailles

The culture of the French court inspires two apricot desserts: one elaborate, the other more attainable.

A Small Slice of Versailles

The culture of the French court inspires two apricot desserts: one elaborate, the other more attainable.

By Yotam Ottolenghi

June 12, 2018

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.

Recipes: Apricot Tart With Pistachio Frangipane | Poached Apricots With Pistachio and Amaretto Mascarpone

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