At work, we always made tuiles a la forchette. Since then I understand there are faster ways to make those crackly almond biscuits, but we pushed the flaked almonds in their syrupy batter out into coaster sized circles with just a fork. There should be no holes, nor almonds overlapping. Then into the oven, and just as they turned an even autumn-leaf brown, they were quickly snatched up while hot and pressed into gouttières (gutters) to make them slightly rounded. It was the work of a patient hour or more – so often it was the loser of jan ken poi! (Japanese rock paper scissors, disappointingly similar to the English version) who would have to get out the fork. The reward was to eat the broken pieces, those crisp, sweet almond flakes.
On holidays, so far I have not been tempted to make any cakes. Partly because we were three, of which one ‘my body is a temple’ tended to shun dessert. (I did remake last year’s tarte tatin for a dinner party but that only consists of peeling apples and baking apples, leaving them in the fridge to form a gorgeous caramel jelly then quickly cooking shop-bought puff pastry.) Otherwise, I have been busy. Going to market, re-reading our whole collection of Inspector Morse books. (I must be getting old, I can never remember the identity of the murderer.)
One of our outings consisted in visiting a nearby bee-farm. Apiculteur, sorry. (My French entomological lexicon is not what it should be.) The bee-man was the picture of jollity, all nudge-nudge, wink-wink as he showed us the hives, and related the honestly fascinating lives of bees. A queen bee lays 2000 eggs a day, for up to 5 years. And she only has sex once, in a gravity defying challenge where only one male bee can win. Performance finished, he gets his head sliced off. This was where the nudging and winking came in.
Then we saw the miellerie, where they collect and distill the honey from the honeycombs. When he spun the empty centrifuge, a heady sweet scent filled the small room. He explained that commercial honey is often heated to a high temperature, totally destroying the vitamins and minerals. These jars will have an expiry date. Worse, the cheapest kind can be only 30% honey content. If you keep your local honey in a cool place (not the fridge, not in the sun) though it will thicken, it will last more than 100 years. His father, also a bee-man, had given him the honey of his birth-year recently as a present – better than a fine wine.
Finally we tasted a range, from subtle to strong. First the creamy sunflower honey, then acacia, tilleul and chestnut tree. This last was dark as brewed tea, rich and sharp. It has notes of wood and winter, words for which my tongue is not trained. The kind that is too violent for your palate as a kid, but that you crave with bread and cold butter for an adult breakfast. It works well for adding depth to sauces, and caramelising roast meat – just a teaspoon when nearly cooked.
We drove home through the sunflower fields, passing old crumbling mansions and new pre-fab houses. On one roof we saw a team of men replacing the old orange tiles, shaped like a section of a gutter and faded to a range of terracotta and ochre, with new bland straight ones. That was what I wanted to make with the honey, to show off its flavour. Simple tuiles, with their curved shape based on those roof tiles, the ones on our own house.
The batter is easy – so much easier when making a few, and not a hundred! Melted butter, honey, flour and egg whites, mixed with flaked almonds, coconut if you like. Leave it in the fridge over an afternoon. While you are enjoying cheese and salad after supper, preheat the oven. Carefully push out a dozen biscuits on greaseproof paper, as thin as possible with no holes. Get the icecream out of the freezer to soften. In the absence of a gouttière, line up a row of beer bottles or spice jars on their sides on the counter. By the time you are ready for dessert, barely ten minutes, the tuiles will be golden-brown. Quickly ease them off the paper with a fork and drape them over the bottles, to let them cool. Use them to scoop up a delicate icecream, custard or with raw honey and fromage blanc, to really savour the strong honey taste.
Honey tuiles with almond and coconut
makes 20 small biscuits, which will keep for a week in a sealed biscuit tin
Recipe adapted from Lenotre: I used almonds and coconut, but just flaked almonds is traditional and delicious. Ordinary flour can also be substituted for the rice flour if gluten-free is not necessary. Use a strong, dark honey like chestnut for maximum flavour
20g butter, melted and cooled
60g egg whites (about 2 small eggs)
60g strong, dark honey
1 tbs rice flour
75g flaked almonds
25g dessicated coconut
Melt the butter and let it cool. Mix egg whites, honey and butter, then stir in flour, almonds and coconut. Clingfilm and leave in the fridge – Lenotre says 1h30 – can be up to 24 hours.
Preheat the oven to 165C. Dollop small teaspoons of mixture on a greasproof paper lined baking tray, leaving lots of space between each one. With the tines of a fork, carefully spread out the mixture as thinly as possibly, preferably the thickness of one almond slice.
If you want to make properly tile-shaped tuiles, line up a row of beer bottles, rolling pins or spice jars, preferably on a tea towel so they don’t roll away.
Bake for 10-12 minutes. Check the oven and rotate the trays if necessary. They should be brown all the way across, no white in the middle. As quickly as possible, lift them from the tray with a fork and drape them over the bottles. Press them down if reluctant. Leave to cool to keep their shape.
Serve with icecream, custard, stewed fruit or yoghurt and honey. Keep in an airtight tin. If they lose their crispness, pop them in a hot oven for 2 minutes, reshape if necessary. You can also keep leftover mixture in the fridge for a day or two and make tuiles on demand.