Provençal Christmas Cakes

Pompe à l’Huile, Pompe de Noël, Gibassier, Fouace

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • About

    12

    , each 4 inches in diameter

Appears in

Simple French Food

By Richard Olney

Published 1974

  • About

Home baking is not one of the French vices; baking, it is felt, is what bakers and pastry cooks are made for. The Provençaux carry that attitude to an extreme—and they think of pastry, moreover, as being for children; the adults eat it, for the most part, only on religious holidays, tradition having assigned a different pastry to each. Few housewives have ever prepared pompes in their kitchens, and published recipes tend to be largely folklorique galimatias. For all practical purposes of description, they are flat cakes made of sweetened bread dough that has been enriched by the addition of olive oil; it is probable that the addition of egg to the dough is a fairly recent amelioration and it is certain that a larger proportion of sugar than that recommended in the following recipe often goes into their confection (orange blossom water, which stamps many Provençal pastries with a vague, sickly memory of stale and faded perfume, usually is added to a pompe dough, as well). The pompes sold in the village bakeries tend to be hard, tough, greasy, and heavily anise-flavored.

When shorn of ritual and symbolic glory—and when homemade—they are pleasant tea biscuits or a perfect accompaniment to stewed fruits, fresh fruits macerated in wine or ices; I find them innocent to the point of being innocuous (although I enjoy dunking them in my morning coffee), but friends and neighbors never fail to wax enthusiastic when offered them.

The Niçoise fougassette is made in the same way—about ⅛ teaspoon saffron is usually stirred into the flour before preparing the dough and sometimes fragments of candied fruits are pressed into the surface of the little breads at the same time that their surfaces are slit with the razor blade.

Pompes are sometimes called fouaces, but the term or one of its variations (fougasse, fougace), depending on the region, is more widely used outside of Provence to describe a similar galette—country cousin and undoubted ancestor of the elegant brioche, whose only difference is in the substitution of softened butter for olive oil in the dough; like fougassettes, fouaces are often saffron-flavored.

Pompes are traditionally cut into large rounds of from 6 to 7 inches in diameter; a 4-inch diameter seems to me to produce a more attractive article of a more practical size.

The French equivalent of American “instant-blending” flour has been used for testing proportions—a bit more in terms of volume may be required of other flours.

Ingredients

  • ½ ounce compressed yeast (or 1 tablespoon dried yeast)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • ½ cup tepid water
  • About 3 cups instant-blending flour (just under 1 pound)
  • Salt
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup olive oil

Method

Add the tepid water to the yeast and sugar (first mashing the yeast and sugar together with a fork if the yeast is compressed) and leave in a warm place to ferment for 15 minutes or so.

Put the flour in a mixing bowl, make a well in the center, add all the other ingredients, including the yeast-water mixture, stir with a fork, working from the center gradually outward, until thoroughly mixed, then transfer to a floured board and knead well, eventually picking up the mass and heaving it back against the board repeatedly in between kneadings. When the dough is elastic and no longer sticky, form it into a ball, return it to the mixing bowl, and leave, covered with a towel, in a warm place for a couple of hours or until the volume has nearly doubled. Turn it out onto the floured board, punch it down, and knead lightly (not too much or it will not want to be rolled out), then flatten as much as possible with the palm of your hand, turning repeatedly to keep both surfaces floured, and roll out to a thickness of from ¼ to ⅓ inch. Use a large, opened tin can or an overturned bowl to cut out rounds, transferring them to a flat baking sheet (or foil-lined oven plaque). Gather the scraps into a ball and roll them out again—or simply flatten them into another pompe with your hand. Slit the surface of each with a razor blade, forming a crisscross design—two slits each way if the pompe measures about 4 inches in diameter. Leave, covered with a towel, in a warm place to rise for another hour or so; they will rise but slightly (by about one third). Bake at about 400° for 20 minutes or until a rich deep brown and crusty. Slip onto a pastry grill to cool.