Frangipani

When I hear “frangipani,” I smell a waft of orange and almond blossoms and I’m transported to the island of Majorca, where I stayed for a few weeks when I was 22. I’d heard about two villages, Fornalutx in the mountains and Deìa on the coast, as idyllic places for artists. A room with a view and breakfast cost $15 a night. On the overnight ferry from Barcelona to Palma, watching the sun rise as we approached the island, I was both lonely and entirely happy to be alone. On the old, wooden train to the town of Sóller, I saw my first citrus trees—by June laden with fruit, yellow and orange globes shining out from glossy dark green leaves, easy to pick. 

I would like before I die to walk once again that stony path from the Deia village hilltop to the tiny blue harbor below, hardly bigger than a pool. So safe it felt to swim there, the walk made fragrant by olive and almond trees, musical from the tiny bells on goats, occasionally the chime of churches or the buzzing of honey bees. No one I knew knew where I was. No keys, no work, no plans. What did I do with my time?  One day I trudged along the one road through town in the hot sun and hitchhiked to Valldemossa, where in 1839, George Sand and Frédéric Chopin wintered in the charterhouse, an attempt to treat his tuberculosis. A tourist notes on TripAdvisor that the monastery was  a “real disappointment.” I don’t remember being disappointed, perhaps because I had no expectations. “Expect Nothing” is the title of a poem by Alice Walker that ends, “live frugally on surprise.” Everything about that time was a surprise, perhaps because everything was new for me.

I gorged on ensaimadas, yeast-raised coils of dough fried in lard and dusted with powdered sugar, lighter than doughnuts and barely sweet.  They were served as breakfast in my pension but I went to the bakery to buy more. I treated myself to fish cooked at the little shack overlooking the swimming harbor. I ran out of books in English. 

The Deìa expats could be well off or poor, they spoke fluent Spanish, and they hung out together at the cafes. In one of Deìa’s two cafés, I met the poet Robert Graves, Alzheimer’s-addled but still regal in his black hat, on the arm of his twenty years younger wife Beryl. Norman was a painter who talked fast with an accent and smiled with toothless charm. “Hey, honey, woodya like to see my etchins?” In his room a few steps away from the café, I acquired a watercolor of a bullfight: his black pen hadn’t left the paper. Man and bull awash in yellow. The color of plumeria blossoms. Back in the café, Norman savored a steak in exchange for that art while he told me his story of leaving New York and an advertising job in the sixties for the paradise of Deìa.

Ripe pears smell like frangipane sounds. Frangipane literally means “breaking bread” in Italian, but is also the name of a noble family from the Middle Ages. They might have acquired their name from Eucharist liturgy or from their practice of distributing bread to the poor.  But “Frangipane” is also an almond filling around fruit, usually in a crust.  One member of that noble Roman family supplied perfumes to Louis XIII. 

The Latin name of frangipani is plumeria, in homage to the seventeenth century Frenchman, Charles Plumier, who “discovered” them. The  five-petaled velvety pastel flowers look simpler than orchids. Plumeria is related to dogbane and the euphorbia (myrtle spurge) that has taken over my hillside here in Utah. Hard to imagine the spurge whose sap irritates my skin related to those creamy plumeria flowers. The  trees grow in Central America, notably not on Majorca. Plumeria is the most common flower of Hawaiian leis,  but is not indigenous to Hawaii.  

It’s a trick of memory for me to align my time on Majorca with a flower that doesn’t grow there. 

Plumeria flowers have a heavenly scent, but no nectar, so they trick nocturnal sphinx moths into pollinating them. Was I tricked into thinking that long-ago state of unrootedness, a leisure as shallow as the waters below the village of almond and olive and lemon trees, could last? 

My version of frangipane tartlets has no crust.  I like to suggest plumeria blossoms by adding flowery essence—a drop of fiori di sicilia or bergamot oil—to the almond and vanilla, which make it taste a bit like a creamsicle or panettone or like the air in Deìa in May forty years ago. The following recipe for frangipane tartlets is light and rich.

4 ounces salted butter (1 stick) (use the best quality as you will taste it)

1.6 ounces sugar

6 ounces cup finely ground almonds (almond flour). You can also use pistachio or hazelnut flour.

3 large eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract, a few drops almond extract, two drops bergamot, orange or lemon oil, or some fiori di sicilia flavoring.

1 ounce flour (I use chestnut flour or corn flour and thus make the tarts gluten-free. You could use a blend of tapioca starch and sorghum flour or white flour.)

½ teaspoon baking powder

1 ripe pear, cut into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the tartlets, sliced thinly and fanned

Cream the butter, sugar and almond flour until smooth (I use a food processor). Add eggs one at a time, then the flavoring and the flour.  Taste the mixture: the flowery-citrusy notes should be pronounced as they will lessen in the baked product and over time. It will be the consistency of cake batter. Spray muffin tins or tartlet pans with Baker’s Joy or thoroughly grease and flour or use paper cups. Fill each pan about 2/3 full and place into each a fan of sliced pear. Red pears are particularly beautiful although their color fades a bit after baking. You can also use apricots or other fruit, but be aware that the batter is moist and some fruit will make it too soggy. I used pitted chokecherries for the batch in the photos.

Bake at 375 until puffed, golden and set, about 13 minutes for small tartlets. Let cool for a few minutes and then tip out with an angled spatula. They might fall a bit upon cooling.  You can whip the egg whites if you want a lighter product (or add ½ tsp of baking powder.) Dust with powdered sugar. The tartlets will keep for two days at room temperature and up to a week in the refrigerator. Bring back to room temperature to serve.  This recipe will serve six to eight, making about 24 one-inch tartlets. It is easy to double and also easy to vary the size of the tarts.

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