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Christmas, in my neck of the woods.

by: Asinus Asinum Fricat

Tue Dec 23, 2008 at 10:30:43 AM PST

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In Provence, our Christmas season begins on 4th December, the day of St. Barbe, with the ritual sowing of wheat and lentils on dishes to provide some fresh green shoots to decorate the Christmas table. Our Christmas festivities last for three whole days (and nights), from 24th to 26th December so we get to eat lots of stuff. And drink! For the people of Provence, Christmas is a series of traditional customs beginning with the "gros souper," the large supper served on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass. The table around which the family gathers is decorated according to custom with sprigs of myrtle and St. Barbe's wheat and lentil sprouts (which are symbols of prosperity).  For this special meal three tablecloths are laid one on top of the other and three large white candles are lit, symbolizing the Holy Trinity and Hope.
Asinus Asinum Fricat :: Christmas, in my neck of the woods.
In the olden days salted cod was served with stewed vegetables on the eve of Christmas, no meat was ever cooked. Nowadays almost everyone either goes to a restaurant for a "reveillon" which lasts all night or a series of really good snacks are offered along the famous thirteen desserts, which represent the Christ with the twelve apostles. The thirteen desserts are eaten after Midnight mass. They will remain on the table for the following 3 days, until 27th December. They are as follows (though each family may add its own variations such as oranges, mandarins, the almond paste sweets known as "calissons d'Aix," chocolates, often accompanying them with the delicious Vin Frizzant de Muscat) : the 4 mendicant (orders): dry figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites), raisins (Dominicans) and hazelnuts (Augustinians), dates (symbol of Christ who came from the Orient), nougat (black and white) for the white penitents and black penitentsaccording to some people, while for others white nougat, soft and creamy represents purity and goodness, the harder and brittle black nougat symbolising impurity and forces of evil& , the "fougasse à l'huile d'olive", also called "la pompe" (a flat loaf made using olive oil), quince cheese or crystallized fruit, "oreillettes" (light thin waffles),  and fresh fruits: mandarin, oranges, pears, and for sheer indulgence, the "calissons d'Aix", almonds, "oursins" and glacé chesnuts are brought in as well for good measure. Among the Thirteen desserts, we also count the jams made during the grape harvest either from grape must or fig juice to which one has added autumn fruit, and then the fortified wine. The fortified wine is meant to be Jesus himself.

Every single Christmas we get to eat the log, or La Buche de Noel. It's a tad complicated though it shouldn't put you off. It can be prepared well in advance (say 3 days) and it stays for the duration of the festivities because it is enveloped with buttercream. Rich? You bet but it's worth the effort. After all it is a glorified sponge cake decorated with an attitude! For the sponge cake (I've calculated from grams into ounces, so help me God):


155 g (5 oz.) granulated sugar, 5 eggs, 155 g (5 oz.) flour, 45 g (3 tbsp.) butter, 1 packet vanilla sugar, 15 g (1 tbsp.) butter for the pan.1. Ok? Here we go! Break the 5 eggs into a large bowl. Add the 155 g of granulated sugar. Place the bowl over (not in) a pan of simmering water and beat for 1 minute with an electric beater (or by hand if you dare). Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to beat on high speed for about 20 minutes. Gently melt the butter. Skim off the white froth. Sift the flour over the sugar-egg mixture. Fold in, then add the vanilla sugar and warm butter. Cover a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Spread the batter evenly over top with a spatula. Bake at 220° C (425° F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the sponge from the oven and carefully remove the cake from the parchment paper by moistening the paper with a brush dipped in water. Cover it with a clean tea towel until it has cooled. For the buttercream: 250 g (9 oz.) sugar cooked to soft ball stage, 8 egg yolks, 250 g (9 oz.) butter. While the sponge is baking make the buttercream. Cook the sugar with 100 ml (6 tbsp.) of water until it forms a soft ball (about ten minutes, or until some of the syrup dropped into a bowl of cold water forms a ball.) Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl, pour in the hot sugar syrup, beating constantly for two minutes. Continue to beat with an electric mixer for about 10 minutes before adding in the butter, piece by piece.

Spread three-quarters of the buttercream over the sponge cake. Roll the cake up tightly. Decorate the log with the remaining buttercream. Draw the tines of a fork down the log to create the look of bark. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate for at least two hours to set it then you can display your labor of love to all and sundry!

Something tells me that you'd prefer to make a simpler dessert and since I am in a suitably charitable mood I'll post of one my all time favorite dessert (and a cinch to make) the venerable Clafoutis, usually made with pitted cherries which can be bought in a good supermarket, either frozen or in a jar. This recipe is old but not ancient, probably dating from around the 1860s. It's a sort of fruit flan and you would need the following; 1 1/4 cups milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 3 eggs, 1 Tablespoon vanilla essence (a good one), 1/2 cup sifted flour, 3 cups pitted cherries (if you come across those who are pickled with Kirsh, get them!), 1/3 cup powdered sugar.

In a blender blend the milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour. Pour a 1/4 inch layer of the batter in a buttered 7 or 8 cup lightly buttered fireproofbaking dish. Place in the oven until a film of batter sets in the pan. Remove from the heat and spread the cherries over the batter. Sprinkle on the 1/3 cup of sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for about for about 45 minutes to an hour. The clafoutis is done when puffed and brown and and a knife plunged in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle with powdered sugar,  


Happy Holidays locavores!

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