Capon holds court in many homes, with turkey running a close second. Usually they are stuffed, French style, with chestnuts, and surrounded in the pan by potatoes, more chestnuts, and mushrooms. Sometimes dried prunes or apricots are added to the stuffing.
Shellfish is a big part of the holidays here, with oysters being number one on the list, though on a big seafood platter you’ll also find clams and mussels, a langoustine or many, crab, lobster and sea snails.
The streets on Christmas Eve afternoon are filled with tightrope walkers, as everyone is collecting their pre-shucked oysters from the fishmongers which sit in ice in ort-of-solid Styrofoam containers. They stagger down the street with their cellophane wrapped treasures, hoping to get home before the ice begins to melt. Everyone goes the fishmonger as late as possible, so the oysters are fresh, which means traffic and sidewalk jams every year. Smoked salmon is offered with the oysters; sometimes there is a big platter of shellfish which might include clams and mussels, lobster, and langoustines…
Scallops and Salt Cod
Scallops are in full season during the holidays, most of them fished along the northern and western coasts. They tend to be a northern dish, wrapped in a creamy bechamel seasoned with nutmeg, and served as a first course. Fish in the south tends towards salt cod, which is served as brandade or a Grand Aioli, and cardoons are almost always a side dish. Potatoes are somewhere on the menu; salad might be, crudités may make an appearance. Champagne is always present, usually followed by a hearty red wine.
As for dessert, bûche de Noel is traditional in the North, and there are about one million versions. I, of course, love mine the best and the recipe follows here.
In the south there is a bread called pompe à l’huile, a brioche-like bread flavored with orange flower water, and it appears as part of the traditional thirteen desserts. Also on the dessert platter: clementines, dried figs, dates, apricots, nuts, orange-flower water scented cookies, possibly grapes that have been specially kept for the occasion, and chocolate confections called “mendiants,” beggars. Disks of chocolate with dried fruits and nuts in them, they represent the color of the beggar’s robes outside of that long ago stable.
New Years Eve
For New Year’s Eve, the French have an open-door policy. It is the typical time to have or go to a party with friends and family, and shellfish is the dominant offering, with huge platters set up high on the table, accompanied by rye bread, salted butter, and little else. Champagne, dry white wine, and perhaps a dessert makes the meal and people dance the evening away as they wait for midnight!
A Typical French Christmas Eve Meal
A Typical Christmas Menu
Appetizers – shellfish, smoked salmon
First Course – Fresh sea scallops, with roe, in bechamel
Main Course – Roast Capon or Turkey, Goose or Duck, often stuffed with chestnuts and fruit, and surrounded by chestnuts and potatoes.
Salad – perhaps
Dessert – Bûche de Noël, Ice Cream Cake, Chocolate Opera, Treize Desserts
BÛCHE DE NOËL
This wonderful holiday cake has many moving parts, but you’ll see that each one is very simple. Consider it like putting together a piece of furniture from you-know-who…it’s a step-by-step process! And what you get as a result is so impressive and delicious, you’ll wish for the holidays all year round! I recommend making this early in the morning of the day it is to be served, so the flavors have a chance to mellow.
For the pastry cream:
5 egg yolks
6 tablespoons (75g) vanilla sugar
¼ cup (35g) all purpose flour
Pinch of fine sea salt
1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups (375-425ml) milk, preferably whole
1 cinnamon stick (3-inches; 7.5cm) long
For the ganache:
1-1/4 cups (310ml) heavy cream or crème fraiche
10 ounces (300g) semi-sweet chocolate (52-54%)
For the cake:
7 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 cup (200ml) vanilla sugar
1-1/4 cups (185g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar
1. Make the pastry cream: whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a medium-sized bowl until they are thick and le mon-colored. Whisk int eh flour and the salt and set aside.
2. Make the ganache: place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the chocolate and stir it into the cream. Melt the chocolate and the cream together, stirring often. As the chocolate melts stir it continually until the mixture is homogeneous. Remove from the heat.
3. Place 1-1/2 cups (375ml) cups of the milk and the cinnamon stick in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Scald the milk by heating just until little bubbles for around the edge of the milk. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and set aside to infuse for 15 minutes.
4. Return the milk to the scalding point over medium-high heat, and then gradually whisk it into the egg yolk mixture. Return this mixture to the saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it comes to a boil. Continue cooking for at least 2 minutes, until the pastry cream thins slightly and the flour taste has cooked out of it. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the pastry cream to a bowl, cover, and set aside to cool.
5. Preheat the oven to 375F (190C). Line a 17 x 11 x 1-inch (42.5 x 27.5 x 2.5cm) jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Dust the parchment lightly with flour.
6. Prepare the cake: Whisk together the egg yolks and ¾ cup (150g) sugar until the mixture is thick and lemon colored.
7. Sift the flour, baking powder, and the salt together onto a sheet of waxed paper. Remove the whisk and using the paddle attachment, add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture at low speed, mixing until just incorporated. Add the vanilla, mix quickly and thoroughly, and set aside (the mixture will be quite thick).
8. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they are foamy and beginning to turn white. Gradually add the remaining ¼ cup (50g) sugar and continue whisking until the egg whites are glossy and form stiff points.
9. By hand, fold one fourth of the egg whites into the batter until incorporated, then fold in the remaining egg whites, being careful not to overmix, but making sure they are thoroughly incorporated.
10. Spread the batter over the parchment paper in the jelly roll pan. Place the pan in the center of the oven and bake until the cake is golden and the top springs back when lightly pressed, about 8 minutes.
11. While the cake is baking, sift the tablespoon of confectioners’ sugar onto a clean kitchen towel that is spread out on a counter.
12. Remove the cake from the oven and immediately invert it onto the sugar-dusted towel. Peel off the parchment paper from the cake, and starting from one short side, roll up the cake in the towel. Allow it to cool for about 30 minutes.
13. When the cake has cooled, unroll it. Trim off about 1-inch (2.5cm) from each end (or to the size you want your bûche) and save the trimmings!
14. If necessary, reheat the pastry cream just until it is spreadable consistency, remove and discard the cinnamon stick, and spread an even layer on the cake. Carefully re-roll the cake and place it, seam side down, on a work surface or a platter.
15. Now the fun begins! Spread an even, and fairly thick, layer of the ganache over the cake, making sure to frost the ends., reserving about ¼ cup (60g) of the ganache. Take one of the trimmed ends of the cake (which should still be in a round) and place it on the top of the cake but right at the edge, pressing it gently into the ganache. Frost it with ganache, which will harden as it cools and become the “glue” which holds the little whorl on the cake.
16. Using a fork, make striations the length of the cake, and in rounds at either end and on the top of the “whorl” to mimic tree bark! Have fun with this!
17. To decorate with mushrooms, gently make a hole in the bottom of several mushroom caps (use a chopstick or the point of a knife) and fit stems into the mushroom caps. If necessary, use some ganache to “glue” the caps to their stems. Decorate with the mushrooms while the ganache is still slightly soft, so you can gently press them into it to make sure they remain upright.
18. Once the ganache is set, your bûche de noël is ready to serve, though it is best if it sits a few hours so the flavors have a chance to mellow.