Noël

bûche de noël

I couldn’t let the year end without a little reportage about Christmas this year. You heard about my last-minute scramble to find the World’s Most Expensive Pastry Bag, which is now safely stored away in my Safe Deposit Box for next year.

cheese Christmas dinner

There’s a joke that the only bad thing about Paris is that it’s full of Parisians. I’m not going to comment on that, but Paris pretty much empties out, and is glorious time to stay in town. Also Christmas is taken pretty seriously around here. It’s considered a close, family holiday and even though the big department stores have spectacular window displays, Christmas hasn’t been overtly commercialized and kids are content when la grande-mère hands them a bag of fresh clementines, and don’t throw tantrums if they don’t get the latest version of the impossible-to-get video game. At least in my French famille.

The only tantrums being thrown were by me, making my Bûche de Noël, which I’ll get to in a bit.

opening oysters

Christmas also means oysters, and lots of ‘em. At the markets, and even on some sidewalks, wooden crates are piled up for folks to lug home for the festivities. I’ve been told the hospitals in France have a high rate of intakes around Christmas from too many people stabbing themselves with oyster knives.

oyster aftermath

No one buys a measly dozen or two of oysters. It’s always one of those cases, which are packed tightly with fresh, live oysters just waiting to be popped open and slurped down. My favorites are numéro deux fines de claires, which are just the right size: not so big you can’t swallow them, but not so small that they don’t fail to leave a generous, salty impact on the way down. More than anything else that I can think of (except that damn bûche de Noël) nothing is more widely-associated with Christmas in France, than oysters.

At least to me…and that’s good enough.

champagne chilling

Because storage space in Paris is often at a premium—I’ve never seen a Sub-Zero fridge in Paris, on the exterieur of people’s apartments one can usually find at least one bottle of something chilling out there in the winter. I guess if you can’t beat him, you should at least exploit Jacques le Frost for all he’s worth. In fact, if I showed you my roof right now, you’d see a tub of soup, a sack of leeks, some brie de Meaux (that’s too stinky for my fridge), and a big glass jar of kimchi that, come to think of it, would probably be pretty good slivered atop some fresh oysters.

I’m not sure that Parisians would find kimchi and oysters all that traditional. Neither would I, but that’s no excuse not to try something new. (Well, except I do draw the line at chocolate and foie gras…) They prefer their oysters nature, with maybe a squeeze of lemon, and that’s all. But I’m a shallot-vinegar kinda guy, which everyone rolls their eyes at, but shortly after the oysters are passed, there’s invariably a couple of spoons dipping into my little ramekin of shallot-y vinegar. This year I wised up and just put three ramekins of it on the table, so I wouldn’t have to share. The other good thing about getting older, is that you get wiser, too.

blinis

Still…someone whose name I won’t mention, decided that we should have blini with the fresh salmon he cured. Which was a great idea, so I whipped up the batter, which makes me, officially, The Greatest Person in the World. But the next day, standing over the stove and flipping a few hundred blini, I realized that perhaps I was The Least Wise Person in Paris for saying “Oui!” the night before Noël.

curedsalmonplate

And by the way, for all the Americans who wonder, 1) Why French folks don’t get fat, and 2) Why they don’t eat butter with their bread, I should tell you that yes, they do. For both. But they usually only butter their bread if serving it with oysters, like they do in Brittany. And only with salted butter. So if you’re visiting France and want butter with your bread, just tell the waiter you’re from Brittany, and they’ll oblige you. But if they start speaking indecipherable Breton to you, I can’t advise how to get out of that one.

salted butter

It probably seems like I’m the Christmas-wrecker, with my shallot-vinegar sauce and ricotta-filled Bûche de Noël—although the French have some explaining to do in the weird, and not-quite-wonderful Bûche de Noël department themselves.

pain aux cereales

Being a ‘maverick’, which is a word I think that’s best left behind in 2008, I was the ‘decider’ (speaking of another thing we can leave behind…) and decided that instead of the traditional rye bread to accompany the piles of oysters, we’d have pain aux cereales from Eric Kayser, one of my favorite breads in town. These amazing golden loaves from Eric Kayser are packed with crunchy grains, and the best part was going into the bakery the night before and watching them pull the loaves from the oven, and handing three or four over to me, which kept my hands warm on the walk home.

I suppose I could swap out my hot water bottle for a warm loaf of bread, but I’d have a hard time explaining to my house cleaner why there are millet and sesame seeds liberally sprinkled between my sheets. She might think I’m feeding birds under there, or something.

(I found out she was telling the neighbors that I didn’t look good all year, but now I look much better. Honestly, who needs doctors when you have a house cleaner who can clean and provide your neighbors with a steady reportage about my health? With all the liters of bleach she mysteriously goes through, now I know why my apartment smells like a hospital for days after she’s been here.)

bread Bûche de Noël

After huge platters of oysters, cured salmon with homemade blini and blindly-strong horseradish sauce, plus lots of well-iced champagne, was it time for dessert?

Pas de tout!

french cheese platter

Why live in France if you’re not going to eat as much cheese as you can? Sure, I love all that other stuff, but when someone presents you with not one…

cheese plate

But two…

fromages

…amazing platters of cheese, who am I to refuse?

The cheeses were a selection carefully chosen from Pascal Beillevaire, who carries my favorite salted butter. We were all trying to figure out which cheeses were what by whipping out the receipt, which listed them all. As much as I’d like to, I can’t always carry my trusty French cheese guide with me, so we kind of gave up and just dove in.

The most recognizable is the red-rubbed Boulette d’Avenses, which is so strong and pungent, most cheese shops store and sell them in well-sealed plastic cones. Even though in France it’s pas polite to take thirds during the cheese course (seconds are okay), most of us did anyways. Or at least I did. But seriously, folks, can you blame me? Je suis très américain… It was Christmas, after all. And besides, if I’m expecting for a present a bag of clementines, I’m gonna stock up on third helpings of cheese.

attacking the bûche

Enfin, dessert. We finally got to the cake, the one I worked on…no..slaved over…last week in my dinky kitchen. I can seemingly do everything here, except I think I met my match with this baby. I should back up and say that this is not a traditional Bûche de Noël in very many senses of the word. There’s no throat-clogging buttercream and it’s much more rustic than what you’ll see on offer in the bakeries in Paris.

steamy cheese

Subscribing to the theory, “There must be a harder way to do this” I made my own ricotta cheese. Which is great if you’re one of those people with the big kitchen. You know, the kind with a Sub-Zero fridge, but my counter barely has room to set down two mixing bowls at the same time. And making an ice bath means I have to start filling ice cube trays a few days in advance. Thankfully during the writing of the ice cream book, my fish boys saved my butt more than once. At least in the ice department.

meringue mushrooms

So I piped and fitted a gazillion coffee-flavored meringue mushrooms, which fascinated everyone at the table.

When asked how they were made, Romain, who’d watched me do them, said they were put together “…comme le sexe de Jacques Chirac”, which he demonstrated by taking out, and re-inserting one of the pointy mushrooms stems into the round hole under the mushroom cap.

(Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I have a blog. Not one word of that last phrase would’ve made it past a cookbook editor. But I must admit, it’s a pretty good, if not overtly colorful, description of the process.)

Ex-president Chirac’s wandering genitalia aside, the conjoined mushrooms, and the simply-decorated cake, were a big hit. By the time it came to finishing the yule log, I kept it simple. I learned a long time ago that the less you do to food, the better. And it’s easier, too.

I did lighten things up by making a filling with my homemade ricotta mixed with festive bits of candied orange peel, a pour of Grand Marnier, and chopped bits of chocolate. The whole she-bang was rolled up overnight, which moistened the spongecake, so this wouldn’t be a dry, Sahara Dessert, and the next day I glazed the roulade with a very dark, and very shiny bittersweet chocolate icing. Not a drop of buttercream in sight, which no one seemed to miss.

clementines

And thanks to many of you for your birthday greetings. I realized that it’s not so bad being fifty, especially when your presents are big bags of salted butter caramels from Henri Le Roux, a homemade cheesecake for my birthday cake, yes…some clementines, and the mother of all mortar & pestles that was so heavy it took two of us to carry it into the car, then into my apartment.

mortar & pestle

I love my gift, and it, and the junior sibling someone else gave me (by sheer coincidence), are both residing on my mantle until I can figure out what to make in it. Now that it’s up there, I’m almost afraid to take it down. But I’d better do it sooner rather than later. It’s not getting any lighter…and I’m not getting any younger. Maybe next year.


45 comments

  • This is just a quick thank you for your time and effort this year in making me (for one) even more excited about food! The recipes I have attempted have been amazing and my husband, who refuses desserts as a rule, requests your tiramisu! I am never without mascarpone.. Living in Sydney, and missing Europe, you paint a wonderful picture, and I can’t wait to return to Paris. May 2009 be wonderful for you.

  • What a fun, colourful Christmas and birthday celebration! :)

  • Can’t tell you how much i enjoyed this post, as always. The idea that your cleaning lady has been telling people you don’t look well!!!! Maybe you SHOULD take some warm loaves of bread to bed and leave the seeds for her to find. Will give her more to gossip about.

    What a wonderful wrapup to the year you’ve given us. All best for a terrific 2009.

  • “Ex-president Chirac’s wandering genitalia”

    I will always think of this now when I see mushrooms. Always. And I handle a lot of mushrooms. Or should that be manhandle now?

    Also, “I learned a long time ago that the less you do to food, the better. And it’s easier, too.”

    In your case, better, YES. Easier, um…uh…

  • Your Parisian Christmas looks wonderful, David. I love reading your blog. I got my Christmas wish this year – a copy of The Perfect Scoop! It’s divine. At a friend’s request, I’ve made the Tin Roof icecream for my NYE BBQ here in Sydney, Australia. The chocolate-raspberry icecream was a big hit at a BBQ last weekend too… Happy New Year!

  • Wishing you a happy new year, with thanks for posting and, often, keeping me laughing right through 2008.

  • Wow, this looks stunning – I think ricotta is the way to go in the filling – I think it’s what my cake was missing! I will have to give it a go at some point – perhaps next Christmas season. And one more thing – you look SO much younger, I’m in disbelief… I thought maybe 40? Have a lovely New Year!

  • My husband and I have spent the last several Christmases outside of the US. We love not feeling the pressure of a commercialized Christmas. We don’t have kids, but we know how we would like bad parents if we don’t get any toys for them.

    Is Paris in December as deserted as Paris in August?

  • Thanks for another entertaining, informative, eloquent post. I love your blog–and I can’t even eat most of the food you blog about! ;) The buche looks fabulous.

    Have a wonderful (and blini-less) 2009!

  • and a very belated bon anniversaire….! (My father always asks “how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?)

    My buche had Swiss buttercream, which is so much lighter than a US butter cream, but still almost too rich to eat. I wasn’t in the mood to make anything else, after all the puttering with the cake, but next year a ricotta-based filling might be the answer. I’ve used chocolate pudding in the States for a kids’ buche…perhaps that is the grown-up version!

  • oh, yes, french people DO get fat, and they DO eat butter with their bread. Actually, butter with bread is really common, especially for breakfast, but in brittany butter is simply everywhere, anytime :)

    About ” in France it’s pas polite to take thirds during the cheese course (seconds are okay) “, that’s kind of true. But if someone talks about this I just answer that it’s not polite either to watch out someone else’s plate, take care of yours and bon appétit :)
    quite rude, I know, but damn, we’re talking about le fromage, here ♥

  • If I didn’t like you, what you cook and how you write about it enough already, the fact that you seem to dislike buttercream as much as I do, would have endeared you to me even more. That bouche looks scrumptious and beautiful. Before I even read the part about Chirac’s nether parts, I was loving your mushrooms. Romain is a wit! And your cleaning lady a riot.

    Thank you for sharing and the best of New Years for you David. May all that is wonderful and tasty come your way.

  • I wish I had Christmas at your house! Everything looks wonderful.

    I can’t believe there is a mortar and pestle larger than mine. I carried it back to NY from Seattle, and did some serious damage to my shoulder muscles! It was worth it.

  • The buche looks beautiful and such a lovely description of the mushrooms. Now everyone in my office officially thinks I’m nuts because I am laughing out loud at my computer…
    Healthy Happy New Year to all!

  • What an entertaining post, David! I felt I was right there with you, sitting around the table. I’d kill for those oysters!

    Your Buche looks lovely! Ricotta was a great idea. I just spent 3 days making one of my own, so I know how much work it is. Never again!

    Bonne Année!

  • That is seriously a Bûche de Noël to swoon over. A hell of a lot of work, but it looks like it was worth every bite!
    The image of Romain explaining the mushrooms to the table is one that will keep me giggling for a long time. Classic.

    Enjoy the rest of your holidays and I hope to see you in the New Year!

  • God those oysters look fantastic. That is one French tradition I am co-opting for America! Provided I can find some decent looking oysters to buy by the crate of course.

  • This is the second time in a month you have given me oyster cravings. Pass the mignonette!

  • I’m glad you had a good Christmas and birthday. The table looked lovely and so full of beautiful things to indulge in.

    Maybe the reason I’ve never been charmed by ‘buche’ at Christmas is because of the buttercream. I know this sounds odd, but I’ve even preferred fruitcake over those sticky, sweet and heavy yule logs ~ and I don’t love (usually citron filled) fruitcake either! Your sticky toffee pudding was sure a hit at my house, so thanks for that!

  • This is such an amazing dinner, so absolutely special, it reminds me of a real-life Babette’s Feast.

  • David,
    I think this is my favorite post from you. The quip about President Chirac is what I wish were in cookbooks, humor and a little sarcasm. They tend to be boring at times, life and cookbooks should be fun.
    I always wanted to live in Paris but as peoples experiences there are not always so positive, I have reconsidered that idea. Reading your blog is interesting and I love that you don’t take it all so seriously. It tells me that blowing off the snobbery is far more fun than being offended. Perhaps some day I will be there if even for a visit, but maybe not in the middle of winter.
    In the third and fifth photos, the beautiful green plate seems to have a divided bowl area or two. What is that for, if I saw correctly? The photos of your meal are lovely. I am not a fan of overdone food, I sort of feel that the beauty of Gods gifts are pretty extraordinary on their own.
    Loved this one!

  • Amber: I’m pretty sure those are oyster plates. At least that’s what we used them for.

    And while there’s no shortage of snobbery here, there’s also a lot of interesting people, but you have to invest the time in getting to know others, unlike elsewhere. It’s something I’ve adapted too, but it’s taken time…and energy.

    Sunny: That’s a great question from your Dad! I’m going to remember that one. Thanks.

  • These photos are absolutely beautiful … what a beautiful mood, day, and meal! Hope it was as lovely as it looked.

  • Hi David -

    Your Bûche de Noël looks beautiful. Maybe next year I’ll fill my Bûche with the lemon curd-ricotta filling. This year it was the filling for my cannoli shells. Gotta love the meringue mushrooms too.

    What’s the likelihood that there’ll be oysters when we arrive in Paris in January? Hopefully we’ll get lucky.

    A belated Happy Birthday to you and Happy New Year!

  • Wow, love the mortar & pestles. They must be massive-is that a crack developing on the mantle – or just a vein in the granite?
    A belated happy BDay to you David thanks for another year of wonderful posts that start my mornings on a humorous note.

  • David,
    I second the opinion of best post yet!

    I leave Austin to go home to Baton Rouge every Christmas, and oysters are quickly becoming a Christmas tradition for me too, as they are plentiful in Louisiana restaurants but not in Texas. Now I feel connected to a wider world tradition.

    Thanks for the writing and humor.

  • Sounded like a very nice Christmas Dinner (I am assuming it was dinner). I’ve never seen a mortar and pestle this size and I can’t wait to see what you are going to make in it!
    Happy 2009

  • Oh David………once again, you did not fail to entertain. I love your Christmas Dinner – tres Parisien. We had to settle with a lighter version of an American Christmas as we were awaiting the arrival of the newest member of the family. She was so thoughful and did not make an appearance until Boxing Day to the delight of her English mother who was able to concentrate on the first born daughter who is four. I am digressing – your dinner is what I would have preferred but I’m ecstatic nonetheless for having a new abby in the family!!!
    Je te souhaite une tres bonne annee!!!!

  • Sigh. I have been celebrating Christmas in the wrong tradition–midwestern American. The way you celebrated was far more lovely. I think I will start practicing for next year’s Buche de Noel tomorrow!

    By the way, I am giggling because I was in the middle of a few tasks but thought I would stop and read your post. You know, just take a quick minute. Which turned out to be ten! It was the longest post ever! I almost burned the friendship bars. Not that I ever tire of your posts. Now to taste the bars…

  • What a great post. I enjoyed my Christmas, but if I could have been in two places at once…

    I am also delighted to know that French people aren’t born oyster-openers.

  • Sounds like you’ve had a wonderful Christmas. Hope you have a very Happy New Year!

  • My husband and have been recently introduced to you and your blog through an international food documentary a few months ago. We have enjoyed your stories and adventures, plus, the recipes and recommended restaurants, etc., in SF, NY and Paris. All three are places we frequent a lot each year. Your leg work in searching out new places that are unique and that produce great food has been so helpful. Thank you! Our traditional Christmas eve dinner is similar in some ways to your Parisian one. We make lobster bisque beginning with boiling down the shells,etc., after removing the meat. We have tried out several recipes and the one we have made for the last five years is the best. The brandy added does not hurt! We make homemade crunchy multigrain bread, tomato soup (with some of us mixing the bisque with some tomato,) and ham roll-ups which are slices of smoked ham filled with a rice mixture of jalapenos and jack cheese, Clementines, green salad and vinaigrette and buche de noel with snowballs (vanilla ice cream rolled in fresh coconut), finish the meal. Champagne and coffee are served. We live on the Central Coast of California. Having seafood for dinner is a frequent occurance and a natural for us on Christmas Eve.
    Wishing you and healthy, joyful, peaceful, adventuresome 2009 and much success in ferreting out those food gems. Kathleen and Don

  • Those are absolutely gorgeous champignons! But I’m surprised that you don’t make pastry bags from parchment?

    As for the bread and butter, you must admit that, in Europe, bread tastes so good you don’t NEED butter. Whereas in the US, much bread is, unfortunately, just a delivery device for the butter… I’d go back to Paris just for the food. I think the best meal I had there was a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette, which I ate in the Jardin des Tuileries, watching children sail their toy boats in the fountains…

    Hi Cara: I do make parchment paper cones, but the quantity of meringue, and the large opening of the tip required, makes using a pastry bag for these mushrooms a whole lot easier. (Especially since I had too many egg whites and made 4 sheet pans of them!) -dl

  • 2008 was the year I discovered your blog and some of your creations have become family favourites.

    My children call your chocolate-covered matzoh crackers “jesters” – long story but it won our family competition name. We can’t get matzoh where we live so I make them with wholemeal saltines and pretend they are vaguely healthy.

    We farewelled a friend going to a largely chocolate-free country with your chilli-chocolate mini cakes. She was in heaven.

    And for Christmas I made the prune tiramisu. My Italian relatives were doubtful — prunes in tiramisu!!! — but I saw my about-to-be sister-in-law licking the container afterwards. What better endorsement can you get?

    So thank-you and all the best for 2009. I’m looking forward to many more enjoyable posts and great recipes.

  • The oysters and champagne are also a wonderful French combo for new year’s eve…many wonderful memories of “le Saint Sylvestre” spent slurping oysters and drinking bubbly.

    Let’s not forget the other time that the French will consume butter on bread, when accompanying a dish of fresh radishes…the taste combination is exquisite.

    Bonne Annee!

  • I like rustic. Your Buche was beautiful and the filling sounded divine!

  • you did it!!

  • Bonne Année, David.

  • David – Just found your blog and it is wonderful – full of wit, good recipes, terrific photos. I was wistful reading your buche de noel post since this is the first year in ages I did not make it, choosing to make a christmas bombe instead. But I missed it terribly and plan to make it next week for a “post hanukkah” party we are invited to with friends. I look forward to checking out your blog often. Buon Anno.

  • Bonne Annnee, Daveeed

    Enjoyed very much the story of your Christmas dinner. Brought some great memories. and I don’t use buttercream for my buche either. Well, I did once, and that was it! now it’s dark chocolate for the icing and chestnut mousse with candied ginger for the filling, and a sponge cake with lots of real Reunion vanilla seeds (and a little Reunion Rum) for the cake part.

    How I do miss oysters!

    Thanks again (and bien en retard, bon anniversaire!)

    Sylvie
    http://www.LaughingDuckGardens.com/ldblog.php/

  • In the words of Gomer Pyle, “Shazzam!” What an exquisite feast. In 2007, I had a very memorable Buche de Noel from a French Bakery in West Seattle. I expected a dandified jelly roll cake, but was blown away by the real McCoy. I do believe I heard angels sing in every bite. Here’s to your culinary gifts and the generous spirit in which you share them with the rest of us. Happy New Year, David!

  • Happy New Year and Happy (belated) Birthday! What a wonderful recounting of what looks like a truly wonderful, culinary day! I blush as I write this, but what a gorgeous Bûche!

  • Gorgeous spread! And it’s convinced me to never even think about making a Bûche de Noël.

    Your oysters and kimchi idea is actually pretty traditional. Not all Koreans serve kimchi that way but it isn’t at all uncommon to see that version at someone’s home or restaurants.

  • Happy belated birthday and New Year!!

    This post was bellissima.

  • David
    Am searching desperately for the actual Ricotta Buche recipe… Is it on your blog? Thanks, HRB

    Because of the number of steps (and ingredients) involved, it’d be a herculean task to write-up the recipe. Perhaps I might get to it in the future, but it’s not on the site at this time. -dl