25 December 2008

Vive la bûche de Noël

Growing up, I was aware of "yule logs" only as the perpetually burning log in the fireplace.  If you didn't have your own fireplace (which we usually didn't, living most often in urban apartment buildings), there was always the televised fireplace flickering for hours on some public access channel--which my family firmly resisted.  I watched my share of "Frosty the Snowman," "A Charlie Brown Christmas"--and let's not forget the classic "It's a Wonderful Life" with Zuzu's petals!--but television was not something we were going to make the centerpiece of our living room, sitting around a cold box wishing for real flames.  But this is beside the point.

The point being that to other people, out there in other parts of the world--certainly to my husband and his family--a "yule log" has always signified less something to burn as something to bake.  According to him, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a Bûche de Noêl, the sponge cake slathered with chocolate buttercream and rolled up to look like a log (covered 
with more buttercream).

Several years ago, my husband revived the recipe in our home.  Having a child of our own, no doubt, made stronger his desire to preserve his own family traditions from France.  I have to confess that at first, I was a bit disappointed.  Something about the dessert seemed too ordinary to me, although its shape was unique to the season.  Buttercream cake, to me, was just the most typical of American-style cakes--something everyone had for their birthday.  And the form of the bûche reminded me of a "jelly roll," which is something I never particularly liked.

A side note: every year I am thankful that we do not have to have arguments over when to celebrate Christmas (the eve or the morning) or at whose house.  
I know this can be a source of tension for many couples.  We just celebrate twice: Christmas eve at our own house, with whichever French relatives are in New York; Christmas day up in Connecticut with my parents.  My husband's family have always exchanged gifts and done their big meal on Christmas eve; we have always waited until Christmas day.  To pull this back around to the bûche, I used to be relieved that we could satisfy my husband's desire for the traditional French dessert, and then I could make something different for Christmas day.  Of course, eating two big meals in the span of less than 24 hours is no easy feat, either.

Another reason I was disappointed in the bûche was that it took my husband a few years to get the recipe right.  This is not his fault.  The recipe is his mother's (of course) and it is not always easy to convert metric and celsius weights and temperatures to our Imperial measurement system.  The first year, if I recall, the cake stayed in the oven too long and became dry and hard to roll.  My husband's solution was to moisten the cake with undiluted rum--way too much rum!--and you'd have done just as well with a straw (and a ready cure for a hangover) as a spoon.  The next year, I don't recall what seemed to go awry; maybe the chocolate was too sweet, as is the sad case with much of the chocolate in the U.S.

And then--horrors!--my husband began to want to share this confection with my family on Christmas day as well.  Two meals, two yule logs.  I thought it would be a one-time event, so I relinquished my title as "dessert provider" for the family (always my contribution, at any event where food is featured), and we ate a so-so bûche.  Then another.

At this point, it would be charitable of me to reveal that in intervening years, my husband started to perfect his recipe, adapted for our American kitchen (more on what an "American kitchen" means in some future post; it's got a very specific sense if you say this to a French person).  And it would be generous as well as accurate to say that, in fact, I have finally come to enjoy (more than my share of) this dessert.  My husband has figured out exactly how long it needs to cook to retain its spongy moistness.  
He has begun to spike it with simple sugar syrup (though we are now thinking a small touch of rum could come back into the picture).  The chocolate he used this year was an unqualified success.  And it's great to see my son enjoying the bûche as I know my husband did when he was a child.

Perhaps I also warmed up to the bûche during the single year that I myself created one.  My son's preschool, which is international in its focus, was having a holiday party, and  I volunteered to supply (what else?) dessert.  The bûche really was a great choice for the impact of tradition and ethnicity.  Of course I refused to make my mother-in-law's recipe; I had seen a version of bûche that was much fancier, more "gourmet," and I spent many hours laboring over it.  In fact, it was quite good--better than the ones my husband had been turning out in those early years--and it was more pleasing to my artist's eye: I made the chocolate look much more like bark, I thought, and I also added meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa powder (they looked real, were whimsical and fun, and tasted great).  But it was clear that, to my husband, it just wasn't the same.  And I do understand, really.

So, this year, for many reasons, my husband once again was the Christmas chef.  And to give him his due... we had the best Christmas eve meal ever.  Cassoulet (see photo, right), while not traditional as a Christmas recipe, is the dish most associated with his hometown of Toulouse, France.  I will not reveal the source of our ingredients--the duck, the special brand of haricots, the sausage and such--but will say that the whole lived up to, and even surpassed, the sum of its high-quality parts.  A perfect dish on a cold winter's eve, a one-pot family meal to warm the body and soul.  And the bûche: it should be said, this year, it was close to perfection.  Close, I say, because I admit I still long for the pastry art details that please my eye; I miss the meringue mushrooms.  But the taste was wonderful, and I happily ate seconds--on both Christmas eve and Christmas day!

(As a sort of post-script, I will say that although my eye enjoys artistry, I do appreciate the simplicity and the humbleness of the dessert "tout simple"--the lack of fussiness in our bûche.  Even the one I made myself, while "fancy" in some ways, was very modest compared to the commercialized frenzy of the name-brand versions peddled in Parisian boutiques.  Especially in the current economic climate--though this has always been my opinion, even in flush times--I find wealth displays and conspicuous consumption distasteful.  A friend of mine forwarded the following New York Times article about just this subject as applied to end-of-year traditions of champagne and yule logs, and I have to say that I agree with the "scrooges" when it comes to the level of excess depicted here.)

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

23 December 2008

For Maria in Chania, Greece

A supplemental post tonight, just to reach out to a fellow blogger--someone I have never met but am quite sure I would like very much if I ever had the occasion.

It is Christmastime, and while many of us are wrapped up in our plans, our holiday traditions, wanting to stay safe in the illusion that our lives can be, even momentarily, comfortable and festive (and I maintain we must create these pockets of security for ourselves, for our children, especially the young ones)... it is easy to get myopic and pay less attention to those beyond our thresholds, our borders.  I myself am only emerging briefly from myopia--not for holiday reasons exactly; I am on an incredibly tight deadline, editing a book... and I have had to shut myself off from all media for days, just to juggle the current professional needs with my other full time duty: being Mom.  I am very, very thankful for this work right now, but also need to remind myself that part of life in a "melting pot" is to keep up with others across the globe.

I have just posted an entry about--what else?--Greek holiday cookies, and I want now to acknowledge how out of step in many ways that post feels to me, now that I have had the chance to catch up on news from Greece.

If, by chance (and I'm sure this is more likely to be true for my American compatriots, than for my friends and family in Europe; that is a constant embarrassment) you have not yet heard about the recent, holiday-sobering incidents in Greece, I recommend you take a look at this post from the blog Organically Cooked.

Please, go ahead and read my own hopes for pastries in my post from earlier tonight.  Be kind to me in my editorial blur, and do not think me Antoinette-ish.  But know that my heart is with those families in Greece who might not taste the sweets this holiday season as much as they worry for the future of their country's youth.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.  Maria, thank you for your continued posts.

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

07 December 2008

A City Christmas Tree

Well, we did it.  We broke with tradition this year.  No trip to the country, to a hayride and hot apple cider and a cut-your-own experience "en famille" out on a tree farm.  But all is not lost.  In remaining city-bound this year, we participated in a time-honored urban Christmas ritual: visiting the "tree man" on the corner.

We started out by reading a fabulous children's book that I enthusiastically recommend to everyone: Rebecca Bond's magical story, A City Christmas Tree (link to view on amazon).  No other book I've seen captures this aspect of a city Christmas, and this book matches beautiful, lyrical writing and a great family message with luscious illustrations.  Each family member in this story has a unique vision of the tree, a favorite element--the scent, the color, the lights, the angel on top, the family who will gather around it--and in the end, the city is peaceful and calm, beautiful in the light of "hundreds of Christmas tree trees."

So, bundled against the cold (I regret there is no snow yet this season), we headed outside and down Second Avenue to 26th Street, where a small forest of precut trees--nonetheless beautiful and perfuming the block--awaited our inspection.  And where we found our very own "Christmas tree man" ready to guide us.

(Here let me just acknowledge that all over the city, there are also young women sitting out in the cold all day and into the night, sleeping in vans, helping city dwellers find their perfect bit of a country Christmas imported into the asphalt jungle.  I commend these women and men--this transient population, spreaders of good cheer and pine needles--it's a tough job, and I hope they are paid well for their work; they earn it.)

After the usual looking, rejecting , negotiating over the price and looking some more, we found a great Douglas Fir--this being our annual preference among the other varieties--and when we asked, we were told that our particular tree came from Pennsylvania.  Selection made, price agreed, "Franck from Montreal" (we noticed his accent) put our tree into the bundling machine, cut off some of the trunk to give our tree the best chance at drawing up water once in our tree stand, and our transaction was finished.

My son, the budding photographer, is the one who documented the day's excursion with the following pictures of Franck, who is posing with our tree and preparing it for transport.

Come to think of it, perhaps the next time we're heading down 2nd Avenue, we'll remember Franck and bring him some hot cocoa and cookies...

For now, though, we're busy and warm inside: we have a tree to decorate!

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

06 December 2008

Christmas Cookies: Frosted Trees

Here's a bit of holiday cheer!

And if you think these cookies have sparkle... 

You should have seen the twinkle in my kindergartener's eye when he saw the results of today's culinary labor--though I ought not call it "labor," it was simply too much messy fun for all involved.

There is nothing like the first batch of Christmas cookies to build a kid's anticipation as we head into the December season.  Yes, these cookies are gaudy, and no they're in no way good for the body... but for the childlike spirit inside--no matter your age--these do the trick.  You start listening for sleigh bells and a certain jolly toy-maker.  You lick your lips and beg for just one more cookie, please... one more marshmallow in your mug of hot chocolate, you swear it won't ruin your dinner later on.  And as you munch and sip, smile and dream, yes, you know it's time to pull out the yuletide CD and brush up on your caroling.  (At least, that's what we did today, waiting for the icing on the cookies to harden.  My son is hooked on Nat King Cole singing "Joy to the World" and all the rest, and I wonder if, a year gone by, he remembers the catalog of gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas"?)

Of course if it weren't for the chronological child in the family, I'd have nothing to do with such fare, so I pause to thank him here, because I have to admit that these colorful cut-out cookies make my eyes light up, too.  They get me in the right spirit, and suddenly I can really remember what it's like to be five years old and counting the days until the 25th of December: it's exciting, and pure magic.

For the child (or "inner child") in your life, here's a simple butter cookie recipe, with directions for royal icing.

Basic Sugar Cookies
(makes approximately 3 dozen cookies, depending on size of cutters)

1/3 cup butter (no substitutes), softened
1/3 cup shortening (such as Crisco brand)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
dash of salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour

Beat butter and shortening in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds.  Add sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Beat till combined, scraping bowl occasionally.  Beat in egg and vanilla till combined.  Beat in as much of the flour as you can, and stir in remaining flour with a wooden spoon.  Divide dough in half.  Form each half into a disk and wrap in plastic.  Chill in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 375F.  Roll one dough portion at a time on a lightly floured surface, until 1/8-inch thick.  Cut with desired cookie cutters.  Place cutouts on an ungreased cookie sheet.  Bake 7-8 minutes or till edges are firm and bottoms lightly browned.  Transfer to wire rack to cool.

To store: Place cookies in layers separated by wax paper in a shallow container; cover.  Store at room temperature up to 1 week or freeze (unfrosted) for up to 3 months.  If freezing, allow to thaw before icing.

Royal Icing
(This makes a lot of icing; I always have too much left over.  I recommend cutting the recipe in half!)

3 TBS meringue powder
16-ounce package powdered sugar (=4.5 cups), sifted
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup warm water

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Beat with an electric mixer on high speed for 7-10 minutes or till mixture is extremely stiff.  Cover icing with clear plastic wrap.  You can use small portions of the icing to mix individual colors--try to use small amounts of natural food coloring; if using paste food coloring, remember that a very little goes a long way.

Decorating Your Cookies

Have fun and let your imagination lead the way!  Sprinkle cookies with sanding sugar or other decoration while royal icing is still wet.  One technique you may want to try is using a small paintbrush (dedicated only for food) to paint designs: paint patterns on cookies that have already been iced and have dried, or paint on still-wet royal icing and swirl to blend colors in pretty patterns.

Of course if you're like most children, you will succumb to the "little bit of everything" desire and your cookies will be a collage of color and every conceivable topping.  (More is just more, but sometimes it's better!)

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.

02 December 2008

Thanksgiving Eulogy... Cranberry Christmas

Thanksgiving was just days ago, but already it is so "yesterday," so completely over, and I'm sorry to see it go.  I'm especially sorry when the spirit of thankfulness for what we have is so abruptly hijacked, twisted by society at large into a demand for what we do not have but want, and what we cannot afford but often buy anyway.  I am proud to say that although there have been past excesses in the family, none of my clan has ever considered credit card debt a mandatory part of Advent; our "waiting" has never been in fear of January interest rates to pay for December foolishness.  This year, with our economy in shambles, it is even more important to keep our perspective.

Still, Madison Avenue continues to sing out its hopeful jingle--"spend, spend, spend"--and the usual signs of a commercial Christmas in the city have arrived.  We will indulge in some of it: enjoy the white lights everywhere on bare tree branches, watch the skaters at Rockefeller Center and maybe skate ourselves (but at nearby Bryant Park, a better value), eat roasted chestnuts sold by the hot-dog vendors, file past the elaborate windows of the big department stores.  This year, for various reasons, we will probably eschew our annual "cut-your-own" tradition in the country and even purchase a city Christmas tree on some corner of Second Avenue (we will be careful to turn it over to a wood-chipper for mulch when the time comes).

So, Christmas is already in the air; carols are being piped in to stores.  Even if you're only shopping for groceries, it's hard to avoid the audio cues of sugarplums and sleigh bells and someone's mother kissing Santa Claus while you pick your eggnog off the shelf.

But this post is a final look back at Thanksgiving, and a reminder that if you're in shopping mode and looking for culinary bargains, this could be the time to buy... marked-down cranberries!  Some of you have already done this, I know.  In fact, this post is dedicated to one of my blog followers, Waterside Mom, who scooped up some cranberries recently and was less than satisfied with the results of the package recipe for cranberry sauce.  Some of you, on the other hand, are perhaps glad to be rid of the focus on this bitter fruit, made too cloyingly sweet in most commercial preparations.

I will simply advocate the following easy-to-prepare recipe, and say that cranberries make a great transition from Thanksgiving to other holiday meals and festivities.  In fact, although I myself tend to associate cranberries with Thanksgiving, it's true that one of the best Christmas decorations in family memory was the year my mom and I made hand-strung garlands of popcorn and cranberries and draped them around the tree.  Plus, I remember a wonderful children's book, Cranberry Christmas, that was around when I was a child, and can still be found on Amazon.com (click the book title to--what else?--shop!).

Here, please find my own modified version of a family cranberry classic.  Enjoy it, and remember to keep the Thanksgiving spirit throughout the year.  We are still very blessed, no matter what losses we suffer.

Cranberry Nut Relish
(for the nut-allergic, simply omit walnuts)

1 pound fresh cranberries, washed and picked over*
1 cup granulated sugar (can be cut down to 3/4 cup)
1 lemon, juiced
8 ounces orange-apricot marmalade or fruit spread**
1 cup walnuts, broken into pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
Toast walnuts in the oven for approximately 10 minutes; set aside.

In an oven-proof (pyrex) dish, combine cranberries, sugar, and lemon juice until well blended.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour.  (Depending on the depth of your dish, you may want to place a baking sheet on a rack under cranberries to catch juice that bubbles over.)

When cranberries come out of the oven, add marmalade and toasted walnuts, and mix well.

Let cool and put into glass containers.  Store in refrigerator.  Keeps indefinitely.

Serve hot or cold.  (We always have it warm!)  If the relish crystalizes, reheat it.

* NOTE: If using frozen cranberries... thaw them first.  I know from messy experience that if you put frozen cranberries into the oven, they will explode and you will not only lose your recipe but also spend hours cleaning out the stove!

** This year I used Sarabeth's brand "Orange Apricot Marmalade" and it was delicious.  The original recipe calls for regular orange marmalade, but the combination of orange with apricot brings a bit more complexity and balances bitter with sweet much better.  The recipe is very forgiving, though, so experiment with whatever orange and/or apricot preserves you have.

© All Rights Reserved/Melting Pot Family. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from the author, Allison Cay Parker.