‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE…
We pushed our way through the mad rush at the market, having hoped to avoid the Christmas Eve crowds by arriving early enough, but it seemed like half of Nantes was packed into the limited space, crawling up and down the alleys and lining up at each and every stall, only the best, most holiday-spirited of them not going all Scrooge on us and each other. My son trailed after me, having had enough of Christmas goodwill to drag himself out of bed and accompany me, making suggestions in his own 22-year-old style: slight sneer, rolling eyes in disbelief that his old mom and resident food blogger did not have the wherewithal to decide on a menu by herself. Phone stuck to the side of his head, hair elegantly brushed up, pearl gray scarf knotted at his neck and tucked into his designer jacket, looking for all the world like the chic young man about town and budding businessman that he is, growling out his suggestions as if each one was as obvious as the next, he followed me ten paces behind until we met up at the fish counter: smoked salmon, only the best, the price of gold ingots, and lovely little smoked haddock blinis, luxurious. Further down, we queued at the “fat lady’s” stand, as we so rudely yet lovingly refer to our favorite fishmonger, keeper of all things wonderful: oysters, mussels, crabs and lobster, and we snapped up a dozen plump, shimmering sea scallops amid the noise and bustle around us, closing in. We made sure that a chilled bottle of white fruity wine, the perfect partner for seafood, was nestled cozily deep in our basket and then fresh linguine at the Italian stand with a thick, creamy slice of gorgonzola, a swing by our fruit stand for a crisp paper bagful of sweet clementines and it was all we needed for our festive menu à trois. Popping into the warmth of our favorite boulangerie, breathing in the fragrance of a thousand warm-from-the-oven loaves and one round, dense, crusty pain bûcheron perched on the top of our provisions and we headed back out into the cold and home again. Even the lack of snow, the White Christmas I had been praying for, could not crush my holiday spirit. As I glanced up at the pewter sky, squinting against the misty drizzle, I smiled to myself, excited that this would turn out to be a wonderful day, a magical joyous weekend after all.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse on this beautiful inky black Christmas Eve. Clem and I bustled around the house, setting a glamorous table as is rarely seen chez nous, laying out platters of glistening olives and tiny marinated baby artichokes alongside the tray of smooth, smoky salmon and lining up the gaily-wrapped gifts on the mantel as we waited for JP to arrive home from work. Excitement filled the air as we glanced out into the quiet night, watching for his familiar stride. Our evening would be spent en famille, only Simon missing and missed, as we enjoyed a wonderful meal of Sea Scallops with Champagne Cream Sauce served over fresh pasta after the plates from our first course had been cleared away. After the meal, we adjourned to the livingroom with the last of the wine and exchanged gifts, many gifts, mostly thanks to Clem who, in the satisfied and happy glow of having finally received the new computer that he had been campaigning for for months, broke the bank and splurged on a mountain of gifts for his old folks. We settled in for the evening, sated and content, awash in the true pleasure that a happy family can give, pouring another glass of wine, passing around the sachets of chocolate-covered candied fruit and marrons glacés. No television was needed to pass the time as we chatted, flipped through our new books, admired all that we had received and listened as Clem talked about his around the world trip being planned for next summer, Marty digging happily through the gift wrap and ribbons at our feet.
The following day, Christmas day, the city slept on and on, nothing open, no sign of life in the streets below, silence hanging heavy under skies dawning cold, bright and clear. After a lazy morning in bed, our well-deserved and welcome grasse matinée, we hung around the house enjoying the calm. JP prepared me a lunch fit for a Roi Mage, a king, a magnificent Farfalle al Salmone, using up the last of the smoked salmon, some white mushrooms, garlic and cream he found to make this fabulous pasta dish, and we enjoyed yet another great meal. A stroll through Nantes left us in a funk, sad that the city wasn’t alive and noisy, festive and full of color and music. The only thing open was the cinema so we ducked inside, found a movie we had both wanted to see and ended the afternoon satisfied. We returned home in good moods all around to another cozy evening inside.
We tiptoe towards a new year (always just a little nervous about what may be in store for us) and this week between Christmas and New Year is the time most of us take a wistful look back, counting our blessings, adding up all the good things that have happened, analyzing the less than savory “incidents” that may have befallen us, the sad lined up next to the good like Santa’s list of Naughty and Nice. We think of the friends we have made and the loved ones we have lost, the many doors to adventure and opportunity that have been opened as well as what has passed us by, quite often due to our own reticence in reaching out and turning the doorknob ourselves. 2010 has been an exciting, albeit sometimes bumpy ride for us and, all in all, we end the year with a bang, a shower of glitter and tinsel, a veritable fireworks display! We haven’t had the white Christmas that I have been dreaming of, but the holiday weekend was filled with love and laughter and Santa brought me the gifts any girl would be thrilled with. And I smile as I think of the real gifts I have received, the happy marriage, the sons turning into bright, smart, productive young men, and the best, most truest friends I could have ever hoped for. I look towards the new year, 2011, with hope and excitement, projects galore and the wish of reward for passion and hard work, with hopefully a bit of adventure thrown into the bargain as well.
And we finish off the holiday celebrations with a wonderful dessert duo, a velvety smooth, luxuriously creamy, delicately and surprisingly-flavored Panna Cotta made using delicious, fragrant blueberry-hibiscus sugar, paired with chewy, flavorful macarons, a perfect match of cocoa and more blueberry-hibiscus sugar, filled with a rich ganache made from Blueberry Dark Chocolate, one of Lindt’s new fabulous array of flavored chocolates. As I sit back and dip my spoon into the Panna Cotta, take a bite out of a macaron, I wish you all a fabulous and happy holiday season and wonder what each of you will wish for in the year to come.
BLUEBERRY HIBISCUS PANNA COTTA
3 cups (750 ml) heavy cream, or a combination of heavy cream, light cream/half-and-half and/or whole milk
2 tsps (1/4 ounce, about 8 g) unflavored powdered gelatin
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (50 g) white granulated sugar
¼ cup (50g) blueberry-hibiscus sugar or other flavored sugar
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, place 1 cup (250 ml) of the cream mixture and sprinkle the gelatin on top. Allow to sit for 5 minutes to soften the gelatin. Turn on heat to low and allow to slowly heat and cook for a couple of minutes until the gelatin dissolves completely, whisking gently. The gelatin, until dissolved, will be golden shimmering splotches on the surface of the white cream. When the gelatin is dissolved these splotches will disappear.
Add the remaining cream mixture and the sugars to the warm cream and gelatin in the saucepan and continue to heat gently, just until sugar dissolves; add vanilla. This should take a few minutes. Allow to heat thoroughly.
Carefully pour the mixture into glasses or small bowls (using either a soup ladle or, better yet, pour the cream into a heatproof measuring glass and pour) and chill for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.
BLUBERRY CHOCOLATE MACARONS
7.2 oz (200 g) confectioner’s/powdered sugar
4 oz (115 g) ground blanched almonds
3 large egg whites (about 3.8 – 4 oz/ 110 – 112 g)
1 oz (30 g) white granulated sugar or half sugar + half blueberry-hibiscus sugar *
1 Tbs + 1 tsp (20 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
* I sifted my blueberry-hibiscus sugar in order to eliminate the solid bits so I ended up with only sugar. Then blend it with the white granulated sugar. Use any flavored sugar you like.
Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 – inch diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip.
Sift the powdered sugar, the ground almonds and the cocoa powder together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy. Gradually add the granulated sugars, both white and blueberry, as you continue to whip the whites until you obtain a glossy meringue and all of the sugar has been beaten in. The meringue will be very stiff (turn the bowl upside down over your head and they shouldn’t move) and be dense like marshmallow.
Gently but firmly fold the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds/cocoa, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds and test again. You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.
Fill your pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!
Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).
Allow the macarons to sit out for 45 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched and not stick to your skin). Bake the shells for 15 – 25 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.) I turn the trays back to front halfway through the baking.
Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool completely before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a metal cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up or by peeling the parchment paper from the back of the shells. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.
When the macaron shells are cool, pair the shells up evenly, each with a partner. Pipe a dollop, about a teaspoon, of ganache filling onto half of the shells, the bottom shell in each pair. Carefully sandwich the shells together.
BLUEBERRY CHOCOLATE GANACHE
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
4 ¼ oz (120 g) Lindt Excellence 70% Blueberry Dark Chocolate
Chop the chocolate and put in an appropriately-sized pyrex (heatproof) bowl. Heat the cream in a saucepan gently until it comes just to the boil. Pour the cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all of the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth and luxurious. Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally. It should thicken to a spreading/piping consistency. If you need to, speed up the process by placing in the refrigerator until desired spreading/piping consistency, stirring occasionally.