“What?!” my son exclaimed, his voice dripping with disbelief and just a hint of sarcasm. “Christmas? We’re celebrating Christmas? I don’t remember you guys doing anything for Christmas since we were kids and then only once or twice because Grandmère and Grandpère were visiting!” Well, he forgets last year, but this is pretty much true. Yet once in a while my husband feels not so much the pang of nostalgia as the occasional urgent need to reassert himself in a household of Jews. Even before the eighth Hanukkah candle was lit, before the last Hanukkah presents were purchased and exchanged, my husband began talking about Christmas.
Calling my husband a lapsed Catholic does a great disservice to his disconnect, his total repudiation of the religion in which he was raised. Since our sons were born, he has urged me to raise the boys Jewish, delighting, albeit from a respectful yarmulke-less distance, in each Shabbat meal, Passover Seder, the Hanukkah festivities. The glow and shimmer of festive candles, the peaceful warmth radiating throughout our home with each celebration, the scent of freshly baked Challah never fail to bring a smile to his face. Christmas traditions have always been eschewed, overshadowed by Menorahs, dreidls and potato latkes.
Our sons have never felt anything but Jewish even when winter vacations were spent hanging tinsel and shiny baubles from a hand-cut evergreen and placing tiny figurines of (according to our then-six-year-old son) “Joseph, a lady, a baby and some cows” on the mantle at their grandparents’ house. That long-ago surprise visit by le Père Noël himself fooled neither of our sensible – and Jewish – sons. They knew without a doubt that it was Tonton Claude behind that cotton fluff of a white beard. They have never missed Christmas, neither craved nor asked for it, not once wondered why they didn’t celebrate something that all of their friends did.
I can count the number of times we had a Christmas tree. The first was that lone year that we hosted my in-laws, a tree no higher than our younger son. My husband couldn’t have been more excited or taken a greater pleasure in his arts-and-crafts project with his sons, then maybe 4 and 6 years of age, that the advent of Christmas afforded. The three of them tromped out into the misty city to the market where they purchased a sack full of whole walnuts in their shells; their circuitous route then took them to the grocery store where a plastic tube of empty escargot shells was added to the booty, the seductive swirls so elegant and just perfect for the tree. Then home, stopping along the way for a spray can or two of sparkly gold paint. Once back at the apartment, newspaper spread across the marble floor, plate of cookies never far from small hands, they spray painted all the walnuts and shells gold, strung them and wrapped them round and round the tree. We dug out the shoebox containing how many years of handmade ornaments from preschool and we stood back and behold a glorious tree!
The second time was about four or five years ago when older son, then in high school, initiated the Christmas proceedings. Out of the blue he began begging us to put up a tree. Now, as anyone knows, I am a sucker for Christmas trimmings: the lush swags of greenery dotted with red bows, the gay garlands of colored bulbs flashing and glowing, the shimmering tinsel, the ever-so elegant fairy lights. The music, the carols, the sappy old holiday movies. So when he decided that we absolutely had to have a Christmas tree – no explanation was necessary and none given any more than “Why not? We are half Christian and can have a tree if we want!” I pretended to argue, my “absolutely not in my home” may have sounded less than firm while husband, the more dubious of us two, put his foot down, insisting that if Clem brought home a tree then Clem would be the one to drag it right out of the apartment again as soon as the holiday was over. And sure enough if Clem didn’t dash right out and drag one home and prop it up in the living room. Didn’t think he had either the gumption or the energy (mostly the energy...this was an adolescent, after all). We then decorated and enjoyed a lovely Christmas Eve meal in front of that damn tree… which was still hanging around a month or so later, son having decided that it was not up to him to remove the now-rotting tree or clean up the pine needles now scattered across the floor. Or if it was, then it was purely up to him to decide when he would be ready to drag it out of the house.
This year, husband asked for a low-key Christmas. No decorations – there is still barely room to move through the apartment and tabletops are still crowded with objects not yet stored – simply a nice meal en famille, some traditional smoked salmon, foie gras, boudin blanc… and small gifts all around. And a bûche. My husband has been asking me to make a bûche for the last few Christmasses. He has hinted, asked outright, cut out recipes and photographs from magazines and tacked them up on the kitchen wall. He has poked and teased and outright begged for that bûche. But to no avail. Until this week. I made that bûche. Aren’t we all full of little surprises?
A selection of my favorite holiday dessert recipes:
Chocolate Chestnut Fondant
Chocolate Chestnut Layer Cake
Chocolate Chestnut Charlotte
Gingerbread Macarons with Chocolate Chestnut Cognac Ganache
Decadent Chocolate Cake with Christmas Spices
CHRISTMAS BÛCHE – BÛCHE DE NOËL
For the Genoise:
This is a magnificent genoise for any jellyroll cake any time of the year.
4 large eggs, separated
½ cup (100 g) sugar
½ tsp vanilla
4/5 cup (100 g) flour
Powdered/confectioner’s sugar and a sifter.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 15 ½ x 10 ½ x ¾ inch (40 x 27 x 2 cm) jellyroll pan with parchment paper and lightly butter the parchment. Have a clean dishtowel larger than the jellyroll pan as well as a clean flat baking sheet ready.
Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in large mixing bowl and the whites in a very clean medium-sized bowl (I prefer plastic). If you like, add a tiny pinch of salt and 2 drops lemon juice to the whites to help stabilize them. Add the sugar to the yolks and beat with an electric mixer on high until thick, creamy and pale; Beat in the vanilla.
Using very clean beaters, beat the whites until stiff peaks hold and the meringue is very thick. Fold the whites into the yolk/sugar mixture gently but firmly using a spatula, a third of the whites at a time. Do not over mix/fold but do make sure there are no more clumps of whites visible.
Spread the batter evenly in the parchment-lined jellyroll pan. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes or until puffed, golden and the cake springs back when lightly pressed.
Remove from the oven. Immediately slide the parchment paper and cake together onto the large flat baking sheet. Invert the warm jellyroll pan and place on top of the genoise and, holding both the jellyroll pan and the baking sheet firmly together, flip them over and remove the baking sheet; the top of the genoise is now face down while the parchment paper is up. Peel off the parchment paper. Dust a light layer of powdered sugar all over the genoise and then place the clean dishtowel over the genoise. Once again place the clean baking sheet inverted on the dishtowel-covered cake and, holding the baking sheet and the jellyroll pan firmly together, flip. Remove the jellyroll pan.
You should now have the warm genoise topside up on the clean dishtowel on the flat baking sheet. Dust the top of the genoise with a light layer of powder sugar and, starting on a short end of the cake, roll the genoise up – gently but as tightly as possible without crushing or breaking the cake - in the towel (the towel will be rolled up with the cake). Allow to cool completely.
For the Cointreau Sugar Syrup:
Scant half cup (100 ml) water
Scant 3/8 cup (80 g) sugar
2 Tbs Cointreau or Grand Marnier
Place the water with the sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Let boil for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Stir in the Cointreau. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
For the Chocolate Buttercream and the Chocolate Chestnut Mascarpone Filling:
8 Tbs (120 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
12 oz (350 g) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
2 oz (50 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
4 Tbs boiling water
7 – 8 ½ oz (200 – 250 g) fresh mascarpone cheese
3 ½ oz (100 g) sweetened chestnut cream (crème de marrons)
1 Tbs Cointreau, optional
Place the soft butter with the powdered sugar in a mixing bowl and beat until well blended, light and fluffy. Add the cocoa powder and the hot water and beat until well blended and creamy.
Divide the Chocolate Buttercream evenly in two and reserve one portion to frost the bûche. Place the rest in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the chestnut cream and then beat in the mascarpone little by little until desired consistency and flavor (I added more mascarpone to temper the sweetness). Add a tablespoon of Cointreau if desired.
Assemble the bûche:
When the genoise is completely cool, carefully unroll and slide off the dishtowel and onto a clean sheet of parchment paper. Brush a generous amount of the Cointreau Syrup all over the genoise, as much or as little as desired. Spread the Chocolate Chestnut Mascarpone evenly over the genoise. Starting at the short end of the genoise (the end rolled up in the towel to cool), roll up the cake. When completely rolled, scrape off any chocolate filling that has oozed out. Using a sharp or serrated knife, trim off both ends of the bûche to even out the ends. Very carefully, lift the bûche onto the serving platter, placing the seam side down on the platter.
At this point, I covered the bûche and the platter with plastic wrap and refrigerated it for several hours to allow the filling to firm up.
Before serving, spread the Chocolate Buttercream all over the bûche and decorate as desired.
Serve, slicing with a very sharp or serrated knife.