Monday, December 24, 2007

Dates In December

Let’s just say it’s a good thing I am able to resist the temptation to spill the beans ahead of time, because this post was supposed to be about a date with a certain French president (who shall remain nameless to protect all parties involved) and me at Euro Disney...but that pesky little dial tone problem continues and he kept getting dumped into my voice mailbox with no response (like everyone else who has tried to call me in the last couple of months. Thanks “Ahl-leese"*!)

Alas, he finally gave up, thinking I was avoiding his calls. That certain model/singer (in fact, a couple of her songs are favorites of mine...I know all the French...and could have sung them quietly in one of those ears of his...had it been me...but it wasn’t...but I digress)...she was second...hmmm...perhaps she was even third on the list of possible dates...but really, dear was supposed to be me.

So no pics of me and the French prez in the spinning tasses et soucoupes**, or whipping around the Matterhorn with our arms extended over our heads, mouths wide open in a shared joyous scream...nope. And I would not have brought my mother, brazen hussy that I am! (Well, actually that decision would have been made so I could get a word in edgewise...but I digress...) I’m fairly confident that he could have avoided the swarms of international reporters had it been me, too...sigh...oh well. If it’s not to be me, then I give my blessings to her...and you’ll just have to hear about the dates that are a part of the 13 desserts, traditional here in Provence, instead of...that other date.

The custom of the 13 desserts that follow the Gros Supper (Big Meal) after midnight mass on Christmas Eve dates (no pun intended here) back to the Middle Ages. It’s a long evening spent with family, a roaring fire going in the corner and tales being told around the table...some traditional, some on one another. Lots of good food and laughter (and wine) make the evening a feast that surpasses the American Thanksgiving in the food category.

It was Marie Gasquet of St. Rèmy de Provence, who wrote extensively on the subject in 1870 saying that one must have 13 desserts, 12 of which incorporate the products of the home, the country, the garden and the 13th would be the dates, symbolizing the Christ coming to the orient.

The table is set with three tablecloths, one on top of another, representing the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atop these covers will be placed three candles and decorations of holly and/or corn stalks sown before the middle of December and the wheat grass that was planted back on Ste. Barbe’s Day. (There will be absolutely no mistletoe, though, as it brings unhappiness in these parts!) There is a dinner that precedes this array of goodies but for now we are skipping dinner and going straight to dessert. (Don’t tell me you haven’t wanted to do that every now and then!)

The 13 desserts are said to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. They consist (mostly) of products of nature and represent, once again, the agricultural ties – and resulting bounty – of this region. The middle of winter is the chance to savor what was gathered in the autumn and then stored or dried or made into jams or jellies.

There are always 13 desserts but the exact items vary by local or familial tradition. In the old tradition, the food would be set out on Christmas Eve and remain on the table for three days until December 27.

All 13 desserts must be served at the same time and the guests must taste each one of them. (And finish what they take!)

If you'd like to count along with me, those 13 desserts include:

(1) The fougasse, or olive oil bread, which is made rich with olive oil, a touch of orange water (hinting back to its cousin, the brioche) and a bit of brown sugar, must be broken by hand and never cut or you will certainly see ruin in the new year. I have a sense that each family has a favorite recipe and style for this lovely stuff and there are many artisanal varieties from which to choose as well.

(2-3) The white nougat of sugar, eggs and hazel nuts, pinions or pistachios symbolizes “good”. Since “good” always has its shadow side, black nougat, made with honey and almonds represents its counterpart, symbolizing impurity and the forces of evil.

(4-7) Les Quatre Mediants, or “four beggars", represent the four mendicant monastic orders: Raisins (The Dominicans), Walnuts or hazelnuts (The Augustines), Dried Figs (The Franciscans), and Almonds (The Carmelite nuns).

(8) Any assortment of fresh fruit might be found on the table such as pears, apples, grapes or winter melons as well as (9) a quince paste and/or candied or crystallized citrus fruit.

(10-11) Oranges and tangerines are definitely aplenty at this time of year in Provence and brighten up the winter table.

(12) For sweets, count on cookies such as navettes, (specialties of Marseille) or biscotti-like cookies from Aix, the almond-paste candies with sugar icing called calissons (another specialty of Aix), cumin or fennel seed cookies, fried dough cookies and oreillettes which are ear-shaped cookies. (Sometimes the oreillettes and navettes are saved for Candlemas, a holiday that will follow in the new year, but they have been known to be included in the cookie selection for the 13 desserts as well.)

There will often be a Pain d’Epice - a very reasonable and tasty version of a fruitcake (I love this stuff!) or perhaps a squash tart.

(13) This brings us to that previously mentioned date, representing the food of the region where Jesus lived and died....clearly not Euro Disney!

It’s all washed down with a sweet vin cuit or cooked wine, another specialty of Provence that makes an appearance at this time of year. This is not the mulled wine that is sold to warm the hearts and hands of holiday shoppers at the Christmas markets. This is a special wine that also has variations depending on who is stirring the proverbial pot. (It would seem that every culture has its “grog”!)

The party ends (by the way, that dinner we skipped to get to dessert: 7 courses, my friends! These desserts follow 7 courses!) with a Bûche de Noël (Yule log) being carried around the table by a pair made up of the youngest and oldest guests in the group. Representing the santons, they circle the table 3 times with a large chunk of log (preferably cut from a fruit tree) finally putting the log directly into the fireplace, where it catches fire and burns slowly. At the first sign of it actually catching fire, wine is thrown onto the flame to ensure a good vintage the following year...or salt for protection from sorcery. (I guess it depends on what the year has been like.) With the disappearance of the grand fireplaces that heated homes back in the day, this tradition has been replaced with a Yule log of a different type – a rolled cake filled with butter cream frosting. The array available at the local patisseries is something to see...and taste...resulting in not much bûche de noel baking happening in my little French kitchen, bien sûr!

And there you have it: the 13 Desserts in Provence. (And if you've gotten this far, this is one of those for credit posts at La Fourchette U!)

Christmas dinner will be of quite a different sort chez La Fourchette! You’ll have to stop in next week to see what a girl from the south of California does to bring a bit of her own traditions to her life in the south of France. But in the spirit forging new traditions - and in keeping with our theme - I will leave you with a bit of dessert.

Thanks to the New York Times’ cooking “Minimalist”, Mark Bittmann, and his charming cooking videos in the New York Times online, I was seduced into making chocolate truffles...and you can, too! (What ever happened to Steven Colbert's campaign?!) Mark (yes, we are on a first-name basis, thank you...I'll not be sitting by my not-ringing-telephone waiting for Nic, for goodness sakes...but I digress) made it look so easy. And it was. And I even found a way to give them my own southwest twist. They were tucked into little packages of goodies for friends and will probably be the stand-in for dates at my holiday dessert table...much like Carla Bruni was for me...but I digress...

Wishing you a joyous and delicious holiday wherever you are and in whatever manner you celebrate.

Bon Appétit!


* Alice, my telecommunications carrier that is not living up to its job description.
** cups and saucers

Chocolate Truffles (With a Southwest Twist)
(Adapted from Mark Bittman in the New York Times)

In the same fashion that I like the combination of sweet and salty simultaneously, I am a big fan of sweet and hot. The heat from the chili powder here may not be noticed immediately but the warmth will be there to accompany the hint of sweet and then soften any of the bitter edges of the dark chocolate. It's subtlety will depend on your proportions. I think it adds a kind of depth to the chocolate that takes it one step beyond being dusted with itself.

7/8 cup heavy cream

8 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed.

New Mexico Chili Powder

Cocoa Powder

1. Heat cream in a pot until it steams. Put chocolate in a bowl, pour hot cream on top, and stir until chocolate is melted and incorporated into cream.

2. Chill until solid all the way through, 1 to 2 hours. Using a spoon, scoop out spoonfuls according to the size you want your final truffle to be. (I made them with scoops of about 1 1/2 teaspoons) and quickly roll it into a ball. Repeat, lining truffles on a plate or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

3. If truffles become too soft to handle, place them in refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes. Roll them in blend of cocoa powder and chili powder mixed in about a 2:1 ratio. More if you with it here. I know I will! With this ratio, you will still feel the heat as a pleasant surprise. (Or you can use confectioners’ sugar, or a mixture of sugar and ground cinnamon, or keep it simple with just cocoa.)

Serve immediately or store, wrapped in plastic, in refrigerator for up to four days.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups ganache, or 24 truffles.

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