'Tis definitely the season to be merry and I am! My oven is humming, my kitchen warm and the scents of holiday baking are floating through the house.
The holidays, stretching from Christmas through New Year and onto Epiphany, are much more low key in France than they are in the United States. Stroll through Paris and once you've been dazzled by les vitrines, the display windows, of the city's major department stores, you may be hard put to find any other Christmas decorations aside from the general and generic swags of streetlights and garlands of red and green that dot the commercial district here and there. Most larger cities have their traditional Christmas markets aglow with colored lights and holiday spirit (Strasbourg's is a must see!), but many of these markets, such as ours here in Nantes, are mere parodies of anything even remotely traditional, selling kitschy bric-à-brac made of nuts and bolts or painted stones, scarves made in China and objects best left unbought. We do have wonderful holiday music piped in all through the shopping streets of center city and candy, houseware and toy shops are dressed to the nines, but it is nothing as gaudy and gay, whimsical, colorful or as outrageous as your average American town or city. These celebrations are as private and discreet as the French themselves.
Christmas decorations are making their glorious appearance in shops all over town, from supermarkets to the chicest boutiques, arrays of balls and trinkets, shimmering tinsel and garlands, lined up by theme and color, shades of precious golds and silvers hanging dramatically next to pure snowy white and lustrous crystal snowflakes and icicles, scintillating jewel-like blues, violets, reds and greens intertwined with tiny wooden brown reindeer and elves decked out in tiny felt outfits. The lights flicker off of pearly and iridescent gewgaws and baubles while strings of fairy lights in every color of the rainbow hang solemnly next to feathery and furry festoons, each more elegant than the next. Men and women select their decorations quietly, careful not to stray from this year's color theme; the entire organization, whether decorating the tree and diningroom or planning the Christmas meal, is done in a traditional and dignified manner.
Holiday meals in France are traditionally very elegant, formal affairs, sophisticated dinners in the glow of a graceful and sober Christmas tree. The last days of November find the markets abounding with seasonal, festive products, garland-draped stands overflowing with figs and pomegranates, chestnuts and cranberries, foie gras and mountains of lobster, crab and oysters while wine shops everywhere are stocking up on cases of Champagne. The French begin placing their orders with butchers and fishmongers from the first days of December, reserving the rare and expensive delicacies traditional to both the Christmas and New Year's Eve table. Dinners all over the country will open with platters of oysters and smoked salmon followed by gorgeous slices of foie gras accompanied by a savory-sweet fig chutney or plump boudin blanc, white sausage, studded with bits of black truffle or spiked with cognac served with sautéed apples. Turkey, goose or capon with chestnuts is to be found as the plat de résistance, the main course. And for dessert, the much awaited chocolate chestnut Bûche de Noël, the Yuletide Log, is proudly placed upon the table, a moist genoise cake rolled up, filled and iced with rich buttercream and decorated like a branch or log lying on the forest floor, a playground for elves and whimsical forest creatures. Les Treize Desserts, the 13 Desserts, representative of Jesus and the 12 Apostles, a selection of dried, fresh, candied and paste fruits and nuts as well as white and dark nougat, will be presented in a luxurious array and marrons glacés, sugary candied chestnuts, the ultimate Christmas confection, the crowning glory of the holiday, are offered to all guests.
Never one to thumb my nose at tradition, I still like one with a twist. Taking the basic idea of cake with buttercream, chocolate and chestnuts, I have prepared an elegant and festive dessert, ideal for your Christmas or New Year's Eve celebration, luscious and fancy, perfect with champagne. A gorgeous treat, rich in flavor yet light enough to round off a celebratory meal without pushing you over the edge. Barely sweet, feather light chestnut mousse filling, its nuttiness perfectly matched to the sweet chocolate buttercream cradled in tender, moist vanilla sponge.
CHOCOLATE CHESTNUT CHARLOTTE
Prepare the sponge cake filled with chocolate buttercream a day (or at the very least early in the day) before filling the Charlotte. Prepare the entire dessert at least half a day if not the day before serving to allow the Mousse to set.
¾ cup (95 g) flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup (70 g) + ½ cup (100 g) sugar, divided
1 tsp vanilla
¼ cup (50 g) powdered sugar
Chocolate Buttercream Filling:
1 cup (120 g) powdered sugar
1 stick (115 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbs hot or boiling water
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Line a 15 ½ x 10 ½- inch (40 x 27-cm) jellyroll pan with parchment paper, leaving a bit overhanging the sides.
Blend and whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
Separate the eggs. In a plastic or metal bowl, whip the egg whites, beating first at low speed for 30 seconds then increasing to high speed, until the whites hold soft peaks. Continue beating the whites on high speed gradually adding the 1/3 cup (70 g) of sugar until you have stiff, glossy peaks.
In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks on high speed until thick and pale. Gradually beat in the ½ cup (100 g) sugar until very thick. Beat in the vanilla.
Gently fold both the flour and the meringue (sweetened beaten egg whites) into the egg yolk/sugar batter using a rubber or silicone spatula until well blended and smooth with no more chunks of whites remaining. Spread the batter gently and evenly in the prepared jelly roll pan, making sure the batter is spread into the corners (you can "glue" the paper to the bottom of the pan by dabbing a bit of the batter between the paper and the pan and pressing down. This will keep the parchment from sliding around as you spread).
Bake the sponge in the preheated oven for 15 minutes until the top springs back when gently pressed. If the cake looks like it is browning too quickly simply lay a piece of aluminum foil over the top of the cake. Have a very clean kitchen towel ready before removing the cake from the oven.
Remove the cake from the oven onto a cooling rack. Sprinkle the top of the cake evenly with the powdered sugar. Lay the clean kitchen towel over the top of the cake and invert the whole thing. Lift off the baking pan. Very, very gently (the cake is delicate) peel off the parchment paper from the cake. Now, working from a long side of the cake (the longer side of the rectangle is parallel to the edge of the table), roll the cake and the towel up together into a tight roll. Let the cake cool completely rolled in the towel set on the cooling rack.
To make the Chocolate Buttercream filling, place the powdered sugar, the softened butter, the cocoa powder and the hot water in a medium-sized mixing bowl and beat until very well blended, smooth and creamy. Taste. Feel free to add a bit more sugar or cocoa to taste.
When the sponge cake has cooled completely, remove it from the cooling rack and place lengthwise in front of you on the work surface. Carefully unroll the cake. If the cake seems to have shrunk a bit, don't worry about it. Spread the chocolate buttercream evenly all over the surface of the cake. Now, gently but firmly reroll the cake, rolling it as tightly as possible. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to prepare the Charlotte.
21 oz (600 g) cooked chestnuts (jarred, canned or vacuum packed)
2 cups (500 ml) milk
1/3 cup (70 g) + 3 Tbs sugar, divided
2 envelopes (12 g) unflavored gelatin
½ tsp salt
3 egg whites at room temperature
1 cup (200 - 250 ml) heavy whipping cream
Grind the cooked chestnuts very finely using a food mill or grinder with fine cutting disc (using a food processor may turn the chestnuts to paste) until they are like sand. Get a teen or a young man to help you out as this is hard on the elbow grease. Place the ground chestnuts in a large mixing bowl.
Place 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk with 1/3 cup (70 g) sugar and the gelatin in a small saucepan and allow to sit for 2 or 3 minutes until the gelatin softens. Place the saucepan over medium-low heat and cook, whisking occasionally, until the milk is hot and the sugar and the gelatin are completely dissolved (you will see flecks of pale yellow/goldish on the surface - this is the gelatin. When the gelatin is dissolved these flecks will vanish.)
Pour the hot milk/sugar/gelatin over the chestnuts along with the remaining cup of milk and the salt. Stir until well blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour and a half until the slightly thickened mixture mounds when dropped from a spoon onto a plate.
When the Chestnut Mousse mounds after refrigeration, be ready to prepare the Charlotte: Line a 4-quart (4-liter) glass bowl, preferably round bottomed, very well with plastic wrap. Remove the sponge cake/chocolate buttercream roll from the fridge and remove the plastic wrap. Carefully and evenly slice off the uneven ends then slice the cake into ¼-inch (1/2 cm) slices. Starting at the bottom, line the bowl with the slices of cake, working your way up and around, pressing the pieces gently together to try and eliminate any gaps between the cake slices.
Complete the Chestnut Mousse Filling: In a small plastic or metal bowl, beat the egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. Continue beating, gradually beating in the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar until peaks are firm and the sugar is dissolved. In a separate bowl, preferably chilled, beat the whipping cream until very thick and peaks hold their shape when the beaters are lifted. Using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold the beaten egg whites and the whipped cream into the chestnut mousse until well blended and smooth. Mound the mixture into the cake-lined bowl, filling up the bowl to the top.
Carefully trim any cake slices that come above the edge of the bowl and fold them over. Cover the surface (which will be the bottom of the Charlotte once it is flipped over and unmolded) with more cake roll slices. Cover with plastic wrap and put back into the refrigerator until set, at least 4 hours or longer if possible.
Remove the Charlotte from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic wrap from the surface and flip a serving platter onto the Charlotte. Invert the platter and the Charlotte. Lift off the glass bowl (yay! It's clean!) and the plastic wrap. The Charlotte is ready to serve.
Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.