Christmas Day Menu, Franco-British Style

Christmas lunch

Our Christmases are small affairs. Just us and the girls, with one or two extra guests for Christmas Lunch, usually people from church who have nowhere to go for the holiday. We spend a leisurely morning with the girls eating breakfast and opening presents, then our guest arrives and we sit down for lunch around 1.30-2 pm. The afternoon and evening are spent relaxing, playing with presents, sipping coffee, having seconds of dessert and watching the Dr Who Christmas Special.

Over the last three years, I have tested a few recipes to perfect a Christmas Day menu that both suits a small party and my French sensibilities and I think I have finally settled it. The key is to make it as tasty and stress-free as possible without losing ground on either.

Breakfast

I wonder at anyone who can muster the energy and motivation to cook anything for breakfast, even if it’s just scrambled eggs and bacon. If this is you, I am in awe.

Canapés

I always get everyone to help with these, guest included, because I would otherwise not have time to do it all and it’s a long time to wait for your lunch without something to munch on. Just like Christmas Eve, I think there’s something slightly decadent about eat-as-you-make-them canapés, especially when they are in the form of:

  • foie gras and/or mushroom butter on toast
  • smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast
  • This year, I am also going to make bacon-wrapped dates, which people are raving about despite the fact that they sound weird, so I am just that little bit curious.

Starter

  • Coquilles St Jacques: scallops served in their shell in a creamy white wine sauce and topped with breadcrumbs and cheese – these are a typical French Christmas starter. I had an intense craving for them last year and found them in Tesco, which is a good thing because I couldn’t bear the thought of making them from scratch.

Main

  • Roast duck – I’ve never been a fan of turkey (my parents always cooked a capon), and anyway turkeys are way too big  and expensive for us, whereas a duck will feed six and provide the fat for the roast potatoes. I have always done Delia’s super simple Roast Duck with Cherry Sauce (I looked everywhere online and couldn’t find it but it’s both in her How To Cook collection and her Christmas cookbook) and I will carry on until the end of time, it just cannot go wrong.
  • Rosemary and garlic roast potatoes, without the chipolatas, although, wow, that sounds good.
  • Sticky shallots Brussels sprouts; I add lardons because everything tastes better with lardons.
  • Roast carrots and parsnips: I do these from frozen because of my history with burning parsnips; I don’t want to see Badgerman cry at Christmas.
  • Pigs in blankets (chipolatas and streaky bacon)
  • Stuffing if I can be bothered

Dessert

  • Chocolate, Raspberry and Lychee Yule Log: yule logs are the traditional Christmas dessert. The French recipe is here, but I will be providing a translation very soon, I promise, because no one should be without this recipe. It is so easy to make, very moreish and makes a very acceptable cake for special occasions other than Christmas
  • Probably some trifle too, or I will get lynched.

No Christmas pudding or Christmas cake in our house. The British love affair with fruitcake baffles me when there are so many tastier alternatives.

Merry Christmas everyone! I would love to hear what your favourite Christmas food tradition is, especially if it is a bit alternative.

French Christmas Eve Traditions

Christmas Eve

In my early years in the UK, I usually went back to my parents at Christmas so I rarely experienced a full-blown British Christmas. The couple of times I did however, it was glaringly obvious that the UK and France don’t have the same traditions AT ALL when it comes to Christmas Eve, a few of which I am going to share below. This is the kind of stuff that falls under the type of culture shock experiences that take you by surprise if you’ve been in a foreign country for a while and thought you’d figured things out a bit.

This said, my French family didn’t follow any of the traditional French ways at either Christmas or New Year so this is just one person’s reflections and hardly indicative of the wider Mysterious Ways Of The French. For one, there was not an oyster to be seen ever because they’re grim and expensive and we didn’t hold with that sort of thing. That made us barely French at all in some circles.

  • In France, Christmas Eve (CE from now on, or I’m going to go mad) is a family affair. The whole extended family comes together for a massive all-nighter consisting of food, food and then more food. Thus I was very surprised one CE in the UK when I was invited by my friends to their annual dinner party at the Indian restaurant down the road, followed by a slightly intoxicated Midnight Mass (I hereby apologise for my fumbling down the aisle the wrong way for communion that one time). Midnight Mass does happen in France too, but I’ve never been so I don’t know how well attended it is by non-Catholics.
  • It is very common for Christmas dinner to be eaten over the course of the night until the early hours, rather than on Christmas Day itself. It’s called Le Réveillon, which comes from the word ‘réveiller’, to be awake. French people have various knacks to stay awake for these lengthy affairs, so like French weddings, you get a timely coffee (or onion soup, because, why not, hey?) at 1 am to carry you to the next course. I can’t imagine what that’s like to wake up on Christmas Day with a food hangover, as my family didn’t do any of this; we had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Day. Come to think of it, it may be because the rest of the year, my mum was always in bed by 9 pm, so an all-nighter was not going to be a popular choice for her.
  • As I said, my family was very non-traditional. It didn’t help that my mom hated (and still hates) cooking and would have gladly devolved the whole of it to me and my sister if she could get away with it, which would have been, I’ll be honest, a bit depressing, but not as depressing as not having any potatoes with your turkey because ‘we had potatoes yesterday so I didn’t think we needed them’. I still carry this particular emotional scar… This hate of cooking and effort in general led us as a family to discover the joys of frozen food and eat-as-you-cook shenanigans, and thus when my sister, brother and I became teenagers and safe to be let loose in the kitchen, we introduced our most-beloved CE tradition of all. We would spend the whole of the evening making chocolate truffles, marzipan-stuffed nuts and dates and smoked salmon/cream cheese and foie gras canapes and eating them all straight away as we made them.
  • I mentioned frozen food, and I know y’all are imagining Iceland frozen bites and weirdly orange offerings. Not so. You haven’t tasted frozen food until you have visited the French stores Picard and Thiriet. I was spoilt growing up with these shops just round the corner for our frozen food needs; everything therein is of Finest quality and they usually surpass themselves at Christmas time.
None of THIS in French shops, thank you very much

None of THIS in French shops, thank you very much

I have carried this tradition over, so in the main our CE dinner will consist of a selection of canape bites. My only cooking that evening will be these gorgeous lobster rolls thanks to Lidl’s lobster. But there will be absolutely no oysters.

It’s May 1st, have some Muguet!

I totally forgot about this until a moment ago, but there’s a wonderful little tradition in France whereby on the First of May, you give people a sprig of Lily of the Valley to mark the arrival of Spring. We used to have some growing in our garden when I was little and my mum would send us to sit outside our front door with whatever we had gathered to sell to passers-by. It’s quite common (or it used to be, at any rate) to see little kiddies sitting out with their bucket of flowers.

One of my more recent memories of 1st May is from about six years ago. I had gone over to France to visit my parents and was out with my brother and his mates, a rare occurrence as my brother is 5 years younger than me and I had never gone out with him or met any of his mates before. I found myself in one of his friends’ apartment, drinking spirits and chilling out, as you do, when a couple of them returned from a trip to the shops carrying three or four small bouquets of Lilies of the Valley, one for me and one for each of the other girls present. From the outside it may look like a classic French charmer trick but there was absolutely nothing behind the gesture other than a wish to show appreciation; it didn’t feel sleazy, conceited and you could tell that they had no expectation that I should say or do anything as a response to their gift. I loved being in France that day.

This is a good example of how utterly different our two cultures are. In England, if a man not my boyfriend gave me flowers on the first of May, or any other day for that matter, even a close male friend, I would most likely wonder what his intentions were. If other men were present (and we are talking 21 year-old men on this particular occasion), they would probably make a big thing out of it, take the mick out of their friend, and it would most likely turn into one of those ‘remember the day so-and-so brought Froggy flowers’ stories you tell when you want to embarrass someone.

I know these days I am supposed to be a new woman and celebrate equality in all things but I would lie if I said that, after living in England for eight years and being treated by men as either one of the guys (if they weren’t interested) or with awkwardness (if they were), I didn’t find receiving flowers from guys five years my juniors absolutely charming and flattering.

Muguet

The Best Thing About the Epiphany

Today is 6th January and around the world the feast of Epiphany is observed. In England, you might know it as Twelfth Night. If you haven’t already done so, you are only a few days away from taking down your tree (we tend to do it the weekend following New Year’s Day); you think the festivities are all over and then there is Epiphany and my favourite tart of them all: the Galette des Rois. Yay!

Epiphany itself celebrates the Three Magis’ visit to Jesus and the gifts they brought with them. Because there is usually food attached to feasts (unless it’s Lent and then conveniently you do the opposite and hopefully lose the few kilos you’d gained earlier in the year), it is a big deal in France. All the bakeries sell this wonderful pastry over the Christmas period and until the end of January so you can end up eating a lot of them. There is even a whole ritual centred around the eating of the cake called ‘tirer les rois’ i.e. to draw the kings. Wikipedia does a very good job of explaining what it’s all about with examples of how different countries celebrate the Feast, including the French version the King Cake. If you are feeling brave, you can even check out the French page but I will do my utmost to explain it clearly.

The Galette des Rois can take many guises but in France the two main types are brioche or puff pastry cake with a rich filling. The type of filling changes depending on which part of France you are in. The one I am most familiar with is an almond cream called frangipane but you can have chocolate and pears and a number of other choices aside. The most important thing is that inside the cake is hidden a little trinket. In the olden days it used to be a bean, which is why it is still called la fève despite having been replaced by a little plastic or porcelain trinket (in England, I believe a penny was used). Each year, depending on which bakery chain you go to, you might have one of a set of collectables e.g. cartoon figurines, animals, musical instruments and any number of other random themes. The galette is usually sold with a gold paper crown.

Galette des Rois

Galette des Rois (Image via Wikipedia)

I remember the ritual to draw the king/queen mostly from my childhood. It used to go like this:

  • You would buy your Galette des Rois from the baker and put it in the oven in the special bag it had come in for 20 minutes until warmed up, not forgetting to remove the crown from the bag first!
  • You would then cut the cake into slices. If you happened upon the trinket whilst cutting, you would make an effort to try and hide it again inside so no one could tell which slice it was in.
  • To ensure that the trinket was given randomly, you would ask the youngest person in the room to hide their eyes and name the recipient of each slice. Usually they would go under the table to do this.
  • The person who found the trinket, usually nearly breaking their teeth on it, became the king or queen for the day and got to wear the crown and keep the figurine.
  • It was always a bit of an emotional gamble because occasionally the baker would forget to put a trinket in and then I would cry on the inside.

I used to collect the trinkets when I was younger. Of course it has a proper name: la favophilie or fabophilie! I kept mine in a little cardboard house which is now gathering dust at my parents’ house. Come to think of it, I would quite like to get it back so I can use the trinkets to put in my own galettes in future years.

I will be making a Galette des Rois tomorrow but because I love it so much I already made one a couple of weeks ago when we had people over for dinner, which might go a long way to explain why the Stollen tasting failed to take off until this week… Confusingly the recipe is very similar to a Pithiviers so I use Michel Roux’ Pithiviers recipe as found in his Pastry book, which I cannot recommend high enough, it is my favourite pastry book and my favourite tart.

I’ve got to confess, mine never looks like the pictures or the shop-bought ones because I don’t make my own puff pastry. I find it a bit daunting; not only does it look complicated but the amount of butter that goes in… I find it easier not to know exactly how much fat I’m ingesting thank you very much. I did make Michel Roux’ rough puff pastry once and it worked a treat but I find myself time and time again using the ready-made ones. So what, the end result is rectangular-shaped, which may not be as attractive as the flower-shaped ones but it tastes just as good so I let it pass.

The filling will be 250g almond cream flavoured with dark rum and 50g crème pâtissière (a sort of vanilla custard). It is delicious just like this but I like to add halved black cherries (fresh or from a tin) for added richness.

Stollen Tasting #1

At last we have started the Stollen!

Yay to us. It’s not happening a moment too soon but technically we are still in the holiday season, right? In France it is tradition to send your Happy New Year cards in January (instead of sending Christmas cards) so I am extending the holiday cheer a la Casa della Frog until, well, until the Stollen is all gone. I’m giving it two weeks max.

We started this afternoon with Tesco’s very own Stollen. As you will see from the ratings below, it is a very strong contender for the winning spot and it is possible that it will just go downhill from this point on. So here goes:-

Stollen Loaf

Stollen Loaf #1

Shop/Make: Tesco Christmas Stollen Loaf

 

Price: I can’t find the receipt to check but Badgerman said it was cheap so I am going to guess probably £4.99 or under

 

Size/Weight: 550g

 

Presentation/Attractiveness: 4

We agreed it was a very decent looking bit of cake that was just asking to be eaten.

 

Amount of Icing Sugar: 4.5

Almost entirely covered in a decent layer of the snowy stuff

 

Crumb Factor a.k.a moistness: 4.5

It held together very nicely, with a good dense-yet-spongy feel when pressed

 

Taste: 5

All you might want from a Stollen, subtle hints of spices and satisfyingly gooey at the same time.

 

Marzipan Content: 5

A generous log of Marzipan all through the center, and a very tasty one at that, amazing! I expected a hard coin-size lump and instead it melted in the mouth.

Nut and Raisin Content: 4.5

No nuts, but just the right mix of raisins and cake

Alcohol Content: 4

You could really taste the alcohol yet it was subtle. Badgerman was very happy.

Conclusion:  4.5

It was De-Li-Shuss. I had low expectations of Tesco’s offering and was pleasantly surprised.

See also Get Ready for a Stollen-Tasty Adventure