Sunday, January 17, 2016
Happy New Year and good health! That’s what that means.
It’s what you hear as soon as people sober up from their New Year’s Eve festivities (La fête de Saint-Sylvestre), which are monumental, especially gastronomically. For fear of losing your French nationality, you must start with oysters and then move on to other equally rich things, all washed down with the appropriate wine and finishing with champagne. And chocolates.
A few days after New Year’s, the sweetness starts again on January 6th.
Even if you get your lords a-leaping confused with your geese a-laying (but still always chime in on the “five gold rings” part), you know about the Twelve Days of Christmas. But do you know what it means? It starts the day after Christmas and runs for twelve days, ending purportedly in the day the Three Wise Men - aka Magi - arrived at the manger in Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Extra points if you can name all three kings.)
To mark that day with a pastry (it is France, after all), French bakers invented the galette des rois - or if you’re in the south of France the brioche des rois (basically the same thing but with with a brioche base instead of puff pastry). Unless you drink a lot of champagne or tea with it, the plain galette can be dry, so personally I always buy a galette fourrée à la frangipane - puff pastry with almond paste inside.
Also inside is a fève - once a dried broad bean, but more often now a ceramic figurine which can range from one of those Three Wise Men themselves to Mickey Mouse to... oh, just about anything. (This year I got a kind of tiny ceramic rolling pin that opened up and had a miniature recipe for clafoutis, a delicious custard dessert with cherries on top.) French dentists have erected a monument to the fève, because unsuspecting victims have broken many a tooth on it, thereby ensuring their livelihood. Should no dental catastrophe ensue, the person who finds the fève is declared the king of queen and given a golden cardboard crown to wear. (It comes with the galette.) Sometimes they’re supposed to buy the next galette, but that may be the baker’s ploy; other times they just get to kiss everybody.
The brioche des rois is indigenous to the south of France, and is fashioned in a semi-circle, reputedly to mimic the turbans of the Magi. The candied fruit on top is just to brighten up a long winter’s day by adding a bit of color... and to sucker children into eating it. (It’s similar to the Italian panettone, which had always been by far too dry for me until a smart friend told me to make it as French toast, and now I love it!)
But the New Year is more than just pastry.
First of all, French people don’t send Christmas cards. Perhaps that’s left over from the concept of it’s being a religious festival and all minds should be on God. For whatever reason, cards are sent, but later, to wish a happy new year. They can be sent any time during the month of January, but I’m convinced that the date on which you send them is perceived by the French as an indication of what kind of person you are. (Do you procrastinate? Or are you the timely sort?) The French can be very judgmental. And of course you must add a little handwritten message, although those typically American “yearly state of the union” enclosures are not required.
And then there’s the Bonne Année handshake/kiss (depending on how well you know the other person). Ah yes. This is the true New Year’s test of French-ness.
The rule is that you must wish a Happy New Year to everyone around you - not only family and friends but also anyone with whom you have dealings, even on a customer/shopowner basis. If you do a quick mental calculation of how many people you interact with in your daily routine, you’ll see that wishing them all Happy New Year can be daunting.
And you must do it only once, because to wish them Happy New Year a second time just proves that a) you weren’t paying attention the first time around, b) they personally don’t merit being remembered as already having been greeted, c) you didn’t mean it when you said it, d) all of the above.
If you live here year-round, especially in a small community, it’s easy to keep track of who has been Bonne Année-d. If you start on January 1st, you may have a good chance of not giving double-greetings. But if you live in Paris, things can get iffy, given the number of people involved. And if you live in Paris only part-time, as I do, and so you start The Greeting Process part-way into the month... Well, to say you’re walking on eggshells is putting it lightly.
Just this morning (Jan. 17th), I went into the neighborhood five-and-dime/hardware shop, run by a nice Asian gentlemen originally from La Réunion, one of France’s overseas states (think Hawaii). I go in there several times a year, and I talk with the man each time. But still I’m far from a weekly customer who boosts his sales greatly. He greeted me with a big smile, came out from behind the counter, his hand outstretched, and said “Bonne année, Madame, et bonne santé”. With all the people who come through his shop, how did he remember he hadn’t seen me, in particular, yet this year?
And it’s been the same thing with all the other shops. The butcher, the wine merchant, the newstand... Of course, maybe my periodic disappearances and reappearances make me stand out. Still, this is an acquired skill. I’m getting quite good at it myself after all these years.
Or perhaps there’s a bonne année neuron in the brain and I've managed to turn it on.
Sunday, January 3, 2016
In France, Christmas is traditionally when family gets together around a table. Friends gather to ring in the new year with a meal on La Saint Sylvestre, the feast day of St. Sylvester. And what a feast it is! Oysters, smoked salmon, foie gras, whole poached fish, roast meat, salad, cheese, dessert... not to mention champagne and wine!
After all that, you swear you’ll never eat again, but by the time Epiphany rolls around on January 6, the gluttony has started to wear off. What’s more, les rois mages are a tradition. And who’s going to argue with tradition?
Epiphany is also called Twelfth Day - think “partridge in a pear tree” - because it comes twelve days after Christmas. The word is Greek for “appearance” and it marks the supposed date when les rois mages, the Magi, the Three Kings, appeared in Bethlehem. Legend says the white-bearded Melchior was from Persia and brought gold. The much younger Gaspar brought frankincense, which comes from southern Arabia, and especially Oman. Finally, the dark-complected Balthasar offered myrrh, which is native to Africa’s Somalia and Ethiopia. Combine that with Bethlehem in Palestine and you’ve pretty much covered the known world of Biblical times. If you look at it in that light, this Christian feast takes on a more global aspect.
So, whether wise men or kings, on January 6th, French bakeries blossom with galettes des rois, a thin pastry, often with almond paste filling and looking like a loaf of Middle Eastern unleavened bread. Or with brioches des rois, a specialty of southern France. In each you will find hidden a bean, or fève, which over the years has become a little ceramic figurine. When the galette or brioche is sliced, the youngest person present hides under the table and dictates which slice is given to which person. The one who finds the figurine - hopefully without breaking a tooth on it - is declared the king/queen, given a shiny gold crown and selects someone else to wear a second crown.
To help you ring in the new year, here’s a recipe for brioche des rois that I got from Chef Patrick Mesiano. Yes, it does take some time in the kitchen but you can turn it into a game, especially if children are involved. They love to get their hands all floury. And if you have some aggression to work out or need to burn off some Christmas calories, kneading is just the thing.
So as 2008 begins, let me wish you all amour et amitié, santé et prospérité - love and friendship, health and wealth - throughout the coming year.
- 3 T candied fruit, cut small
- 1/4 c currants
- 1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
- zest of 1 small lemon, finely minced
- 1 T dark rum
- 1 T orange blossom water
- 8.8 oz or 1 3/4 c (250 g) flour
- 10 g yeast (1½ packet of dry yeast)
- 3 T granulated sugar
- 5 T butter, cut up & softened
- 4 eggs
The night before baking, toast the pine nuts for a few minutes in the oven or in a heavy skillet (without any oil).
Wash the lemon and remove the zest with a zester or a peeler, being careful not to cut deeply, as the white skin underneath will give a bitter taste. Mince the zest finely.
In a bowl, mix the pine nuts and zest with the candied fruit and currants.
Add the dark rum and orange blossom water. Stir.
Cover with saran wrap and leave in the refrigerator overnight (or at least 30 min).
For the brioche:
Using an electric mixer with a flat beater (dough hook), mix together the sifted flour, a pinch of salt, the sugar, yeast and 3 eggs. If using cake yeast, crumble it and be careful that the yeast doesn’t remain in contact with the sugar before it’s mixed in or else the dough will be “burned”.
Mix at low speed until the dough comes away from the bowl (about 10 min). If you mix at too high a speed, the ingredients will emulsify.
Cut the softened butter into small pieces and add in, kneading for another 10 min at low speed, until the dough again comes away from the bowl.
Then add the candied fruit with its juice and mix for about 30 seconds.
Take the dough out of the mixer and put it in a bowl. Cover and let rise for 30 min. It should double in volume.
Sprinkle some flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick when handling. Gently fold the dough over several times, tucking the sides under to get rid of any air. It should return to about the same size that it was before.
Cover again and leave in the refrigerator for ½ hr until it’s firm enough to shape.
Sprinkle flour over a working surface and roll the dough into a “log” about the diameter of a rolling pin..
Cut the log in half, then each half in three, to make 6 equal pieces.
Roll each piece into a ball.
Flatten each ball slightly, then place one by one in a buttered round mold to form a crown.
Cover and let rise for 1½ hr at room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). A convection oven is best.
Beat an egg, add a pinch of salt, beat again, then use a brush to coat the top of the brioche so it will turn golden.
Cook for 30-35 min.
Let stand for 5 min, then unmold.
Slip the fève into the brioche from the bottom so no one will see where it is.
- Optional: Ice with apricot preserves and decorate with pieces of candied fruit.