“Let them eat cake.” Whether or not French queen Marie Antoinette uttered these unfortunate words is debatable, but it is sound advice nevertheless, especially during this time of the year. ’Tis the season, you see, and if ever you needed an excuse to indulge your sweet tooth, it is now. With Christmas around the corner, bakeries and cake shops are full of plum cakes and Christmas puddings. But if you are looking for something different, try these traditional French cakes and desserts.
Bûche de Noël, or Yule log
The most traditional Christmas cake in France is the Yule log, or bûche de Noël. A rolled sponge cake filled with buttercream, it is shaped and decorated with chocolate frosting or ganache to resemble a log of wood. The cake celebrates the end of winter. In pre-industrialised Europe, the Yule log was an actual piece of wood, which was burnt on the longest and coldest night of the year. It was believed that it vanquished the darkness.
The first-known Yule log recipe was published in 1895. “In recent centuries, that tradition was brought to the table, taking the shape of a rolled cake to be cut, as a lumberjack would cut a log,” says Chef Maxime Montay of Delhi-based French patisserie Monique. Monique’s menu offers two choices: Belgian-style dark chocolate and salted caramel, and Swiss-style blueberry and chestnut. You can place orders on their website 24 hours in advance.
Delhi-based French patisserie L’Opéra is offering the Yule log in four flavours: coffee, black forest, passion fruit and chocolate, and a new cheesecake variant. Mumbai-based Cou Cou, the Oberoi Group’s first independent food and beverage outlet, is offering two flavours: fig and milk chocolate, and Christmas spices and caramel. Delhi-based Paris My Love, run by Chef Sahil Mehta, is offering a salted caramel version and a chocolate hazelnut one. Available in one kg, it needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance through its Instagram page.
Galette des rois, or King Cake
Galette des rois is one of France’s most traditional festive bakes served during Epiphany celebrations—when the Three Kings turned up to give gifts to Baby Jesus—in early January. It has many fun traditions attached to it. The youngest child in the family hides under the table, telling the cake-cutter whom to give each slice to. The baker hides a small figurine or lucky charm inside the cake and whoever gets it is declared king/queen for the day, and can lord over the family. “This tradition dates back to the Roman times. During the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Romans would choose a slave and make him king for the day,” explains Chef Montay.
Traditionally, galette des rois has a rich filling of butter, sugar, cream, eggs and almonds sandwiched between sheets of puff pastry. These days, however, there is a lot of variety. At Monique, for instance, besides the traditional almond flavour, you can also order hazelnut or pistachio.
There is nothing more French than a macaron. And while it’s not traditionally a Christmas dessert, as it is had through the year, French patisseries do offer seasonal flavours around this time. Chef Pooja Dhingra’s Mumbai-based Le15 Patisserie is offering limited-edition macarons such as Snowflake. It has a dark chocolate orange ganache sandwiched between green and white macaron shells, garnished with a red marzipan snowflake. Its Christmas macaron has a white chocolate ganache and cranberry compôte inside white macaron shells, garnished with a colourful white chocolate drizzle. “A perfect macaron has a bite of two textures. The slight crunch from the shell and the softness and melt-in-the-mouth from the filling,” says Dhingra.
While the macaron may appear to be typically French, it has its roots in Italy, and was supposedly being made in Venetian monasteries since the eighth century. It was only in the 1530s that it was brought to France when Italian Catherine de’ Medici married the king of France. Largely restricted to the French court for the next couple of centuries, it was during the French Revolution that the dessert reached the common man when two Benedictine nuns started baking and selling treats made with almonds, egg whites and sugar.
However, it is Parisian bakery Ladurée that adapted a meringue-based version and made macarons popular in the early 1900s. Ladurée opened its first store in India recently in Delhi’s Khan Market. It is offering a collection of macarons for Christmas.
Traditionally an Italian cake, the panettone is quite popular in France. The fluffy, fruit-filled cake dates back to the 15th century. Legend has it that the cook burnt the Christmas cake for the Duke of Milan and a scullery boy named Toni came to the rescue with a sweet loaf made of leftovers. The Duke loved it so much that he named it panettone, or Toni’s bread. It also translates to ‘a large loaf of bread’. Panettone was a flat bread for most of its history. It was only in 1919 that a pastry chef added yeast, allowing the dough to rise. L’Opéra offers cupcake-sized pieces, as well as a large cake fit for four to six people. Paris My Love also offers a one-kg panettone.
Pain d’épices, or gingerbread
It is a traditional Christmas sweet bread made with honey and spices. “It was introduced in France, in the city of Reims, in the 12th century when Europeans discovered and brought back spices from the Middle East,” says Montay, who was born in Reims and has his own unique recipe with seven spices. Besides the bread, you have gingerbread cookies and the popular gingerbread house. Cou Cou is offering classic gingerbread spiced cookies with royal icing and mini gingerbread houses with marshmallows and fruit. Paris My Love also has a selection of gingerbread cookies, as do L’Opéra and a host of bakeries.
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