The sincere friends of this world are as ship lights in the stormiest of nights. – Giotto di Bondone
Forty-two years ago, a young man on the brink of adulthood, a young man just seventeen years old and soon having the heavy responsibility of choosing his future career, of selecting his university, stood in the hallway just outside the kitchen of his parents’ apartment in a working class suburb of Paris, unobserved by his mother and his French professor who were discussing him, speaking in undertones. A school theater group, with this professor as chaperon and theater director, had just returned to Paris after a summer trip to Corsica where they performed their play to the public and discovered the island, and the young man’s parents had invited the group in for lunch.
“You know, I’m worried about him,” his mother confessed to her son’s teacher. “How do we know he’ll make the right choices? And be successful?” The teacher, a Jesuit priest and a favorite teacher of the young man, who had joined the boy’s mother in the kitchen to help dry the dishes, put down the cloth and looked at her. “You have absolutely nothing to worry about,” he said. “Jean-Pierre is a bright young man and I’m sure that whatever he chooses to do it will be something he is passionate about and he’ll be very successful at it!”
These words spoken by this much-loved, much-respected teacher meant the world to the young man. And he carried those words with him throughout his life; this brief conversation came back to him often, at each crossroads, each fork in the road. These words got him through thick and thin, hard times and doubts. Every time he made a decision, each time he chose to leave one job, one career behind and look for a new, he was comforted by those words, buffered by the confidence of the man who spoke them, strengthened even when those immediately around him doubted or, worse, scorned.
Along the way, over the years, the young man, less young, more experienced and then husband and father, responsible for others, often wondered about this priest who had had such an influence on him. One year ago as he once again stood on the threshold of a grand and daring new adventure, having made the decision to start all over again with a new profession in a new city, decided that it was finally time to track down that priest, that teacher. And thank him for that gift that he never knew he had given to a self-doubting young man all those years before.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. – Henry Adams
Google search is quite the handiest thing when one has a crazy, overwhelming curiosity to delve back into one’s past and discover whatever became of old friends, classmates or teachers, work colleagues, childhood friends or foes. For better or worse (and don’t tell Santa; some of that curiosity is often quite naughty). Every now and then, my husband or I can be found in front of a laptop squinting hard at the screen, studiously scouring the hits and the images in an attempt to guess whether or not this is indeed the person we have been looking for. And this time, magic happened. He, that long ago young man now my husband, sat down and googled and found the trace of this teacher. And he sat down and penned a letter to him, explaining and thanking. He slipped the letter into an envelope but decided to check one more time if the address he had found was still the current address. He checked, he telephoned and what a holiday miracle. Father Michel had retired to Nantes! Ten minutes away from where we were then living.
And that is how we had a Jesuit Priest for dinner on the fifth night of Hanukkah one year ago. And what a joy. Charming, smart, funny and cool he was and the two of them, former student and teacher, young man and mentor, caught up, sharing stories and gossip and news about other teachers and students they had known, and about their own lives. We all had a wonderful time. Jean-Pierre prepared a splendid fish and seafood choucroute, accompanied by a beurre blanc nantais that I whipped up alongside of him.
And we ended the meal with this seasonal, festive Bûche de Noël.
Dreary autumn weather transforms into glorious winter chill and bright sunshine and elves begin to scurry around the house making plans, secreting away goodies wrapped in brightly colored paper and tied up in plump ribbons, the excitement sets in and good moods are handed round. Time spent back on the old home front with mother, brother, and sisters has added to my festive mood and the holiday cheer risks spilling over from Hanukkah into Christmas, doubling the jolliness and good will. We eat latkes and exchange gifts while the flames dance atop multi-colored candles in our old family Menorah and pretty paper is strewn across the floor. And as soon as I return to France and the hotel, the Christmas rituals begin! We will decorate the tree for the reception area and drape the hotel in swags of fairy lights. And Jean-Pierre and I will begin the discussion of what to prepare ourselves for the Christmas meal.
The French are nothing if not traditional and their holiday celebrations never waver from one year to the next: foie gras glistening with fig jam; oysters on the half shell nestled in platters of chipped ice; smoked salmon and blinis, scallops drizzled with Champagne cream sauce or lobster with a splash of lemon, ducks and capons bundled around luscious fillings of mushrooms, fruit, or more foie gras, wrapped up like presents. Candied chestnuts tucked into gold foil and bowls of orangettes, nuts and dried fruits followed, of course, by a festive bûche de noël reflect the joyful repetition of these customs. As Hanukkah slides into Christmas, our home is warm and convivial, wonderful smells emanate from the kitchen, and we sing and dance and laugh together, lighthearted and mirthful for the time, at least, of the holidays.
The Yule Log or Bûche de Noël is a delicious, sophisticated, and impressive dessert for any occasion but an absolute must for the holiday season. Although bakery cases across France are laden with bûches of all sorts, heavy with buttercream or rich with ice cream, glazed and iced and swagged with sugar, festive with meringue, I choose to make my own bûche for my family, preferring a confection cakier and lighter with less overly sweet creams and frostings, something simple yet elegant. A bûche really isn’t that difficult to master, and once you get the hang of working with the cake to create a flawless roll, the sky is the limit where flavors, fillings and décor go.
Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone. – Charles M. Schulz
- For the Chestnut Mascarpone Whipped Cream Filling
- Scant 1 teaspoon powdered gelatin + 2 tablespoons cold water
- ¾ cup (185/190 ml) heavy whipping cream
- ½ cup (125 grams) mascarpone cheese
- 3 – 4 tablespoons crème de marrons – sweetened vanilla chestnut cream
- For the Rum Sugar Syrup
- Scant half-cup (100 ml) water
- Scant 3/8 cup (80 grams) sugar
- 2 – 3 tablespoons amber rum (the rum can be replaced with Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or Kahlua)
- For the Chocolate Genoise/Sponge
- 4 large eggs, separated, preferably at room temperature
- Pinch salt + 2 drops lemon juice for the whites
- ½ cup (100 grams) sugar
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla
- ½ cup + 1 ½ tablespoon (80 grams) flour
- 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon (20 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
- ¼ tsp baking powder
- Unsweetened cocoa powder and a sifter or sieve
- Place the gelatin in a small saucepan; add the 2 tablespoons cold water and let sit for 5 minutes to soften, swirling the pan gently to pull all the granules of gelatin into the liquid.
- Place the pan over a very low heat to warm the water and melt the gelatin – you want to heat the water for about 4 -5 minutes without allowing it to come to a boil or to boil away: allow the water to heat then, holding the pan just off of the flame/heat, swirling and whisking almost constantly, allow the bit of water to stay heated for long enough to allow the gelatin to melt.
- After 4 – 5 minutes, remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes or until barely tepid to the touch.
- Beat the heavy cream in a chilled bowl until thick, soft peaks hold. Continue beating as you pour the gelatin water into the heavy cream in a very slow stream.
- Beat in the mascarpone about a tablespoon or two at a time. Add and beat in the chestnut cream; add a bit more if you want to accentuate and deepen the chestnut flavor.
- Place in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour to overnight to allow the gelatin to add body to the filling.
- Place the water with the sugar in a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Let boil for 2 minutes then remove from the heat. Stir in the rum to taste. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Very lightly butter a 15 ½ x 10 ½ x ¾ inch (40 x 27 x 2 cm) jellyroll pan and line with parchment paper. Have a clean dishtowel larger than the jellyroll pan as well as a large, clean flat baking sheet ready.
- Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in large mixing bowl and the whites in a very clean medium-sized bowl (I prefer plastic). If you like, add a tiny pinch of salt and 2 drops lemon juice to the whites to help stabilize them.
- Add the sugar to the yolks and beat with an electric mixer on high until thick, creamy and pale, about 3 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.
- Blend the flour, the cocoa powder and the baking powder together in a bowl.
- Using very clean beaters, beat the whites until peaks hold and the meringue is dense.
- Fold the whites into the yolk/sugar mixture gently but firmly using a spatula, a third of the whites at a time, alternating with the flour, cocoa, baking powder mix (preferably sifted onto the batter to remove all lumps) in two or three additions. Do not over mix/fold but do make sure there are no more clumps of whites visible, no pockets of flour.
- Spread the batter evenly in the parchment-lined jellyroll pan. Bake in the preheated oven for just 15 minutes or until lightly puffed, just set and the cake springs back when lightly pressed.
- Remove from the oven. Immediately slide the parchment paper and cake together onto the second large flat baking sheet. Invert the warm jelly roll pan and place on top of the genoise and, holding both the jellyroll pan and the baking sheet firmly together, flip them over and remove the baking sheet; the top of the genoise is now face down while the parchment paper is up. Peel off the parchment paper. Dust a very light layer of cocoa powder all over the genoise and then place the clean dishtowel over the genoise. Once again place the clean baking sheet inverted on top of the dish towel-covered cake and, holding the baking sheet and the jelly roll pan firmly together, flip. Remove the jellyroll pan.
- You should now have the warm genoise topside up, the cake on the clean dishtowel on the clean flat baking sheet. Dust the top of the genoise with a very light layer of cocoa powder and, starting on a short end of the cake, roll the genoise up – gently but as tightly as possible without crushing or breaking the cake – in the towel (the towel will be rolled up with the cake). Allow to cool completely.
- When the genoise is completely cool, carefully unroll and slide the cake off of the dishtowel and onto a clean sheet of parchment paper.
- Brush/Dab a good amount of Rum Sugar Syrup all over the cake’s surface, really allowing a good amount of it to soak into the cake; not only will this add flavor to the dessert but will moistened the sponge cake.
- Once the cake is imbibed with the rum syrup, spread most of the Chestnut Mascarpone Whipped Cream evenly over the genoise almost, but not quite, to the edges of the cake; save about 4 or 5 tablespoons to use for piping a decorative swirl on the top of the roll.
- Starting at the short end of the genoise (the end rolled up first in the towel to cool), roll up the cake as tightly as possible without pressing or rolling so tightly that all of the cream oozes out. When completely rolled, scrape off any filling that has oozed out and add it back to the bowl with the extra filling. Using a sharp or serrated knife, cleanly trim off both ends of the roll or bûche (these can be eaten now). Very carefully, lift the bûche onto the serving platter, placing the seam side down, remove the parchment paper and gently shape the log so it is even from one end to the other.
- Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill until just before serving time. The bûche can be made, assembled and chilled several hours or the day before serving; as it chills, the filling will continue to firm and the cake itself to moisten.
- Just before serving, dust the entire surface of the roll lightly and evenly with cocoa powder or powdered/icing sugar, drizzle with chocolate rum ganache then pipe the rest of the cream on top and decorate as you like with chopped candied chestnuts or candied orange peel, fresh or dried fruit or fruit in syrup, colored sugar, crushed candy canes or chocolate curls. Or edible Christmas shapes.