Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store. – Dr. Seuss
The weather is mild, much milder than anyone of us would have expected. Or desired. Breakfast is served in a dim dining room early morning, warmth and light blazing from the fireplace, the old fourteenth century fireplace of limestone and wood, while outside all is dark, a close, heavy darkness. “If only,” I stated to a client wondering at the blackness outdoors, “it was icy white, if it snowed, then the dark would be understandable. With snow, the blackness is romantic and mysterious. Wintry. With this December warmth, the darkness is simply confusing. As if Mother Nature hasn’t quite made up her mind.”
Not winter at all.
For mild it is, too warm for December even in this temperate region. I just returned from two weeks in Florida where I was enveloped in a comfortable, gentle heat. I could go out in short sleeves and sneakers. The mild warmth was welcome if a bit unseasonal even for Florida, but I expected chill and fog when I returned to the Loire Valley and Chinon. A White Christmas. But instead a milky light filters quite brightly through the pale clouds – the only thing white around here as Christmas approaches – and the baby blue sky illuminates the valley as on a summer day.
Sad, really. Although our hotel guests are thrilled with the beautiful weather, I would love a little white, a great chill, an icy mist cloaking the town. A White Christmas.
I went to a Christmas party in Florida. No, two Christmas parties. A few months ago after two terrifying health episodes, we moved my mother into an assisted-living facility, the Grand Villa in Melbourne, Florida. Happily, she was fine with our decision, accepting that the only other choice she had was to have fulltime live-in care with her at home, and that she adamantly refused. She opted for the Grand Villa. And she couldn’t be more delighted. From sulking on the sofa day in and day out, only Buster the Boston for constant company and a reason to get up and move, she has joined a busy community with a plethora of activities just downstairs from her room. Being alone – and terribly lonely – for these past several years, her health had been waning as her morale sunk and she stopped eating. Thus, her accident. And (in an odd way) thanks to this sorrowful accident, she is now safe, cared for, and happy.
In between cleaning out her house, our childhood home, my time spent in Florida was with her at Grand Villa or we would bring her back to her house to help sift through the memories (although she remembers very little) or to my brother and sister-in-law’s house to play games and eat. It was a joy to see her so contented with her lot, even as she is well aware that she is losing her memory quickly. She eats well, she has friends, goes on outings, plays games or watched films, adores the twice-weekly ice cream socials, and she even has a boyfriend. Yes, she does.
Of course, with all of the activities at the Grand Villa, there had to be a string of holidays events. I accompanied her to two. The first holiday party at Grand Villa was the Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. There was wine and eggnog, all kinds of nibblies, and a singer. And, of course, ugly Christmas sweaters. We all ate and sang Christmas carols and a good time was had by all. Even Buster came!
And then there was the real Christmas Party! For two days of my visit back home, my wonderful friends Jenni Field and Cheryl Bennett came to see me. As soon as they arrived, I shouted, waving my arms in the air, excitement in my voice “We’re going to a Christmas party at Grand Villa! Yay!”. And they played along! By the time we arrived the party was in full swing and we joined my mother, Herb the Boyfriend, and Herb’s sons and daughter-in-law at a long table. We filled our plates at the buffet, took videos of the senior residents dancing, and laughed and laughed at the fun. And, of course, no Christmas party is complete without sitting on Santa’s knee, which we did.
And mom had the best time.
Now I leave you with one more perfect Christmas dessert, my Decadent Chocolate Cake with Christmas Spices. I carefully, lovingly created this cake a few years ago as the rain poured down around us, no White Christmas in sight, but the house was abuzz with guests making for a jolly season. I hovered around the oven, basking in its warmth and the deep, rich, earthy scent of exotic spices, peering through the oven door like a worried mama; the cake must be cooked thoroughly yet pulled from the oven at just the right moment so not an edge is burned, not one mouthful dry. Once the cake was cooled and lifted out of the pan, I gently peeled back the parchment paper and placed the cake onto a white serving platter, as white as the snow that just refused to drift down from the skies no matter how hard I prayed. I climbed up on a kitchen chair and held the pastry bag filled with orange-infused chocolate ganache aloft then drizzled it this way and that, channeling my inner Jackson Pollack in order to create the perfect visual effect. A perfunctory cleaning of the disaster that was my kitchen (chocolate ganache drizzled not only on the cake but spit and spattered up and down the table, on my clothing and on the floor, much to Marty’s delight), I slowly cut wedges of this moist, thick, decadent (yes, isn’t this just the season for decadence?) confection and placed each lovingly on a pristine white plate, placing a fork alongside each dark slice.
Make this for the holidays. And have a Merry Little Christmas.
- 1 cup boiling water (see notes)
- 3 oz (90 g) unsweetened chocolate
- 8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 cups (400 g) sugar
- 2 large eggs, separated
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ cup sour cream (I used creamy 0% fat fromage frais/quark)
- 2 cups less 2 Tbs( g) flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp mixed Christmas Spice (see notes)
- ¾ cup (100 g) dark chocolate (see notes)
- ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and flour a 10-inch (25-cm) tube pan. I lined mine with ovenproof parchment paper as I was afraid that the batter would leak out the bottom of the pan.
- Chop the chocolate, cube the butter and place them both together in a large heat-safe (Pyrex) mixing bowl.
- Bring one cup of water to the boil then pour over the chocolate and the butter, allowing it to stand and stirring until completely melted and smooth.
- Stir in the vanilla and the sugar, then whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended.
- Stir the baking soda into the sour cream.
- In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and ground spices together.
- First whisk the sour cream into the chocolate batter, then the flour, whisking until smooth and homogenous.
- Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold. Fold about a third of the whipped whites into the chocolate batter until most of the white has disappeared, then fold in the rest of the whites in one or two additions. Try not to overwork the batter as you will beat out the air incorporated with the egg whites, but don’t be afraid to really fold and make sure no white lumps of any size remain or your finished cake, gorgeously dark, will have white spots in it.
- Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 40 – 50 minutes (depending on your pan and your oven), until the cake is set and a tester stuck down into the cake comes out clean. When I touched and gently pressed the surface of my cake at 40 and then 45 minutes I felt liquid or unset batter under the surface. After another couple of minutes, I touched and gently pressed the surface again and felt some resistance and knew that it was time to stick a tester (I use a long metal brochette spear) in. Done! Watch the cake carefully at the end as you neither want this cake underdone nor overdone and dry.
- Remove the cake from the oven and onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely before loosening the cake from the sides of the pan (and the inner tube) with a sharp knife and carefully lifting it out of the pan. If you have lined the pan with parchment, you can grip the edges of the paper and lift it off of the tube. Then place a rack on the top of the cake, flip it over, peel off the parchment from the bottom of the cake, place your serving platter onto the upturned bottom of the cake then flip upright.
- Chop the chocolate and place in a medium-sized pyrex or heatproof bowl.
- Bring the heavy cream just to the boil. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and allow to sit, stirring, until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache is perfectly smooth.
- Allow to sit at room temperature until desired consistency: to drizzle over the cake, it should retain its pouring consistency yet be just thick enough that it doesn’t all run off and puddle around the cake on the plate.
I used a mixed Christmas Spice from Germany called Pflaumenmus Gewürz (Plum Jam Spices). This can be replaced with allspice or gingerbread spice. Or use up to one teaspoon of ground cinnamon or a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove, not more than one teaspoon combined. You could also add the zest of half or one whole orange. This cake is delicious even without added spices.
For the ganache, I usually use Lindt dessert 70% or Lindt Excellence 70%. This Christmas Spice Cake is especially delicious topped with Lindt’s Chocolate Ganache with the hint of Orange.