Baking With Priscilla Martel
History, technique, and the awesome power of cookies
By Priscilla Martel
Right about now, when leaves crackle and fireplace smoke perfumes the air, I’m faced with conflicting urges about what to bake. Should I try something new or stick to family favorites? The process repeats itself each year. A novel ingredient, technique, or cooking tool takes me down the research rabbit hole as I try to decide what to bake.
As a Nutmegger, I am drawn to our unique connection to American culinary history for inspiration. It was in Hartford in 1796 that the first authentically American cookbook was published in the United States. Called American Cookery, the book testifies to Yankee ingenuity. Amelia Simmons, its author, incorporated such New World ingredients as corn meal and squash in European dishes popular at the time. There are recipes for gingerbread, “Pompkin Pudding” baked in a crust, and even a Christmas “cookey”—all baked goods flavored with the kind of warm spices (cinnamon and nutmeg) that we associate with the holidays.
And although home baking is customary in New England, I imagine something more festive than Indian pudding at the year’s end. Plum pudding doused in brandy brought flaming to the table fits the bill. Rich with raisins, currants, and candied fruit, the cake-like mixture is forever associated with Christmas, thanks to Charles Dickens. But I’ve never made one, and can’t see passing off an import as my own. (They are easily sourced in the U.S. and excellent, as long as you steam them at least an hour before serving.) Or perhaps a British-style fruitcake, less sweet and more aromatic than its American counterpart? Ever since I tasted Diane Dennison’s Guinness Cake made with dried fruit soaked in stout beer I’ve wanted to make one. (Diane, an Old Lyme resident, shared her cake and her recipe with my food writing class last spring.)
The Christmas Eve meal in French-speaking countries ends with a symbolic cake, the Bûche de Noël. Known as “Yule Log” to English speakers, this rolled spongecake is coated and decorated so that it resembles a tree branch. The bûche symbolizes an actual log that was ceremoniously burned in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Historian Alan Davidson explains this tradition is a holdover from pagan solstice rituals, which employed fire to ensure good fortune on the darkest night of the year. Frédéric Mistral, Nobel-prize winning poet of Provence, France, wrote passionately about his family’s annual ritual, selecting of the wood from a fruit tree, dousing it with powerful spirits—vin cuit—then lighting it.
Today in France, fashionable patisseries compete for “le top” bûche taking liberties with the form. Custom silicone molds allow chefs to construct life-like or abstract logs in seductive flavor combinations. Take Parisian Chocolatier and pastry chef Jean Paul Hévin. This season, street art is inspiring his dark chocolate bûche, which he is wrapping in a layer of chocolate printed with an image of two seductive cherubs. At Fauchon, their bûche cake morphs into a holly leaf form topped with a cube and orbs. Somewhere under the shocking pink and red coating is a milk chocolate mousse and crispy almond cake.
At Restaurant du Village, we adopted the classic Bûche de Noël as our signature year-end dessert. Frosted with chocolate or coffee buttercream, the cakes resembled oak, maple, or white birch trees piled with meringue mushrooms and marzipan holly. I maintained the tradition for a few years after we sold the restaurant, delivering these cakes to close friends each December. But my enthusiasm flagged for the commitment to one centerpiece dessert.
But don’t let that discourage you. Should you be tempted to make a Bûche de Noel, Jacques Pépin’s The Art of Cooking has an excellent recipe and decorating technique.
No one dessert stands out in my family where “mixed grill” means a sample of several desserts on one plate. But everyone loves cookies, and the ritual of making them is, to many people, synonymous with the holidays.
Among the cookies I’ll make are Linzer Torte Cookies, which feature cinnamon and black pepper, toasted nuts and a tart raspberry filling. These cutout cookies look impressive, thanks to a good set of spring-loaded cutters, but are relatively easy to make. (Use plenty of flour when rolling out the dough, though.) I’ll pair the cookies with two modern puddings, Panna Cotta or “cooked cream” and a dark chocolate crémeux, a type of dense mousse, spiked with peppermint. The showy trick is layering the pudding in a tilted glass. If you use small cordial glasses or canning jars, you can put them out on a buffet with platters of cookies. The lightly gelled cream won’t collapse like whipped cream. The crémeux tastes best when slightly softened.
Like most time-pressed home cooks, I follow a few steps to avoid the holiday baking frenzy. Breaking down the work into short bursts of activity helps me avoid last-minute frenzy.
Preparing to Bake Like a Pro:
Make a prep list like a restaurant chef. Consider what you’d like to bake and how much time you have (perhaps a couple of family gatherings and enough extra cookies to share with friends). A list helps me gauge what is feasible, because I am congenitally overambitious.
Be a smart cookie. Give yourself two to three sessions to accomplish the holiday baking. Make the dough and fillings one day. Bake cookies and cakes the second day. Decorate, wrap and package everything on a third day. These don’t have to be consecutive. Make friends with your freezer; prepare cookie doughs ahead and store them in the freezer until needed.
Because I enjoy the ritual of pressed linen napkins, my mother’s china and place cards, I spend less time on a single show-stopping holiday dessert, and I leave time for the most important thing: lively conversation around our table with family and friends.
For more great ideas about living a flavorful life and visit priscillamartel.com.
Image Credits: Tom Hopkins