Christmas Eve: Le Réveillon de Noël

At this festive time of the year, I enjoyed a French Christmas Eve dinner, known as “Le Réveillon” – a typical family-center meal that started with “amuses-bouches” (hors d’oeuvres) and champagne, followed by a delicious, six-course meal with a “pause cadeaux” (a break to open gifts) before the main course was served.  The evening festivities lasted from 8 p.m. to around 1:30 a.m. (dinner started at around 9:30 p.m.), with lively conversations and discussions about politics, wine, food, and an update on personal family topics –  a truly magical evening!

table decorations

amuses-bouches

Foie gras toasts, endive stuffed with cheese, smoked salmon, salmon eggs

champagne

table setting

des huitres

Traditional: Fresh oysters on the half shell

Raw scallops with mango & cilantro

Raw scallops with mango & cilantro

Pumpkin soup with croutons & pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin soup with croutons & pumpkin seeds

Risotto with shrimp, asparagus, and cheese straw

Risotto with shrimp, asparagus, and cheese straw

De-boned pigeon baked in a pastry crust with foie gras sauce

De-boned pigeon baked in a pastry crust with foie gras sauce

Buche de Noel - fruits rouges

Traditional: Buche de Noel (fruits rouges)

Buche de Noel - Black Forest

Traditional: Buche de Noel (Black Forest)

yule log cakes

Yule Log Cake:  “The origins of this most famous and delicious of French pastries can be traced back to the ancient Celtic tradition of celebrating the winter solstice. On this day, the shortest of the year, the Celts would search for a large trunk of either oak, beech, elm or cherry and would burn it. The burning log was a symbol of the rebirth of the sun as well as an offering of thanks to the sun for returning to the earth.”

Source: French Today

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Cooking for the French vs. French Cooking

OK – it’s no secret that I didn’t inherit the ‘cooking gene’ — when I was growing up, it was mostly plain, broiled steak, spaghetti, pot roast, hamburger, or meatloaf for dinner. However, I did spend summers at my aunt’s house in the country, and boy, could she cook (mostly hearty, meat and potato-type meals); and bake like nobody’s business — I remember how she always had a pie or cake cooling on the kitchen window sill and the wonderful smells in the house! Unfortunately, I was too young to care and resented having to help shuck corn and snap green beans from the huge garden. I wish I had paid more attention!

“Le Réveillon de Noël” (Christmas eve dinner) in France is a really big deal. I had been lucky enough to not have to host it….until, last Christmas — it was MY turn, as the American cooking for the French! I started stressing out months before, trying to figure out what to serve, let alone attempt to cook, for the expected 10-12 French guests. I finally settled on:

    • an entrée (starter) of the classic, grilled foie gras, served on a toasted slice of pain d’épice (spice ginger-type bread)
    • leg of lamb, as the plat principale (which I had never cooked before nor eaten much of), served with potatoes au gratin
    • salade verte (green salad) with vinaigrette, served after the main course
    • cheese tray – not as easy as you might think, in choosing from the over 400 types of French cheeses
    • La Bûche de Noël for dessert (log cake, bought at the local bakery – whew!)
    • Apertifs, wines, water (sparkling and flat but which brands?), and after dinner liquors — more choices to be made with serious contemplation.

Not to mention, the setting and presentation of the table– cutlery arrangement with fork tines up vs. down, centerpiece, decorations, dishes & glass placements, and table etiquette. (amusing video link)

OK, I was ready – with printed recipes and the timing of the courses calculated to a tee! Just when I thought I had it all figured out, a guest threw a wrench in the works by bringing an entrée of sausages and cooked apples — a very nice gesture to help relieve my having-to-cook stress.  Yet, it had to be heated, and by the time my starter was to be also served, the toasted pain d’épice had cooled and turned into a cement foundation under the foie gras.  One of the guests was tapping it with their spoon to confirm that “oui,” it was hard as a brick and impenetrable!  And of course, by now, the entire meal had been cooking longer than planned, and my stress level was off the charts!

When it was all said and done, the rest of the meal went OK, although I was convinced it hadn’t.  No one wanted cheese nor after dinner drinks, though…..maybe they just wanted to get home to their own French food!!