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Three kings and a log

January 8, 2011

Texas is the land of cowboys,” one of my Parisian cousins wrote to me this week, having learned that I recently moved here. The worlds of others are inevitably filled with caricatures. Cardboard cowboys under big blue canvas skies. Things are obviously not that simple. Traditions are funny, though, because they can seem like cutouts from the outside, but still be full of depth. Take, for example, the wonderfully elaborate pastries the French concoct this time of year—the whimsical bûche de Noël, sculpted and adorned to resemble a Yule log and eaten on Christmas Eve, or the flaky, frangipane-filled galettes des rois (kings’ cakes) that fill bakery windows to mark Twelfth Night, the Feast of Epiphany, the arrival of the three kings to Bethlehem. I realize that few Texans know about these traditions, but, far from France, they take on a special importance to me. Which is why I was shocked to hear that this Christmas my father had eaten the most unorthodox bûche I’d ever heard of, with banana cream and passionfruit glaze.

 My father didn’t mean to cut me loose from my moorings. We never even had bûche de Noël for Christmas when I a kid there, though most people did. But this Christmas, in the midst of my biscotti and peanut brittle batches, I had a strong desire to make one—a good old traditional one. The classic bûche evokes the great forests of France. Made of genoise sponge and chocolate buttercream filling, the cake is rolled into a cylinder, frosted, festooned with tiny meringue mushrooms, and served in cross section slices, like the concentric rings of a forest stump. A dusting of powdered sugar makes it look like the snow-covered Yule log a Frenchman might drag from the deep woods and burn on his hearth on one of the darkest days of the year. The imagery is straight from la France profonde.

So what was this banana-passionfruit nonsense? Delicious, apparently. But certainly not la France profonde. Instead, it was the tropics, the season all topsy-turvied along with the hemisphere. I had visions of a Christmas tree covered in hibiscus blossoms, mulled wine served in hollowed-out coconut shells. My dad has a taste for the slightly exotic. He married an American woman, after all, and, as an eighteen-year-old, dreamed of being a colonial administrator, when that was still a reality for a French schoolboy. When I sent him his first batch of homemade peanut brittle this Christmas, he raved about this “nougat de cacahuettes” (peanut nougat), as he called it, baptizing it with a name that linked the New World novelty to something familiar. (The French only really see peanuts as cocktail accompaniments). Novelty made sense as a gift coming from me—a taste from the cowboy land. But I realized I’d been craving the familiar from him—and reports of a tropical bûche weren’t it.

The galette, though—that’s where I got my surprise. While my dad had tropical Yule cake and peanut nougat in Paris, I was stunned to see a galette des rois pass under my nose on the first day of Epiphany right here in Texas. Destined for a class of high school French students, it was comfortingly familiar. Galettes are unmistakable, with their glazed top crusts decorated with intricate whorls or lattice-works or spinning sunbursts of puff pastry. Their flaky sides puff up in accordion folds. They smell of butter and almond. That’s the pastry I always had as a kid, not the bûche de Noël. At least once during those short few weeks of Epiphany when they are sold, we would eat one, shedding buttery crumbs with every bite, waiting to see who had the piece with the tiny porcelain figurine in it (originally an image of the Christ child), the prize that would make them king or queen for the day.

My father called yesterday. There’s a galette in the mail. All is well in the world—and on the range.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. marilyn bourbon permalink
    February 12, 2011 6:38 am

    such a lovely tradition

    • February 14, 2011 7:00 am

      And didn’t you do something similar with the jambalaya for the Super Bowl last year — a bean in the jambalaya? That’s a tradition I hadn’t heard about. Is it a Southern thing?

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