In some ways our house feels like a fifth member of our family, maybe because Chris and I have poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (and dollars) into it. But walking through the front door, especially during this time of year, always feels like a warm embrace.
We’ve lived in this house for twenty-two years, which is a long time for us—nearly half my life—but only a fraction of the building’s almost 200-year-old existence. During this time we’ve removed wallpaper and sanded and painted every room in the house, some as many as three times, and have enlisted help with the more complicated jobs, like ripping off old plaster and refinishing floors. It’s truly a life-long project, and as I write this post I can think of three renovation jobs I’d like to tackle right now if we hadn’t had to replace our septic tank this past summer, a necessary but less than inspiring upgrade. That granite counter top in the kitchen will just have to wait a little longer, I suppose.
Much as I love Vermont, it can sometimes feel like living in a bubble, disconnected from the rest of the world. Most of the time, this isn’t such a bad thing, and it has led to common Vermont sayings such as, “We live where you vacation.” Most Vermonters I know, though, agree that it’s crucial to get away and experience a different culture every now and then, even if it’s just a weekend in a city. My family has been fortunate to have had the opportunity to live for half a year in a different country twice, and both times we chose France. The timing worked out so that we celebrated the holidays both of those years in France.
Most recently, in 2010, we were in Paris, which was lovely and spectacular, with extravagant decorations
and a giant Ferris wheel at one end of Avenue des Champs-Elysées.
Six years before that, we were in southern France, in Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite places in the world, even more so than Paris.
Faye and Isabel were six and nine—perfect ages for enjoying all the holiday events, from the fair in the center of town, to the canopy of lights and Christmas chalets lining Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s main drag.
The outdoor market in Aix is one of the best I’ve ever experienced—and, believe me, it is an experience. It’s a sensory kaleidoscope of colors and tastes and sounds. Fresh figs and pomegranates lay piled high next to a lingerie vendor, whose skimpy things dangle just a few feet away from the produce.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the markets become even more sumptuous, with one whole market devoted to the Provençal Christmas Eve tradition of “Thirteen Desserts,” or les Treize Desserts de Noël. The girls were overjoyed with this idea, and a tad disappointed to discover that many of the “desserts” consist of nuts and dried and fresh fruits, so it’s not quite as decadent as it sounds. We put together our own variation from the market.
As the custom goes, the desserts are served at the end of an epic meal called the Gros Souper in honor of Jesus and the twelve apostles at the Last Supper. They’re presented all together and everyone is supposed to have a small taste of each. In addition to the fruits and nuts, there are of course some special sweets: Calissons, which are almond paste confections glossed with a white icing (and which in the singular, incidentally, is the name of our Westie), pain d'épices (gingerbread), candied fruits, nougat, butter cookies, and sometimes a bûche de Noël, or yule log.
The bûche de Noël is an elaborate cake rolled in the shape of a log, with frosting that resembles rustic bark. Ambitious bakers add mushrooms made out of meringue and sometimes surround the log with an edible woodland scene. One year back in Vermont I tried making a bûche. It turned out better than I expected on my first attempt, but was a pretty complicated project to pull together on Christmas Eve with everything else going on.
Surprisingly, though, the bûche is the only bit of chocolate included in the Thirteen Desserts. I find this baffling, given that we’re talking about France, where chocolate is revered,
so I propose that truffles be added to the list as the fourteenth dessert. These lumpy balls of chocolate ganache were invented in France, after all, and were named after the prized, pungent black Tuber from the southwestern region of the country, to which they bear a resemblance.
Chocolate truffles are surprisingly easy to make. They were one of the first holiday treats I made back when we moved to Vermont, and I’ve been perfecting the recipe ever since. The traditional way to make them is to shape them into lumpy balls (so they resemble Tubers) and roll them in cocoa powder. But you can also roll them in ground nuts or dip them in melted chocolate, in which case it works better if they’re a more uniform round shape .
You can also put a “surprise” inside, such as a roasted hazelnut or a dried cherry, or incorporate a powdered spice into the ganache, such as ginger or cardamom. And of course you can vary the liqueur or extract to your taste. I especially like using Frangelico with ground hazelnuts or Cognac with powdered cocoa. One year I put a macadamia nut in the middle and used macadamia nut liqueur. They disappeared fast. Part of the fun of making truffles is inventing your own combinations.
My recipe is for very dark chocolate truffles, my personal preference, but you can use semi-sweet or milk chocolate instead. It’s important, though, to use a high quality chocolate and butter, and fresh, local cream (I like Monument Farms), if you can find it.
I'll take one luscious truffle over the thirteen other desserts any day of the year. Bonnes fêtes!
Classic Dark Chocolate Truffles
8 oz. 70% dark chocolate, chopped
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup heavy cream
2 T unsalted butter, cut in pieces
1 T liqueur or 1 t extract
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder or finely ground nuts for coating
Combine the chocolate and cocoa in the bowl of a food processor and process until pulverized, about 1 minute.
In a small saucepan, gently stir the heavy cream, butter, and liqueur (or extract) over medium heat until it’s hot but not boiling. Pour the mixture over the chocolate and process until smooth, about 30 seconds.
Transfer the chocolate mixture into a small bowl and cover the top with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 2 to 3 hours until the chocolate is firm enough to shape with your hands. Scoop out a teaspoon full of chocolate and roll it into a slightly misshapen ball. Use your fingers to create the look of a lumpy truffle of the Tuber variety. Roll the balls in cocoa powder to coat. If you’re using nuts for a coating, the truffles look better if they’re rolled into evenly round balls.
Store the truffles in a sealed container in the refrigerator up to one week. Remove them from the refrigerator 30 minutes before serving. Makes 24 truffles.