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A COVID Christmas

Buche de Noel

The 2020 Christmas season has fallen victim to the same pandemic restrictions as Thanksgiving. Because large indoor gatherings promote the possibility of infection, most of us will spend the day only with those in our immediate household.

We stay home and don’t travel to visit family. There will be no baking cookies with grandma. We keep our holiday small and set a table for two or three instead of ten or twelve. We mail gifts to relatives and visit with family via a computer screen. Those are the sacrifices we make to stay healthy this year.

But we can still hear the jingling of Salvation Army kettles. Homes are decorated in red and green. Christmas cards are sent to cheer us. Carols play on the radio or CD players.

Social media and online communication has replaced in-person socialization. Praying and singing happen alone — instead of in a community. In the midst of isolation and loneliness, we remember God’s promise to always be with us and rejoice in the Savior’s birth. In the midst of fear and uncertainty, we learn to trust God.

In this darkest time of year, when nights grow long, cold and dark, and days are short and cloudy, we remember that God is our light. “I am the Light of the world. So if you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, for living light will flood your path.” (John 8:12)

Preparing Wassail

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, an Episcopal priest at Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan acknowledges that “we are in a really unusual moment, a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. In those times, you see the church overwhelmingly look toward the greater good, the common good. The development of faith gives us the capacity to think outside of our immediate needs.”

2020 has been a dark year for many. Monday is the darkest day – the winter solstice. Many of our Christmas customs have their origins in ancient Solstice rituals.

Also called Yule and Saturnalia, Solstice celebrations are common with northern cultures. Scandinavian traditions include singing, dancing, the Yule log, and mistletoe. Celts decorated the Yule log with holly and mistletoe and anointed it with oil, salt and mulled wine to bring prosperity and health in the new solar year. In ancient Rome, Saturnalia was a time to rest and exchange gifts.

Traditional Germanic and Scandinavian Yule foods focus on the fall harvest. They include hot soup, wild boar, wild apples, root vegetables and porridge. Wassail is a warm, slightly alcoholic cider beverage spiced with nutmeg and ginger. The word comes from wes hal, meaning “be well.” It is used to spread cheer. In northwest Europe and the British Isles, women went from house to house, carrying bowls of the spicy alcoholic beverage and singing cheerful songs. Men wassailed in the apple orchards, praying for a plentiful apple harvest for the coming year.

We fend off fear and sadness, embracing the spirit of hope and light. Soon the nights will get shorter and days will lengthen. Christmas lights cheer us and the flame of the Yule log warms us. Light brightens our day. It empowers us to hope. A vaccine is on the way, and the possibility of communities gathering together grows closer each day. What do the holidays look like for you this year?

Wassail

Buche de Noel

This log-shaped cake hails from the ancient Yule log and is a common French holiday treat. Here in the North Country, we can appreciate the tradition of hauling logs from the woods and keeping the hearth ablaze during the longest, darkest and coldest nights. The idea comes from a clever pastry chef during the times of Napoleon. He invented the Buche de Noel made from rolled sponge cake and disguised as a log with bark-like chocolate icing and meringue mushrooms so that families had something to gather around while they made resolutions and sang carols. The recipe is your Christmas gift from the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake.

Adirondack-Style Holiday Wassail

Singers were given wassail in exchange for their songs, and to keep them warm on winter nights. The beverage was traditionally made with apples, liquor, brandy, and spices. Modern wassail is more similar to hot spiced cider. You can provide alcohol to mix with the beverage for those who want to indulge.

Ingredients:

5 cups fresh apple cider

2 sticks cinnamon

3 – 4 whole cloves

2 Tablespoons maple syrup

2 cups fruit juice (pineapple, orange or cranberry)

1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Directions:

Combine all ingredients except lemon and simmer on the stove for 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Let stand covered 5 or 10 minutes longer. Remove cinnamon and cloves, and add lemon. Serve piping hot in mugs. Serves 4.

Variations: add other spices, like ginger, nutmeg or allspice. Or spike by adding a half cup of brandy or schnapps.

To make in a slow cooker, combine the ingredients in your slow cooker. Cook on low for 5 to 6 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours.

For a festive appearance, cut slits in an apple and stuff with whole cloves. Cook in the pot with other ingredients. You could also add whole cranberries. Cook the fruit in the pot with the other ingredients (but remember, the cranberries will pop).

Buche de Noel Chez Vous

A store bought jelly roll can be “wassailed” with a sprinkle of fruit juice or liqueur to “perk up” the flavor before receiving its bark icing. The cake, however, is not hard to make from scratch if you have a mixer and a cookie sheet with sides–so why not start a yule tradition in your own kitchen “chez vous.”

The filling can be any flavor of jam that goes well with chocolate, like raspberry or orange.

Ingredients:

4 large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

3/4 cup unbleached flour

1/4 cup baking cocoa

1/4 cup butter, melted, then cooled

1/3 cup fruit juice or fruit liqueur

1 cup fruit jam (cherry, orange or raspberry)

Jelly roll pan or cookie sheet with edges Parchment paper and cooking spray.

Directions:

For the Sponge cake:

Like most French desserts this is an easy-to-remember formula. Warming the eggs in advance increases the volume and stability of the beaten “sabayon.” Line the cookie sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet coated with cooking spray to facilitate the removal of the warm cake.

Fill a metal mixing bowl with hot water and add the eggs in their shells for a few minutes. Remove the eggs, wipe the bowl dry and break the warm eggs into the warm bowl.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add the sugar and beat at high speed until the “sabayon” is very thick and pale yellow. Sift the flour and cocoa over the egg and sugar mixture and gently incorporate with a spatula without deflating the sabayon. Stir a bit of this mixture into the cooled, melted butter to lighten it then fold that into the batter. Use a spatula to gently transfer the batter to a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper and bake in a 350 preheated oven until the cake springs back when touched–about 10-15 minutes.

Run a knife around the edges of the warm cake and roll the warm cake in the sheet of parchment to hold its shape while it cools.

Unroll the cooled cake and sprinkle evenly with the fruit juice or fruit liqueur. Spread jam in an even layer to the edges. Loosen the cake from the parchment and roll the cake into a tight cylinder using the parchment paper now to help push the cake into a log shape. (At this point the cake can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated or frozen.)

Ganache icing

Ingredients:

2/3 cup heavy cream

2 cups (12 ounce bag) dark chocolate chips

To make the ganache, bring the cream to a simmer, add the chocolate chips and whisk until smooth and shiny. Cool until it hardens a bit to a spreadable, fudgy consistency. Cut a diagonal slice off each end of the cake and set aside. Spread the log generously with the ganache, then attach the two “stumps” with more icing. Create the bark ridges with a fork or the tip of a knife. Dust with powdered sugar.

Yield 8-10 slices.

(Note: If you find making your own too challenging, order yours from the Left Bank Cafe).

Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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