I spent my second Joyeux Noël holiday in Sainte-Anastasie, a small commune about 60 miles from where I live in Castelnau-le-Lez. As occurs every year, Christmas was held at the home of the parents of my daughter-in-law, Attenderella. They have a beautiful four-story stone house that is able to accommodate the five of us along with Poochi, our dog.
Attenderella’s sister and her husband and their daughter live on the property in a separate home, while her grandparents, ages 91 and 94, stay in a small cottage outside the main home.
We arrived on Friday night, and after unpacking our luggage and presents, we gathered for our evening meal. Dinner was intentionally light because we all knew the meals that were in store for us during the next few days.
Saturday was filled with a wonderful shopping excursion with Expresso and Attenderella in Uzes, one of my favorite small French villages. Dozens of vendors were set up in the open air, some selling clothing and shoes and others selling food, perfume, cheeses, wines, and other merchandise. Nearby shops were filled with all sorts of tempting bargains.
Because we had finished our Christmas shopping, we were free to wander around and see if we could find any bargains!
Attenderella and I both found sweaters—hers in a brilliant turquoise and mine in my favorite blue. Best of all, the price was quite modest.
That night, we began our Christmas Eve celebration with the traditional glass of Champagne served by l’Artiste, Attenderella’s father.
A number of hors d'oeuvres accompanied the Champagne. I resisted consuming them, knowing from past experience that I needed to pace myself. Many special dishes would be served before the weekend would end.
We gathered around the fireplace and began opening presents. How much fun we had opening the surprise gifts we had planned for each other! Once the gift-opening orgy was over, we headed to the beautiful dining table that was set and waiting for us.
I was delighted to see that the tablecloth and napkins were ones I had sewn years earlier. By now, I don’t even remember making them, but I recognized the fabric and my work.
The traditional Christmas Eve meal is one of seafood in all its varieties. We were served giant prawns, oysters, snails, and other seafood specialties I didn’t recognize.
The following day, our Christmas dinner was served midafternoon. We started with foie gras and a sweet white wine, both of which I liked. The main course was a capon slow roasted with chestnuts in an outdoor oven.
In case you’re unfamiliar with capons, they are male chickens that are castrated when young and fed a rich diet. They are juicier and more flavorful than turkey, and ours was perfectly cooked. We ate capons in Iowa when I was growing up, but I hadn’t had one since.
The only cooking mishaps of the weekend were the desserts that I was in charge of preparing with my son’s family. Hugbug, age 14 (almost 15), and I tried to make lemon bars. I left him alone for a few minutes to stir the lemon filling. When I came back, the bottom had burned and there were ant-like black pieces mixed in with the filling. Oh well! We poured it on the lemon bars, hoping no one would notice.
When we were ready to serve the bars, I tried to cut the crust but it wouldn’t cut. I had to reach into the filling and then try to break off pieces. Hugbug and I put the pieces of bar on each plate and then scooped filling on top. He then covered everything with copious amounts of whipped cream! Expresso began serving them.
Hugbug and I were preparing the final desserts in the sunroom where our desperate attempts to salvage the dessert would not be witnessed. When word came back that the lemon bars tasted very good but we might think about improving the presentation, I started laughing. I laughed so hard that I had to sit down and couldn’t keep serving. I’m still laughing as I write this.
The second dessert was supposed to be a simple American pecan pie. Unfortunately, Expresso didn’t follow my baking instructions. The pie was baked too long, and instead of pie, it was more like a pecan brittle with an almost burnt crust. Again, I am laughing as I write this. Since pecan pie isn’t a common dessert in France, my French family didn’t know how wrong the outcome was! But again, it tasted good—if you like pecan brittle!
The last breakdown was my attempt to make meringue cookies from the egg whites leftover from the lemon filling. I whipped the whites into fluffy mounds, added a bit of sugar and lemon juice (we didn’t have any cream of tartar), and scooped them out in big white mounds on a baking sheet. Then I instructed my French family to bake them on very low heat (no more than 200°F) for maybe 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, the instructions, which I gave in English, must have been lost in translation. An hour later, out of too-hot oven, came light brown rocks! Much to my surprise, they were all eventually eaten, and one person even complimented me on them. Once again, I am laughing as I write this.
I promised myself that if I ever commit to being responsible for desserts again, I’ll make them ahead of time in my own kitchen and transport them. No doubt you can see why!
On the other hand, the less-than-stellar desserts could not diminish the wonderful family event we enjoyed. And I’ll have something to laugh about for the next twelve months.
By then, I may be ready to face the challenge of cooking desserts for yet another Christmas meal. Given time, I’m sure I’ll get there!