November 30, 2011

Bûche de Noël

The log-shaped bûche de Noël is a traditional cake dessert served at Christmas in France and many other countries in Europe.  Legend has it that the origins of this holiday treat are linked to ancient traditions of celebrating the winter solstice with a bonfire.  Large tree trunks would be gathered and burned as an offering of thanks for the rebirth of the sun.

It is said that over the years the tradition was carried on in the form of cutting down a tree or ‘yule log’ each year to burn in the fireplace where Christmas supper would be prepared.  One story suggests that the actual yule log was replaced with the bûche de Noël Christmas cake at a time when houses no longer had fireplaces and the real yule log could not be burned.

Bûche de Noël is typically made of rectangular-shaped slices of layered sponge cake, spread with butter cream in between, then rolled to form a log.  The cake is also covered with butter cream, which can be either applied from a piping bag or streaked with a fork to create the look of tree bark.  A portion of the cake can be cut and placed on top or to the side to resemble a tree stump. 

Many variations are possible whether the sponge cake is chocolate or yellow, or the butter cream is flavored with chestnut puree, chocolate, or espresso.  All sorts of decorations can be added to enhance the presentation in the form of marzipan green holly leaves, red candy berries, mushrooms made of meringue, or a dusting of powdered sugar snow.

Although many people order their yule log cake from their local patisserie, more and more people are making their own.  And there are as many ways to make and decorate a bûche de Noël as there are cooks who prepare them. 

So dear readers, what are you making for your Christmas dessert?

WICE cooking class

Join the WICE cooking group, led by our gracious (and easy-to-follow) instructor Françoise Meunier, on Wednesday, December 7 to make bûche de Noël, along with a special dish of scallops with apples and shallots for your Christmas table. 

For more information click here.

November 25, 2011

The City of Light

Photo by Cameron Greentree

Thanksgiving went well (we hope) ... with turkey to spare, but there’s no need to linger in the past. There are places to go and sparkles to see. They don’t call Paris the "City of Light" for nothing.

Photo by Elke Jaarsma-Blom
Yes, the American tradition of holiday decorations appearing before Thanksgiving is now becoming a French tradition. The elegant and multi-character productions gracing and animating the windows of Printemps (Dreamy Christmas Getaways, a journey to 11 countries) and Galeries Lafayette (Rock and Roll Christmas) have been up for weeks now, inaugurated by Vanessa Paradis and Karl Lagerfield with a gala celebration. And the newly designed holiday tree-ring lights on the Champs Elysées came alive this past Wednesday ("switched on" by Audrey Tatou), as they reflected and shimmered off hundreds of mirrors dotting the tree branches. Designer Christmas trees will be displayed at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild (from 2 December to 7 December), and are then auctioned to raise money for cancer research.  

La grande roue at the west end of the Tuileries is spinning magically, lighting up the night sky. The wooden chalets for the marché de noël are built and ready to go (patterned after the Alsatian markets such as Strasbourg and Colmar). The ice skating rinks at Hôtel de Ville and Trocadéro will open around December 16. There’s also a fun fair stuffed into the Grand Palais from 15 December to 2 January.

2010 WICE Holiday Sparkle Team
Get your cameras ready and join us for the Holiday Sparkle photo expedition on 5 December, where we hit the highlights (Christmas Tree at Galeries Lafayette, store windows, Place de la Concorde, and Champs Elysées. You'll also learn about night photography and the magic of slow shutter speeds while using vin chaud as fuel for the creative soul.

Or join the holiday wreath-making workshop or the holiday cooking class (coquilles Saint Jacques and Bûche de Noël).

Here’s to a happy holiday season!

Marché de Noël: Visit the Champs Elysées, Saint Germain des Prés, Saint Sulpice, Gare Montparnasse,  Place des Abbesses, Gare de l’Est, Place de Nation, La Défense, and Trocadero.

Other beautiful illuminations: Bercy Village, Avenue Montaigne, Place Vendôme

(Note: The photos in this post were taken during last year's Holiday Sparkle expedition.)

November 20, 2011

The Batobus Beckons

These softly-lit autumn days, with their unexpected touch of warmth, are treasures. They inspire us to linger in cafés, crunch through dried leaves, or embrace the role of flaneur as the clock ticks toward winter.

Although we often get around Paris on the grève-prone RER, the subterranean web of metros, or the friendly buses (with stops so close to each other that you can see the next stop in the distance), we sometimes forget the scenic Batobus. The Seine "shuttle" gives us a unique, water-level view of the city and provides a stunning reminder of just how beautiful Paris can be. 

The full Batobus circuit takes a little over an hour and offers an up-close-and-personal view of the under-bridge world and life on the quais. From the graphic architecture and stone-carved statuary of the 22 bridges to the intimate moments of people's lives that you view for that fleeting moment as you chug by, the trip is a true montage of Paris.

The Batobus makes stops at eight key destinations (Hôtel de Ville, Louvre, Champs Elysées, Tour Eiffel, Musée d'Orsay, St Germain des Prés, Notre Dame, and Jardins des Plantes). You can "hop on and hop off" as often as you want during your one-day (14€), two-day (18€), five-day (21€), or yearly pass (60€).

All Photos by Meredith Mullins
There are six boats (trimarans) that "make port" every 17-35 minutes (frequency depends on the day and the season). Up to 200 passengers can ride under the glass enclosed space (heated in the winter) and on the open stern (called a "terrace" in the marketing materials). Nearly 2,000,000 passengers took to the Seine by Batobus in 2010 (with a record high one day of 14,000). So, hop on ... and see the world with a new fish-eye perspective.


November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving as a Verb

Thanksgiving means different things to different people. For American expats, it often holds a certain nostalgia … a reason to celebrate with friends and family.

As W.J. Cameron said, “Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action.” And so, first and foremost, we give thanks. Thanks for good friends, caring family members (no matter how crazy), opportunity to live a rich and creative life in Paris, and freedoms that we should never take for granted.

For Americans, also, it is a holiday about eating (punctuated for some by football). Americans gobble up roughly 535 million pounds of turkey on Thanksgiving. However, in France, we must rise to the challenge of creating a true Thanksgiving experience.
There are many options. You can have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner out (see the choices below). If you’re more of a Picard kind of cook, you can order in (see suppliers below). You can create your own French version of Thanksgiving (with oysters and organ meats … yum). Or, you can recreate an American Thanksgiving by visiting your friendly local butcher to order an American-style turkey (lots of white meat) or the leaner and gamier French turkey (dinde fermière). (Some say once you’ve tried the French turkey, you can never go back.) (Tip: the French turkeys are smaller, take less time to cook, and need to be barded … wrapped in a layer of fat to keep them moist while cooking. Your butcher will give you the fat if you ask.) Get your market-fresh accoutrements, such as potimarron, potiron, or citrouille (all from the pumpkin/squash family), châtaignes (chestnuts), fresh green beans, and fresh cranberries (in the past just available at specialty stores … now available in Monoprix and Carrefour too!)

At your dinner party, be sure to tell your French guests that it is an American tradition to eat everything at once from one huge plate stacked with food (a truly American experience) … and not to spread the cranberry sauce on everything just because it is called a sauce … (although they may have something there!)

Happy Thanksgiving! (Bon Jour de Merci Donnant … as Art Buchwald calls it). Let us know your thoughts and tips for a great Thanksgiving.

Traditional Dinners:

American Church, Saturday 26 November at 19h30. Reservations are required. 10 euros donation per person. (Click here for more info.) 

Joe Allen’s Restaurant, 30, rue Pierre-Lescot, 75001. 45 euros per person. (Click here.)

Breakfast in America, 17, rue des Ecoles 75005 or 4, rue Malher 75004
Already booked this year for Thanksgiving, but great for pancakes and hamburgers any day. (Click here.)

Le Saint-Martin, 25, rue Louis Blanc, 75010 Thursday, Friday, or Saturday evening. 35 euros per person. (Click here.)

Some Newcomers:

Some other restaurants are catching on to Thanksgiving. Try the Hôtel Vernet, L’Edouard, or the Blues BBQ if you feel like stepping out (and avoiding the cooking and dish-washing chores).

For Thanksgiving Foods:

To buy some of your ingredients (like hard-to-find fresh cranberries, stuffing, cornbread, sweet potatoes, American-style turkeys with lots of white meat, and even Jello for that 1950s jello mold):

Thanksgiving. 20, rue Saint Paul, 75004. (Click here.) 

Le Saint-Martin (see info above).

The Real McCoy, 194 rue de Grenelle, 75007 (This site is great for the kitsch product pictures alone … you’ll wax nostalgic looking at Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Libby’s canned pumpkin and Kraft Stove Top Stuffing.)

Post by Meredith Mullins
Thank you to everyone who contributed ideas to this post.

November 13, 2011

Pomp and Politics

Salle des Fêtes

The Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) commands respect as it stands tall in the center of Paris, overlooking the Ile de la Cité and the Seine. Imposing on the outside and lavishly decorated on the inside, the building has a dramatic history as well as an important role in contemporary city life.

WICE members were treated to a private tour last week, with a focus on the beautiful reception rooms that are used to welcome foreign heads of state to Paris, and to host other official city events.

The building and its salons are relatively new, even though activities at the Place de Grève (now renamed Place de l’Hôtel de Ville) began in 1357 (a square that has served as everything from a port for unloading wheat and wood, a venue for celebrations, a meeting point for day laborers to find work, a setting for public executions, and a magnet for manifestations.)

The first city hall was completed in 1628, but was burned (along with all of the city’s archives) in 1871 during the Commune revolution. The new building, completed in 1882, was created to be almost identical to the original Renaissance design.

A highlight of the building is the Salle des Fêtes, the largest reception room, designed with the Versailles Hall of Mirrors in mind. The paintings represent the history of dance and music, and the French creed of liberté, egalité, fraternité is proudly emblazoned on the ceiling. The walls are gilded with gold leaf, the chandeliers are Baccarat, and the silk curtains are woven in Lyons (identical to the original 17th century curtains).

Amidst all the rich décor of this building, the business of the city is carried out. The “City Council” meets with its 163 councillors representing the 20 arrondissements, and Mayor Delanoë conducts business in an office that is refreshingly minimalist and a tribute to contemporary art.

A Room with a View
Since the mayor was busy in his office, we didn’t get to stop by, but all the Hôtel de Ville rooms are open during the September journée du patrimoine.

We did find out that anyone can rent the reception rooms for special events. The Salle des Fêtes can be yours for 6,000 euros per hour. Pourquoi pas?

WICE Hôtel de Ville Enthusiasts
WICE is offering upcoming tours of the 10th arrondissement (click here for more info), La Sorbonne (click here), and the Manufacture de Sèvres (ceramic arts) (click here). Join us! 

November 10, 2011

Cooking Au Pif

Far Breton dessert
Do you find yourself scratching your head when reading a French recipe? Surely half of the instructions must be missing.  Where are the long lists of measured ingredients, every step of what to do next, and detailed descriptions of the technique that is vital to the execution of the dish?  

And yet, it seems that our French families and friends can waltz into the kitchen and - without a cookbook or a recipe in hand - make a batch of crepes to feed a crowd, a rich crème anglaise to accompany a molten chocolate cake, the perfect béchamel sauce for baked ham-wrapped endive, or a loaf of light and sweet brioche - all by cooking au pif, as the French call it. 

Although the word pif is slang for nose, when applied to cooking - au pif or 'in the nose' - is more about cooking by feel or instinct than to cook by sense of smell.  It is similar to when someone talks about 'eyeballing' a recipe or simply whipping up a dish without a recipe at all.

The recipe for Far Breton is one of those that is prepared au pif by many.  Originating from Brittany, it is a thick custard cake studded with plump prunes.  Similar to a crepe batter, the Far Breton is made from simple ingredients that we all tend to have on hand.  You can add your own twist by steeping the prunes in a flavored tea or even rum.  It's the perfect fall dessert or serve a slice at tea time.

You likely have your own recipes that you can cook au pif.  Why not add a few French recipes you can cook au pif to your old favorites?  

a WICE cooking class
Join the WICE cooking group, led by our gracious (and easy-to-follow) instructor Françoise Meunier, on Wednesday, November 16 to make Far Breton and the French family favorite Blanquette de Veau (Veal Stew with winter vegetables).  For more information click here.

November 7, 2011

Mois de la Photo

WICE Photographers at Work

November in Paris is full of promise … especially for photography lovers.  Officially, Paris’ month-long tribute to photography (Mois de la Photo) occurs in even-numbered years. But, France seems to embrace photography all the time. Perhaps because the Frenchmen Niépce and Daguerre were leaders in the invention of modern photography or perhaps because so many great photographers left creative footprints in the streets of Paris. Whatever the reason, even the odd-numbered-year Novembers offer a variety of exhibits and events.

First Permanent Photo: Joseph Niépce (circa 1826)
Every year (even and odd), more than 100 international galleries convene in Paris for Paris Photo (this year from November 10-13 at the Grand Palais). Thousands of photographs (vintage and contemporary) are displayed … more than most eyes (and brains) can handle in a single visit. This year, African photography will be celebrated in several special exhibits (including one at the Gare du Nord). For more information click here.

And that’s just the beginning of the photographic feast. There’s much more!  

Fotofever (35 galleries) at the Espace Pierre Cardin (11-13 November) (click here)

NoFound Photo Fair (11-14 November) (click here)

Photo Festival of Saint Germain des Prés (4-30 November) (click here)

Les Rencontres photographiques sponsored by the 10th arrondissement (click here).

Photographic auctions at Sotheby’s, Drouot, and Christie’s.

Exhibits at the Jeu de Paume (Diane Arbus), Petit Palais (Women in India), Fondation Cartier-Bresson (Lewis Hine), and Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Martine Franck and William Klein).