La fête à la française

From countryside chateaus to the city of lights, get a taste of how France celebrates the holiday season through its culinary traditions

Story by Andrea Gable

Photography by Deborah Johnson

Known for her authentic, scratch-made French macarons, Deborah Johnson shares traditional holiday recipes gathered from her time in France where she lived for two decades and studied culinary arts at the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. See her recipe for macarons below.

Across a land already known for its fine cuisine, holiday celebrations in France offer a chance to shine as bright as the city of lights. Punctuated by a large traditional feast on Christmas Eve known as “Le Réveillon,” families and friends gather together to celebrate the season with festive dishes, paired with good wine, and plenty of champagne. 

Whether it be an apartment in Paris or a chateau in the country, the tablescapes are likely the same – a main dish of a duck or goose, foie gras, shellfish and smoked salmon – all culminating with the Bûche de Noël, a traditional sponge cake roll named for the Yule log it resembles with its chocolate bark dusted with meringue mushrooms.

After living in France for two decades where she studied and worked for Le Cordon Bleu Institute in Paris, Deborah Johnson became well-versed in French culinary traditions. She enjoys incorporating these dishes into her own holiday celebrations at her home in Atlanta and at Lake Oconee. 

Johnson works as a personal chef and caterer between turning out batch after batch of her signature macarons, made from scratch. She also revels in sharing her culinary expertise and passion for France through cooking and baking classes, both in-home and virtual. 

Here, she shares a compilation of some of her favorite holiday recipes from her time in France, even including her renowned macarons. 

To find more French inspiration, visit www.chefdeborahjohnson.com.

Spiced Pumpkin Crème Brulée

INGREDIENTS

2 cups heavy or light cream, or half-and-half

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste

⅛ teaspoon sea salt

5 egg yolks

½ cup sugar, more for topping

1 teaspoon Pumpkin Pie Spice

2 tablespoon Pumpkin Butter

Crushed Pralines for garnish

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a saucepan, combine cream, vanilla bean and sea salt and cook over low heat just until hot. Let sit for a few minutes, add pumpkin pie spice and discard vanilla bean. (If using vanilla bean paste add it now.)

2. Butter and sugar 4-5 low ramekins (6-8 ounces). This step adds a little richness to the crèmes. I prefer a shallow ramekin which gives just enough custard and caramel for every bite.

3. In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until light. Stir about 1/4th of the cream into this mixture, then pour sugar-egg mixture into cream and stir. Add in the Pumpkin butter, a tablespoon at a time to desired taste. In this case, less is more! Pour into prepared ramekins and place ramekins in a baking dish; fill dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the dishes. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until centers are just set. Cool completely. Refrigerate for several hours and up to a couple of days.

4. When ready to serve, top each custard with a good teaspoon of sugar in a thin layer. Using a chef torch, Cook until sugar melts and browns or even blackens a bit, about 5 minutes. Garnish with crushed pralines.

5. Serve within two hours.

Rouleaux au Saumon Fumé

Deliciously savory smoked salmon pinwheels rolled up with a flavorful chive and dill goat cheese with lemon and pepper. This easy, healthy appetizer comes together in just 10 minutes for the ultimate party food or snack.

INGREDIENTS :

2-3 medium sized flour tortillas, or your favorite sandwich wrap

8 oz. plain goat cheese, softened to room temperature

3-4 tbsp. of chopped fresh herbs (dill, chives, chervil, parsley)

2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. pepper

6-8 ounces sliced smoked salmon

Lemon wedges for serving if desired.

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a small mixing bowl, combine softened goat cheese, chopped herbs, lemon juice and pepper. Mix well until creamy. Add more lemon, or a splash of cream to thin to a

spreadable consistency.

2. Lay out the flour tortillas or wraps and spread an even, thin layer of the goat cheese mixture out to the edges, leaving about a 1/2” border around the edges.

3. Evenly distribute the smoked salmon on top of the cheese.

4. Tightly roll up each tortilla. Wrap in film wrap, tightly, to secure and place in refrigerator until ready to serve. These can be prepared in advance as they keep nicely overnight in the fridge, making entertaining much more enjoyable.

French Macarons

French meringue method

INGREDIENTS:

130 grams Confectioners’ Sugar

130 grams Almond Flour

100 grams egg whites, room temperature

90 grams granulated sugar

3 grams Powdered egg whites (optional)

Gel or powdered food color (optional)

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. Sift almond flour and confectioners’ sugar into a bowl and mix well with a whisk to combine.

2. With a fork, mix granulated sugar and dried egg white powder (if using) in a small bowl (this helps to prevent the dried egg whites from clumping up when adding it to liquid egg whites)

In a clean bowl, whisk room temp egg whites with a hand mixer/stand mixer on low speed until

foamy (speed 2/3 on KitchenAid)

3. Add sugar/dried egg white mixture into the egg whites in two additions. Add first addition then wait about 15 seconds and add second addition. Continue to mix on low speed to allow sugar to dissolve fully (about 2 minutes on speed 3/4 on KitchenAid)

4. Once sugar has dissolved, turn up mixer to medium speed (6 on KitchenAid) until you form soft peaks (about 2-4 more minutes). Add in gel paste or powdered food coloring if desired. (For more vibrant colors, you can wait to add gel paste colors until the very end of mixing the meringue)

5. At this point, turn mixer up to medium high (speed 8 on KitchenAid mixer) until stiff peaks are achieved and meringue starts to clump around the whisk (about 3-5 more minutes depending on equipment) Fold your almond flour/confectioners’ sugar mixture into the meringue in three additions, being careful not to deflate the meringue too much at this point. Add each addition of dries into the meringue after the previous addition has been 70% incorporated. Once all of the dries are incorporated and there are no visible dries left in the bowl, deflate the batter carefully to desired consistency.

6. This deflating is called macaronaging. Macaronage is the act of folding the batter and scraping the batter against the sides of the bowl to release air from the meringue. Final batter should be shiny, somewhat loose, and at a ribbon stage. You should still have to squeeze the batter out of the piping bag, do not over mix and make the batter too runny. Some compare the batter to molten lava.

7. Pipe 1 ¾” circles onto chosen baking surface while holding the piping bag at a 90 degree angle. The best way to pipe is to keep the pastry tip in one place while applying even pressure with your dominate hand from the top of the piping bag until you reach the desired size, then stop pressure and quickly move your wrist counterclockwise to cut the batter off and bring the tip upright so no batter flows out accidentally. You can make or print templates to place under the parchement. I prefer to use silicone mats with preprinted templates. You can find them on Amazon.com.

8. Tap tray against table (or hand) two or three times to release air bubbles. Let rest for 10-40 minutes or until a skin has formed on the outside. Bake 285-300F for 18-20 minutes, rotating sheet pan halfway through baking time. (Temperature and time are dependent on your oven)

9. Let shells cool completely before handling. Peel macaron shells off your baking surface and match two same sized shells together. Add a dollop of filling onto the bottom of one shell and top with the second macaron shell in a twisting motion to spread filling evenly to the edge of the macaron shell. Macarons can be filled with anything! Ganache, jam, buttercream, curd, ice cream or sorbet, etc….

10. Macarons freeze very well. However, some fillings will have shorter shelf life and do not freeze as well. Always freeze product in high quality airtight container. You can freeze as shells or as filled and paired macarons.

Macarons taste best 24-72 hours after filling and maturing in the refrigerator.

NOTES: Below are photos of various ways to fill your macarons or add an extra touch to the top of the shell before baking. I like to add sprinkles, or sanding sugars, to the tops of shells just after piping and before the shells dry and go in the oven. These delicate French cookies are temperamental, it will take some practice before getting it right. Don’t give up after the first try, practice makes perfect!

Sablés Diamants

These are the one of the first recipes I learned in pastry school – a very traditional buttery shortbread cookie. Called Diamant (diamond) because the cookie, when rolled in coarse sugar, appears to have been rolled in diamonds.

INGREDIENTS :

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened at room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar

2 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups flour

Pinch of salt

Coarse decorating sugar (white or desired color)

1 egg white for brushing on the dough

INSTRUCTIONS:

1. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together until it becomes very smooth (creamy) and lighter in color, about 1-2 minutes. Add egg yolks and vanilla and continue mixing until well combined. Add flour gradually, in 2-3 additions.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead together. Work quickly so you don’t heat and soften the butter. Divide the dough into 2-3 equal parts and roll the dough into 2-3 logs, each about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap each log in parchment or plastic wrap and chill at least 20-30 minutes.

3. When the dough is well chilled, preheat your convection oven to 325 degrees. Unwrap the dough, working one log at a time.

4. Place a piece of parchment paper on your work surface or use a large plate or sheet pan. Make a line of sugar the length of the dough, about ¼ to ½ inch deep and 2 to 3 inches wide. Brush the log with a thin layer of egg white, then roll in the sugar, pressing to adhere the sugar to the logs. Repeat with second log. If the dough feels soft, place in refrigerator 5 minutes.

5. Slice dough into ½- to ¾-inch slices and place about 1 inch apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Reshape as necessary so the cookies are round.

6. Bake in preheated oven 8 to 10 minutes until cookies are just beginning to brown on the bottoms. Tops of the cookies should be quite pale. Remove from oven and cool. Store in an air tight container up to 1 week, or freeze.

Crème du Barry

A creamy Cauliflower Soup named in honor of a mistress of Louis XV. Madame du Barry of France had many lovers and eventually became the mistress of King Louis XV. Decked out in jewels and fancy clothes, she led a pampered life until she was finally forced to leave Versailles upon the King’s death. This velvety, elegant yet simple, soup was her favorite and thus named after her, Madame du Barry, La Favorite!

INGREDIENTS

2 tbsp. butter

300 g (11 oz) cauliflower

120 g (4 oz) leeks, white part

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 shallot, chopped

2 tbsp. flour

5 cups chicken stock or water

Salt/white pepper to taste

½ cup thickened cream

¼ cup gruyère or parmesan cheese, grated

Garnish:

¼ cup small cauliflower florets

Chives, diced

INSTRUCTIONS

1. Heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, chopped shallot, leeks and cauliflower; sauté for several minutes until the vegetables soften a little. Add the flour and stir. Add the chicken stock and cook for about 15 minutes until the cauliflower softens and is fully cooked through. Add salt and white pepper to taste.

2. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend for several minutes until smooth. Transfer mixture back to the saucepan, add the cream and cheese and stir until thickened. Add more salt and pepper if required.

3. In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil and add the cauliflower florets. Cook for several minutes, then remove. To serve, add soup to bowl, place several cauliflower florets in the center of the bowl and sprinkle with some chopped chives.

Bûche de Noël

The French name for Yule Log, a log-shaped cake traditionally served around the Christmas Holidays in France.

INGREDIENTS :

CHOCOLATE GENOISE:

2/3 cup cake flour, sifted

1/3 cup cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting

Pinch of baking soda

5 tbsp. unsalrted butter, plus extra for parchement and pan

6 large eggs

¾ cup sugar

2 tsp. vanilla extract (I like to use vanilla bean paste)

CHOCOLATE MOUSSE:

4 large egg yolks

4 tbsp. sugar

2 cups heavy cream

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted

1 tsp, vanilla extract

CHOCOLATE GANACHE FROSTING:

6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I like to use Ghirardelli Chocolate pieces)

1 cup heavy cream

MERINGUE MUSHROOMS:

1 cup sugar

½ cup water

4 large egg whites, room temperature

1 tsp, vanilla extract

1 tablespoon cocoa powder, plus extra for dusting

3 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate

CHOCOLATE BARK:

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate

GARNISH:

Confectioner’s sugar for dusting

Sugared sprigs of Rosemary

Sugared cranberries

INSTRUCTIONS:

MAKE THE GENOISE:

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a half-sheet pan. Line with parchment; butter and flour paper, tapping out the excess flour.

2. Sift flour, cocoa, and baking soda together twice into a medium bowl. Set aside. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Set aside in a warm place.

3. In a medium-size heat-proof bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar. Set bowl over a pan of simmering water; stir until mixture is warm to the touch and sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and beat on high speed until mixture is thick and pale and has tripled in bulk. Reduce speed to medium, add vanilla, and beat 2 to 3 minutes more.

4. In three additions, sift flour mixture over egg mixture, folding in gently with a spatula. While folding in last addition, dribble melted butter over batter and fold in.

5. Spread batter evenly in pan, leaving behind any unincorporated butter in the bottom of the bowl. Tap pan on counter to remove air bubbles. Bake until cake springs back when touched in center, 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t overbake or cake will crack. Let sit in pan on a wire rack until cool enough to handle.

6. Dust surface with cocoa powder. To make rolling easier, trim edges of cake, and cover with a sheet of waxed paper and a damp dish towel. Invert onto a work surface, and peel off parchment; dust with cocoa. Starting from one long end, carefully roll up cake in towel. Wrap in plastic; refrigerate until ready to use.

MAKE CHOCOLATE MOUSSE:

1. In a medium saucepan, whisk together egg yolks, 2 tablespoons sugar, and 3/4 cup heavy cream. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until mixture coats back of spoon, 3 to 4 minutes (do not boil). Remove from heat; whisk in melted chocolate and vanilla. Strain into a bowl; chill until cool.

2. With an electric mixer, beat remaining 1 1/4 cups heavy cream with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form. Stir 1/3 of whipped cream into cooled custard mixture, then gently fold in the rest with a rubber spatula.

3. Cover and keep in refrigerator until ready to use in cake.

MAKE CHOCOLATE GANACHE ICING :

1. Chop chocolate into small pieces, and place in a medium bowl. Heat cream until bubbles begin to appear around the edges (scalding); pour over chocolate. Let stand 5 minutes, then stir until smooth. Refrigerate until cold but not solid, stirring occasionally.

MAKE MERINGUE MUSHROOMS:

2. Heat oven to 225 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

3. In a small saucepan, heat sugar and 1/2 cup water over low heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil; cook until liquid reaches 248 degrees (hard-ball stage) on a candy thermometer.

4. Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric beater fitted with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on low speed until soft peaks form. Increase speed to high, and add hot syrup in a steady stream, beating constantly. Continue beating until cool and stiff, about 5 minutes. Beat in vanilla. Fold in cocoa powder.

5. Spoon meringue into a large pastry bag fitted with a large plain tip. Pipe meringue onto prepared baking sheet to form 2-inch domes. Pipe a separate stem shape for each dome.

6. Sprinkle cocoa powder lightly over meringues. Bake until dry, about 2 hours. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.

7. To assemble mushrooms, melt chocolate in microwave in bursts of 20 seconds, stirring in between each burst. Trim off points from tops of stems. With a small offset spatula, spread chocolate on underside of a cap and place trimmed end of stem into center of cap. Place mushroom, stem side up, in an egg carton to harden. Repeat with remaining mushrooms; refrigerate until set.

ASSEMBLE THE BUCHE:

1. Carefully unroll genoise on the back side of a baking sheet (discard the plastic wrap and waxed paper, but keep the towel). Spread chocolate mousse evenly on cake to within 1 to 2 inches of one long end. Reroll cake, starting from other long end, using towel to help roll it. Cover with plastic wrap; chill until firm, about 1 hour.

2. Place cake, seam side down, on a serving platter; tuck parchment around it to keep platter clean while decorating.

3. Whip ganache at medium speed until it has the consistency of soft butter. Cut two wedges off ends of cake at a 45-degree angle; set aside. Ice log with a thin layer of ganache. Attach wedges on diagonally opposite sides of log. Spread ganache all over log, using a small spatula to form bark-like ridges. Chill until ganache is firm, about 30 minutes.

4. In the top of a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water, melt chocolate until smooth. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Spread melted chocolate 1/8-inch thick over parchment. Refrigerate until cold, 10 to 15 minutes. Roll paper back and forth until chocolate splinters; sprinkle over cake. Chill cake until ready to serve.

5. When ready to serve, arrange meringue mushrooms around and on cake, and dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar and garnish with sprigs of rosemary and cranberries that have been brushed with egg white and dusted with granulated sugar.

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