The French Christmas cake, or Bûche de Noël (Christmas log) is a delicious cake, normally consisting of a Swiss roll-type sponge cake, filled with coffee, chestnut or chocolate butter cream and covered with the same cream, then decorated to look like a log, with extra little decorations on top. But in my childhood, my mother invented a new and equally delicious version of it, which was eminently suitable for an Australian summer Christmas. It’s super easy, doesn’t heat the house up–because no baking required at all!–and can be made Christmas Eve. I make it every year. It’s always popular!
I’ve published this recipe before, but not for a while, so here it is again, Maman’s Bûche de Noël.
1 packet sponge finger biscuits
200 g unsalted butter, melted
1 or 2 eggs(depending on how much mixture you have)
half to 3/4 cup hot strong sweet coffee(a good instant coffee works fine)
Good cooking chocolate, melted with a little cream.
Crush all the biscuits (you can do this in the blender), add the hot sweet coffee, the melted butter, and mix well. Add the slightly beaten egg(or two). You need to obtain a good stiff mix that you can easily shape into a log. That’s what you do then–shape it into a log, and then put it in fridge till it is set. Meanwhile melt the chocolate over a low heat with a little cream, stir till all melted and glossy. Spread over the cake, on the top and sides. Put in fridge to set overnight. You can decorate the top with angelica leaves, almonds, rose petals, candied flowers, whatever you feel like! (Picture above is of one I made a couple of Christmasses ago)
I thought readers of this blog might enjoy my latest post around the craft of fiction, reposted from the wonderful site Writer Unboxed. This one’s on food in fiction.
In life, people’s days are punctuated by meals. Food is an important part of our lives: of course, we need it for survival, but it’s much more than that. It’s pleasure, it’s penance, it’s anxiety, it’s joy—depending on our relationship with it. Eating together or alone, eating at home or out in restaurants and cafes, eating on the go or around the family table: it’s all part of the fabric of human life, all over the globe.
And in fiction? Well, it always used to puzzle me, as a kid, when people in books never stopped to eat or drink or you never got to hear what was for lunch, if it was mentioned. For me as a child, it was important to know: my diary as a twelve-year-old is full of mentions of the delicious things my mother had cooked up for us that day, or the yummy thing I’d bought at the school canteen that day (which my mother would have considered rubbish) or, conversely, the yuckiness of something I’d been made to try by a friend, such as vegemite—an Australian classic but not to my taste. Sure, I’m from a French background and food was intensely important in our family, but we certainly weren’t alone in that. To read a story in which there was no mention of food at all seemed odd. But to read one in which exotic delights like ginger pop (as in Enid Blyton) were mentioned—often!—was such fun. I had no idea at the time what ginger pop was but it sounded exciting, like the adventures the Famous Five or Secret Seven went on. And when Edmund, in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, is offered endless Turkish Delight by the White Witch to bribe him to betray his siblings, I was horrified, but understood. Hard to resist Turkish Delight! Growing up through adolescence and into adulthood, I never lost my interest in food and cooking, and never ceased to wonder why in some novels, people seemed to exist on air.
When it came to writing my own books, that was never an issue. Food always appeared, whether glancingly or more substantially, in both my fiction for young readers and for adults. Sometimes it was just for the sheer pleasure of the description, sometimes to evoke an atmosphere, sometimes to symbolize something about a character. I couldn’t imagine leaving it out altogether. In my recent adult novel, for example, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, which is set in the French part of the Basque country, where my mother’s family is from, food functions very much too as an expression of an ancient, distinctive culture and landscape, as well as illuminating certain aspects of family. If you’re interested, the publisher produced a lovely, free digital magazine which featured some of my Basque family recipes as well as entries from a microlit competition they ran, as part of the publicity for my book.
Right now, I’m working on another adult novel in which food—and especially the creation of dishes and meals–is absolutely central, indeed a crucial part of the characters’ emotional journey. That’s a challenge in itself: because of course you can overdo it. You can cook up too rich a stew, you can overwhelm the senses with too many smells and tastes, you can nauseate the reader with too much indigestible detail. You can’t be too self-indulgent; but equally, you can’t be too restrained. It’s a fine line to tread.
I’d read recently a number of contemporary novels which featured food as a central theme—ranging from Jenny Colgan’s Meet Me at The Cupcake Café, to Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients to Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, and others, all of which handled the food theme adeptly and enjoyably and with great diversity too. They all showed something important to me as a writer: in a time when people watch cooking shows for fun and cookbooks sell like, well, hotcakes, at the same time there’s less time for many around the actual stove or table. Getting the balance of ingredients right in a food-themed novel is more important than ever. Sure, they’re about dreams, escape, pleasure: but also about being grounded, about rediscovering simple things, about the basic human joy of creating something delicious that for the enchanted space of a good meal might unite us all.
Last night, to round off a week of celebrations around A Hundred Words for Butterfly, and to keep up the Basque theme, I made the dish known as ‘merlu koskera’, which is a beloved fish and vegetable soup/stew popular up and down the Basque coast, on both sides of the border, from Biarritz to San Sebastian and beyond. If ttoro, the delicious fish and seafood soup from the Basque coast, which I featured in an earlier post, is flamboyant in its rich redness, merlu koskera is themed around green and white, the other colours of the Basque flag. Traditionally, it’s a spring dish that features ‘merlu’, a type of cod, with seafood, asparagus, peas and boiled eggs as other ingredients, cooked in a delicious sauce of fish stock and white wine, and flavoured with parsley, garlic and piment d’Espelette. But as with most Basque dishes, it’s a flexible thing that can be interpreted according to what you have on hand, and that’s what I did. Here in Australia we can’t get merlu, so I substituted Pacific cod(bought frozen from the supermarket) and as our peas are not yet ready, it being a bit too early in spring for that, I substituted spinach for them. The asparagus though is ready so a bunch of them, fresh-picked from the garden, went into the dish, along with boiled eggs and prawns. (Mussels and clams are also popular additions in the Basque country). And of course piment d’Espelette (for which as I’ve indicated before, you can at a pinch substitute hot non-smoked paprika). My version of the dish was also less on the soupy side, more on the stewy side instead! If you want more soupy, add more fish stock than what I’ve indicated here.
So here’s my version of merlu koskera:
Ingredients (for 2 people): bunch of asparagus, steamed; handful of ‘English’ spinach, lightly steamed; 2 small/medium fillets cod; 6 prawns (or any other seafood you want); 2-3 boiled eggs; chopped parsley; 3 cloves garlic, sliced; half a cup of fish stock; splash white wine; pinch piment d’Espelette; salt to taste.
Lightly flour the cod fillets, and fry till the coating is getting golden. Add the parsley and garlic, lightly fry(do not let it burn). Add the fish stock and white wine and simmer for about 5 mins. Meanwhile, quickly cook the prawns in a little olive oil, set aside. Add the cooked spinach to the fish mix, stir(without disturbing the fish, add prawns and asparagus, heat through, quickly. Take pan off heat, arrange everything, including the halved boiled eggs, in a large dish or bowl, with the spinach down the bottom, the cod on top and everything else arranged around it. Sprinkle with the piment d’Espelette and serve with bread and boiled potatoes if you want. And that’s it!
Note: If you want to do the whole traditional thing, the peas(pre-cooked) go in at the same time as the spinach did in my version.
We had the best time last night at the launch of A Hundred Words for Butterfly! Part of the launch included readings by the fabulous writers who were finalists and winners in the #100words4butterfly writing comp, and their stories, as well as some of my Basque-themed recipes, appear in this gorgeous digital magazine put together by the wonderful Hannah Oakshott from Spineless Wonders Short Australian Stories. Yummy food and amazing microlit–a perfect combination–check it all out below!
Congratulations to all the finalists and winners, and thank you so much to all the wonderful Spineless Wonders team, it was an absolutely awesome launch and I am still on a high!
My Basque cookalong Live happened last night over Spineless Wonders Facebook and Zoom, and it was a lot of fun! I introduced people to the Basque country, or at least our family’s part of it, told stories–about my upcoming book, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, about my family and even told a Basque fairy tale!–and of course, I also cooked! The cookalong was built around creating the delicious Basque fish soup known as ‘ttoro’ (pronounced ‘tioro’) which is both delicious and easy to make, and judging from people’s messages afterwards, with accompanying photos, it was indeed deemed both by those who joined in the cookalong!
I thought today I’d put up my recipe so anyone who missed the cookalong can still make it if they want.
Ttoro soup from St Jean de Luz
(Basque fish soup)
This gorgeous but easy-to-make fish soup originates from the fishing port of St Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country, but is popular all over the Basque coast. You can find it in restaurants and in homes—everyone has their own version. My mother, who came from Biarritz, had her own, and this recipe is inspired by her gorgeous creation. And like all ttoros, it features the ‘magic ingredient’ of the Basques: piment d’Espelette, which comes from the lovely hills farms around the picturesque small town of Espelette, 24 kms inland from Biarritz. This delicious red pepper powder has a unique flavour, both warmly spicy and piquantly sweet and fruity, which is the reason why this traditional Basque spice has its own AOP appellation in France (the peppers can only be grown in the area around Espelette). Its gorgeous colour also imparts a beautiful red to the soup. You can easily obtain it online: in Australia, order from the Culinary Club or The Essential Ingredient. However, if you can’t get piment d’Espelette, use a god hot paprika(non-smoked). It won’ be quite the same, but it will still be pretty nice.
So for two people, you’ll need:
*Two tomatoes, chopped
*One red capsicum, chopped
*One medium onion, chopped
*Four cloves garlic, sliced
*Piment d’Espelette or paprika(as above)
*Two fillets of fish, cut into pieces(your choice of fish)
*Around 8-10 prawns, peeled and cooked
*A bit of any other seafood you fancy: eg mussels, squid, scallops, etc
(To make it really easy you can simply use a good marina mix)
*3-4 cups of pre-prepared seafood/fish stock (home-made with fish heads/prawn shells, quickly fried with olive oil, salt and piment d’Espelette, then covered with water and boiled for about 20 mins, left to stand till used, then strained. Or you can simply use fish/seafood stock cubes)
In a good-sized pan, fry the onions and garlic in olive oil till starting to soften. Add the tomatoes and capsicum, stir, add salt and half a teaspoon of piment d’Espelette or paprika, and leave to cook for about 5-6 mins with lid on. Then pour in the hot stock, and allow to cook at a simmer for a further 5-6 mins, to absorb the flavours. Then add the pieces of raw fish, and cook for 2-3 mins. Add the rest of the seafood, including the prawns. Cook for about another 2-3 mins, at a simmer. Sprinkle more piment d’Espelette in. Taste, add salt if necessary. Then take off stove, and serve with bread! The soup also keeps well overnight in the fridge—you can eat the delicious leftover soup, heated up, the next day!
My artist sister Camille Masson Talansier lives in the small town of Hasparren in the Basque country, 25 kms inland from Biarritz. In this charming video, made for the run-up to the release of my audio novel A Hundred Words for Butterfly, you get a glimpse of her life in this beautiful region, and the things that are important to her: art, food, family.
To check out more of Camille’s art, visit her Instagram page here, and website here.
On Friday August 27, at 7pm Australian Eastern Standard time, as part of the events around my upcoming audio novel, A Hundred Words for Butterfly, I’ll be doing a Basque cookalong, as a Facebook Live on Spineless Wonders’ page. During the cookalong, we’ll be creating a simple and delicious Basque fish soup, based on the version my mother used to make and which I grew up with. So that you can have everything ready before the day, I’ve made a video which explains all the ingredients to gather and prep to do before the cookalong.
To join the cookalong, register your interest here or simply join on the day.
In a scene from A Hundred Words for Butterfly, my characters are in the charming village of Espelette and sit down to enjoy a very classic local dish: axoa (pronounced ‘atchoa’).
Traditionally served on market days, this simple and delicious Basque stew was popularised in Espelette, and in fact in recipe books is often called ‘axoa d’Espelette‘. This dish really highlights piment d’Espelette and in my previous post I indicated where you can easily buy it, but as I mentioned, hot paprika(non-smoked) will make a reasonable substitute (note that sweet paprika is too mild, and smoked paprika really doesn’t taste anything like the piment). The axoa really benefits from cooking ahead and letting it rest—for instance, you could cook it at lunchtime but serve it at dinner time. Even cooking it an hour or so ahead of serving and letting it sit will enhance the flavours. But don’t despair if you don’t have time–it’s excellent even if you don’t have time to cook ahead!
This recipe is my version of axoa, with a twist on tradition. Not only do I provide a vegetarian as well as a meat version, I use green capsicum (bell pepper) instead of the more traditional long pale green pepper (mild variety). Red capsicum however is a traditional part of the stew. And together they look just right, highlighting the traditional vibrant Basque colours of red and green! In the quantities given, the recipes each serve 3-4 people. (‘Axoa’ by the way means ‘chopped’ in Basque, referring to the meat).
Ingredients common to both versions: one large onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1 red capsicum, 1 green capsicum, olive oil, chopped herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf), piment d’Espelette, salt, 200 ml water or stock.
Other ingredients for meat version: 500 g diced veal (the traditional meat for this dish) or pork (which also goes well, in my experience), or 500 g minced veal or pork. Chicken could also be used.
Other ingredients for vegetarian version: 150 g soaked beans. I used black-eyed beans as they don’t take too long to cook (and we grew them!) but you could also use Lima beans (butter beans) or white haricot beans. Also, a bit of extra vegetable stock to cook the beans. If you are making the vegetarian version, cook the beans in stock first till they are at least three-quarters cooked, before adding to the basic mix to cook more.
So, first of all chop your onion, garlic and herbs. Deseed and dice the red and green capsicums. In a pan, cook the onion, garlic and capsicums in olive oil for 15 minutes then add the diced meat or the part-cooked beans, add the herbs, salt, and dash of piment d’Espelette. Reduce the heat and add the water or stock and cook at low heat, lid on, for about 45 minutes. The meat should be very tender but not falling apart, ditto the beans, and the sauce should be thick and reduced. After you turn off the heat, let the stew sit for as long as you can, before reheating, adding another sprinkle of piment d’Espelette, and serving with boiled potatoes or rice.
As I mentioned in my post about the piment d’Espelette last week, over the next few weeks I’ll be posting recipes for some simple Basque food, and thought I’d build it up so you could, if you want, create a whole Basque-inspired meal around it, similar to what my characters in A Hundred Words for Butterfly enjoy!
Today I’m introducing four simple dishes that can function either as snacks, entrees, lunch dishes or even grace a pintxo table if you want (pintxos are the Basque version of tapas). And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you that pintxos are ‘Spanish’–they are found on both sides of the French/Spanish border, just like the people who make them, because they are Basque 🙂
I’ve made all of these very recently and the photos are all my own, so you can see they are definitely home-made 🙂 All are very simple, very quick, and and very tasty! By the way, they all include a sprinkle of piment d’Espelette–great if you can obtain some, for example here or here, and I recommend it for that characteristic Basque taste. But you can certainly use good hot paprika if you don’t have any piment handy.
So here are the recipes!
Garlic and egg soup: Garlic cloves (up to 6 for 4 people); stock (chicken or vegetable) olive oil, thyme, bay leaf, eggs(1 per person) salt, piment d’Espelette, slices of bread. Cook the whole peeled garlic cloves in olive oil till they are golden, then add the hot stock. Add salt and a sprinkle of the pepper. Add chopped thyme and the bay leaf. Cook, uncovered, for 30 mins then crack the eggs into the soup to poach them. Fry the slices of bread and cut up to make croutons. And serve!
Simple Basque salad: On a plate arrange lettuce leaves with slices of Bayonne-style ham (Serrano ham is fine if Bayonne ham is unobtainable), and slices of roasted red and green capsicum. Sprinkle a vinaigrette made of olive oil and white wine or cider vinegar over the lettuce, and a small pinch of piment d’Espelette on the ham. For a vegetarian version, you can use sheep’s milk cheese (such as Manchego) instead of the ham, and you can also add other ingredients to the basics, such as tomatoes, artichokes and asparagus.
Fried sardines: You need fresh sardines for this (can be either whole, gutted and boned sardines or ready-prepared fillets). For 2 people, I used 3 sardines each. You also need an egg and some flour, salt, and you guessed it, piment d’Espelette! Beat the egg, dip each sardine in it then into the flour, making sure it’s all coated, then fry till done. Serve with a sprinkle of salt, the Espelette pepper, and either lemon or vinegar.
Mushrooms with garlic: In the Basque country, ceps or other forest mushrooms would often be used, but field mushrooms are also fine. Simply slice them finely and cook in a little butter for about 2 minutes, add crushed garlic, salt, some chopped herbs—whatever you have on hand (I used basil) and yes, a sprinkle of that Famous Pepper!