During the winter holidays, in all the mad rush, it's easy to forget that, no matter which tradition you celebrate, the world's wintry festivals have one thing in common--they all revolve around making light where there is darkness. The Winter Solstice on December 21 is, after all, about the shortest, darkest day of the year. After that, things can only get better and brighter, right?
If you're looking for a new way to light a path into a bright New Year, and to lighten up our attitudes with good cheer and good food, take heart from the French Riviera, where every artist I can think of--from Hans Christian Anderson to Picasso to Louisa May Alcott and even Nietzsche--were all inspired to new heights by the incredible light of the Côte d'Azur and by the Provençal joie de vivre.
On the French Riviera, holy processions often involve following a path of light down to sea, with candles set in seashells filled with sand, which are an absolutely beautiful sight to see.
As you may recall from my novel, COOKING FOR PICASSO, there is a wonderful Christmas tradition in Provence called Les Treize Desserts de Noel or the "Thirteen Desserts". Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest that you make 13 treats at home! Specialty stores abound with them, so I always buy a variety (or get my guests to each bring a sweet) and that leaves me free to concentrate my efforts, each year, on one favorite homemade dessert.
Here's my recipe for a favorite Christmas treat. It's a quick and easy special cake made of sugar and spice and dried fruits and nuts, and buttermilk, which makes it the most moist, mouth-watering fruit-cake you'll ever eat--sensuous, satisfying yet healthy! And, the black pepper and the freshly ground nutmeg give it a grown-up kick. You can bake it as a loaf or layer cake, but this time I've made it in cupcake moulds, because they're fun that way and they bake faster, thus freeing up the oven for other cooking.
Note: When I bake, all of these ingredients are organic. I find that organic dried fruits, nuts, flour and sugar are all naturally more sweet, with the result being that you can use much less sugar than you would in ordinary recipes.
Also, if you can get ahold of a real nutmeg (which looks like an acorn) go for it! Nutmeg is just wonderful when you grate it yourself just before baking.
The Dry Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar in the raw
1/3 cup light brown sugar, not packed down
1 teaspoon baking soda
7 shakes of cinnamon
7 twists of cracked pepper from a mill, (fine ground) nutmeg freshly ground (about 1/4 teaspoon, to taste)
a pinch of sea salt
The Wet Ingredients:
I egg, beaten
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon of real vanilla, preferably homemade (more to come on this!)
The Fruit and Nuts:
1 handful each of your two favorite nuts (you can use walnuts, almonds, whatever you like). Here I have used:
pistachios shelled (get the natural shelled ones, not the reds!)
1 handful each of your three favorite dried fruits (e.g. raisins, figs, dried cherries, apricots, dates, dried blueberries, etc.) Here I have used:
dried sour cherries Thompson raisins dried
unsulphured apricots, sliced thinly
Make the Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1. Combine all the DRY ingredients in a bowl.
2. Then, add all the WET ones quickly and then mix until smooth and creamy.
3. Then turn the batter in the pans of your choice. I use paper-lined cupcake tins here (but if you use a loaf or cake pan, just make sure that you butter and then flour the pans so you can unmold your cake).
4. Bake the cakes for 25-40 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. (Cake is done when browned golden on top, and when you insert a cake tester and it comes out dry.)
5. When your cakes are done, let them sit for a few moments to firm up. Then let cakes dry on a rack (remove the cupcakes still in their paper wrappers, or invert your cake from its pan).
6. When your cakes are completely cooled, dust with powdered sugar. The best way to do this is to simply put the sugar in a small strainer and use a spoon to stir it through the strainer and direct the "snow" where you want it to go.
Serve with a good sauterne, port, cognac or favorite drink. Enjoy!
I'll be posting more recipes. Tune in!
All my best wishes,
All Text and Pictures here are under copyright ©CamilleAubrayLLC