The Food Almanac: Monday, December 23, 2013

Staff Writer
It's Bûche de Noël Day!

The bûche de Noël is a fairly difficult cake to make, the hard part being making a cake light and thin enough to be able to be rolled up.

Today’s Flavor
This is Bûche de Noël Day. Or, if you insist on speaking English Yule Log Day. It’s a French creation, however. Its origins were in a decree from Napoleon that people keep their chimneys closed to keep the cold air from coming in. That meant that the fireplaces could not be lit. To take the place of the burning logs, patisseries made these cakes in the shape of logs. The story is suspicious, but the cake does seem to date back to the time of Napoleon.

The bûche de Noël is a fairly difficult cake to make, the hard part being making a cake light and thin enough to be able to be rolled up. Genoise (sponge cake) is the usual formula used. The rolled-up cake is then covered with light-brown frosting, etched to resemble tree bark. Powdered sugar sprinkled on the top is the snow. An artfully-made bûche de Noël will have a stump of a branch sticking out of it, and marzipan decorations that resemble mushrooms or lichen. It’s more impressive to see than to eat, but it’s an essential dessert for the Christmas holidays.

Somebody who probably has a German heritage says that it’s National Pfefferneusse Day.Pfefferneusse literally means “pepper nut.” It’s is a hard, powdered-sugar-coated cookie made with a lot of baking spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, and even a little bit of pepper). The spice gives it a holiday feeling, and I think it is traditional to serve them this time of year. 

Gourmet Gazetteer
Chestnut is a town of 250 people in the vast corn-growing country that is the state of Illinois. It’s situated at the exact geographical center of the state; a monument in a park marks the spot. It’s on a main line of the Illinois Central Railroad, on which much grain is loaded and shipped. Unlikely to be found in Chestnut: actual chestnut trees. The Chestnut Family Restaurant looks forward to serving you downtown.

Edible Dictionary
trifle, n.–One of the best of British desserts, this is a combination of fruit, nuts, and cubes of cake held together and apart with pastry cream and whipped cream. The word trifle applies only to the light, fun-to-eat nature of the concoction, but not to the ease of making one. The finished dessert seems to have been thrown together. In fact, it’s a good bit of work to make an English trifle. It’s worth the effort. It’s delicious and festive, and seems appropriate for any occasion, from summer suppers to holiday feasting. The Italian cookbook includes a dessert called zuppa Inglese that is essentially identical to a trifle.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
If you’re making sweetened whipped cream, beat the cream until it makes soft peaks first, then add the sugar. Doing it the other way around will take longer and may cause the cream to break.

Bad Moments In Airline Food
On this date in 1972, sixteen survivors of a plane crash in the high Andes mountains were rescued. They managed to stay alive for ten weeks by eating deceased fellow passengers. Their ordeal was chronicled in the book Alive! by Piers Paul Read.

Deft Dining Rule #17:
When choosing between two dining options with equal appeal, the more convenient one will almost always serve food of lesser goodness.

Eating Around The World
This is the Night of the Radishes in Oaxaca, Mexico. Large red-skinned, white-interior radishes weighing as much as six pounds are carved into fanciful figures and displayed in the main plaza of the city tonight. Because of the time of year, many of the sculptures are Nativity scenes. Thousands of people come to see the competition among radish growers and carvers.

Food On The Air
On this date in 1928, the National Broadcasting Company hooked up the first coast-to-coast radio network. A few months later, WSMB affiliated with NBC to become the first major network station in New Orleans. A reminder of the illustrious past of the little radio station (now called WWWL) on which I broadcast The Food Show every day from 3 till 6 p.m. One of the shows on NBC was The Breakfast Club, which appeared on WSMB for most of its thirty-four-year run. Its host Don McNeill was born today in 1907.

Foodies In Sho-Biz
Today is the birthday in 1943 of actor, writer, and satirist Harry Shearer. He started as a child actor (in an Abbott and Costello movie), was part of the Saturday Night Live culture, and made a bunch of memorably wacko movies. He also does plenty of voiceover work, including more characters on “The Simpsons” than any other actor. He likes New Orleans and its food, lives here off and on, and was a big help after Katrina. Harry has a radio program called Le Show on NPR, aired here on WWNO.

Annals Of Coffee
On this date in 1675, King Charles II of England ordered all coffeehouses closed. He had nothing against coffee, but he didn’t like the tenor of the conversations going on in the places where it was dispensed. Two weeks later, he had to rescind the order, such was the caffeine-addicted public’s outcry. Besides, Starbucks threatened to cut off the king’s Frappuccino.

Food Namesakes
Jack Ham, a linebacker for the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, was born today in 1948. . . Chet Baker, a jazz trumpeter who had an extraordinary style of singing that sounds fresh even today, let his first notes out today in 1929. . . Novelist Donna Tartt came out of the oven today in 1963, in Greenwood, Mississippi. . . Owen Franks, a pro rugby player for New Zealand, began The Big Game today in 1987.

Words To Eat By
“In medieval times the habit arose of expressing a man’s wealth, no longer in terms of the amount of land in his estate, but of the amount of pepper in his pantry. One way of saying that a man was poor was to say that he lacked pepper. The wealthy lacked pepper. The wealthy kept large stores of pepper in their houses, and let it be known that it was there: it was a guarantee of solvency.”–Waverly Root, American food writer.

Words To Drink By
“Next to excellence is the appreciation of it.”–William Makepeace Thackeray.