Originally, this post started, diplomatic and without any gross generalisations:
French people suck at Christmas.
It’s not about the presents or the lights or even the day itself, but a colourful silliness that is sadly lacking over on the Champs Elysees.
Maybe the Gallic shrug was finally getting to me. That studied indifference, their dislike of dressing up is cute for most of the year but not in December.
I was just missing the childish enthusiasm of Christmas at home, copious mince pies and crowds of drunken Santas swarming London. Really, I was just tired and grumpy because I had to work 15 or 20 hour shifts at the patisserie.
In fact, French people don’t suck at Christmas. Oh, they still don’t like the English tomfoolery. But they are very good at ooh-ing and aah-ing* over the chic yule logs, de rigueur for any Christmas Eve dinner.
We started making them just before midnight, more than a hundred logs of chocolate or caramel or green tea matcha mousse. We glazed with shiny cocoa icing and sprinkled with stars and arranged slivers of apricots with chopsticks, glued on mini-macarons and gold holly leaves until the next afternoon. Slept for four hours. Started again.
After a week of this, I was a Christmas log zombie. Hated Parisians, chocolate, sunlight, anything that normally made me jolly. Up until 9 a.m. on the morning of the 25th, when we were set free after the long night shift. Free to come home on the deserted metro, fall asleep in the bath. My mama made mince pies, my brother handed me his new headphones playing my still most favourite song.
I wasn’t mad at the French anymore. All my childish enthusiasm for tree and presents and family lunch was back. I never wanted to see another log-shaped dessert again though. Just to eat these flaky buttery mince pies, updated with chopped apples and grapes. My mother’s recipe calls for a fine crumble on top. I like stars, for extra Christmas cheer. (Can you tell that I like this season, a lot? A lot a lot?)
Conclusion to rambly post and repost: Don’t work in a French patisserie if you want to be awake during the holidays. Do make delicious mince pies instead. Do wear a Santa hat.
*Although French people do not literally ooh and ahh, which I had assumed to be normal human amazement. For them ooh-ing is like booing, so they can only aah to be positive. Problem right there: only half the capacity to express delight.
Modern mince pies
from Victoria O’Neill’s Seasonal Secrets. She makes one large beautiful pie to be sliced into wedges and served with sweet brandy cream. For 15-20 small pies, chop the apple and grapes a little smaller.
225g plain flour
1 tbs caster sugar
1 egg yolk
2 tbs water
125g chopped peeled apples
100g grapes, quartered
15g candied peel
1 tbs flaked almonds
grated zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
pinch of mixed spice
75g brown sugar
1tbs melted butter
2-3tbs brandy or sherry
Rub flour, sugar and butter together with your fingers. For a flaky crust, stop when there are still some pea-sized lumps of butter. Mix egg yolk and water then stir into flour mixture. Press together gently into a ball. Add an extra tablespoon of water if it really won’t stick, but don’t knead too much. Divide dough in two and flatten into discs 1cm thick. Refrigerate.
Make filling: mix all other ingredients in a large bowl. Easy, no?
For a large pie, roll out the larger disc of pastry and press into 20cm tin. Fill. Roll out the rest of the pastry into a circle, cut out an 8cm hole in the middle.
For small pies, roll out the dough nice and and thin. Cut 8cm circles and small stars. Press into pie tins, fill and top with stars.
Brush with water, sprinkle with granulated sugar and bake at 180C for 30-40 minutes (large pie) 10-15 minutes (small pies).
Optional: These would also be nice with marzipan tops: bake the pies without pastry stars (this way you get more pies!) then when cool, add a thinly rolled marzipan star.
Or: just add mashed apple (instead of chopped apple and grapes) to the dried fruit mix for a beautifully sticky-sweet pie.