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Christmas Eve Chez Nous

It's Christmas time in Burgundy and we are surrounded by all the reasons we moved to France:  friends, family and a life rich in simplicity.  To add to the Christmas spirit, we've been blessed with several days of snow and Beaune is festively lit with garland and twinkle lights that illuminate the cobblestone streets.

In celebration, we'll be enjoying a traditional fish dinner inspired by the South of France (an ode to Laurent's origins, Kendall's husband and the Frenchman of The Cook's Atelier) and a new tradition of serving les treizes desserts de Noël on Christmas Eve before we bundle up for our walk to church for Christmas Eve mass. In general, the French enjoy their holiday meal on the 24th of December. In Provence, the meal is called le gros souper and is served before midnight mass. For dinner, we love to make red rascasse, a Mediterranean fish, baked in sea salt and bay leaves and served with steamed fingerling potatoes and pistou we preserved from last summer's garden.

At the end of the meal, we will honor the Provençal tradition of the thirteen desserts. It is said to represent Jesus and the twelve Apostles at the last supper. The assortment varies from village to village, but they all include the les four mendiants (literally the four beggars) followed by Pome a l'huile (the olive oil pump) and the two nougats.

This list of the first seven desserts are:

Hazelnuts or walnuts symbolizing the order of St. Augustin

Dried figs symbolizing the Franciscan order

Almonds symbolizing the Carmelite order

Raisins symbolizing the Dominican order

Pompe a l'huilesymbolizing the olive oil pump, a flat yeast bread made with olive oil such as fougasse

White nougat, a soft candy made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, honey and almonds symbolizing the good times

Black nougat, a hard candy made with honey and almonds symbolizing the sad times

The next six desserts may include dates, the symbol of Mary and Jesus' safe journey from the East: oranges, clementines, apples, pears, melon, quince paste, and Calissons from Aix en Provence. It is said that one should sample each of the thirteen desserts for good luck in the New Year.

There is something really special about the Christmas holiday in France. We fill our homes and atelier with shades of white and fresh greens. The focus is on good food, simple entertaining and lots of candlelight. A simple, cozy, hand-made holiday and filled with the tiny little details that make it magical.

Wishing you a Joyeux Noël and a very Happy New Year!

Whole Fish Baked in Sea Salt

One whole fish weighing about 1 1/2 pounds, cleaned, head, tail and scales left on
Bay leaves
2 pounds course sea salt
extra-virgin olive oil for serving
lemon slices

For the Pistou

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
3 garlic cloves
sea salt
2 cups basil leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper

To make the pistou, pound the pine nuts and garlic with a pinch of salt in a mortar. Add a few basil leaves and continue to pound. Alternating basil and olive oil, continue pounding until a smoothing past is achieved. Stir in any remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Makes about one cup.

For the Fish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Rinse the fish with cold water, pat it dry and refrigerate until just before cooking.

Pour a layer of sea salt in the bottom of an ovenproof baking dish and place the fish on top. Place the lemon slices inside the belly cavity of the fish and season with freshly ground black pepper. Pour the remaining salt over the fish to cover it, leaving the tail fin exposed if necessary.

Place the fish in the middle rack in the center of the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the fish from the oven and gently crack off the layer of salt, removing as much of it as you can.

Remove the filets and place on slightly warmed dinner plates. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with lemon slices and pistou.