In the later part of the year, I always run a few Christmas-themed cooking classes. Each year the focus changes and this year I conducted a class that I titled “Annie’s Christmas Favourites”. The classes are always a demonstration in style, which allows for lively debate among the participants. During these discussions, I realise I hanker for what I think of as a “traditional Christmas”. Growing up, the only traditions my family seemed to adhere to were having a glazed ham and mince pies among the offerings. As an adult listening to the discourse of others in these cooking classes, I am sorry that my childhood Christmases were more dinner party in style than what everyone else seemed to enjoy.
But what is a “traditional” Christmas meal? Being of Anglo-Saxon descent, my idea is of the sort of Christmas meals I would read about in novels and see reproduced in BBC productions that aired on the ABC of my childhood. Roast poultry, be it chicken or goose, roasted root vegetables, ham, pudding, custard, trifle, Christmas cake, mince pies, cheddar. All foods fundamentally unsuited to a hot Australian Christmas Day. Yet they all feature on my wish list of what I’d like to eat on that day.
But while I fantasise about my ultimate Anglo-Saxon Christmas, I am forgetting my great love of French food. And, if truth be told, the French Christmas traditions are far more suitable to an Australian climate. First, there is lots of Champagne, followed by good wine. Second, the food often starts with hors d’oeuvres featuring oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon, pâté en croûte, capsicum and eggplant dips, gougère and, of course, caviar. It then moves on to charcuterie, scallops, prawns and crayfish. The main feast is chicken or goose with chestnut stuffing, accompanied by an assortment of vegetables. And then, in some parts of France, comes a curious tradition. Thirteen desserts, representing Jesus and the 12 disciples! So, in keeping with that, I’ve decided on a curious mix of French and Anglo-Saxon styles to add to your dessert offerings this year – a bouchon.
This is a little French cake, somewhat reminiscent of a brownie in richness and texture, easy to make, a crowd-pleaser and usually studded with chocolate chips. (Tip for leftovers: it doesn’t mind a few seconds in the microwave days later). This time I have replaced the chocolate chips with raisins soaked in whisky. I first came across this combination of chocolate, whisky and raisins in a wonderful cake recipe in Simca’s Cuisine: One Hundred Classic French Recipes for Every Occasion, a beautiful collection by Simone Beck, the less well-known contributor to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Here I think it adds to the festive spirit. The cake is called a bouchon due to its little cork shape. And the best recipe I have found comes from the esteemed Thomas Keller. Enjoy, and a happy festive season to you all.
Annie Smithers is taking a break to work on a book. She will return to these pages in the second half of 2023.
Time: 15 minutes preparation + 20-25 minutes cooking
- butter and flour for the timbale moulds
- ¾ cup plain flour
- 1 cup Dutch cocoa powder
- 1 tsp flaked salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1½ cups + 3 tbsp castor sugar
- 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 340g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 170g raisins soaked in 100ml whisky overnight or 170g chocolate chips 54% cocoa or higher
- icing sugar
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
- Butter and flour 12 timbale moulds. Set aside.
- Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a bowl; set aside. In a stand-mixer bowl, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about three minutes, or until very pale in colour. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then one-third of the butter, and continue alternating with the remainder of each. Add the soaked raisins and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to a day.)
- Put the timbale moulds on a baking sheet. Place the batter in a pastry bag without a tip, and fill each mould about two-thirds full. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. When the tops look shiny and set (like a brownie), test with a skewer. It should come out clean but not dry if using chocolate chips; there may be some melted chocolate from the chopped chocolate. Transfer the moulds to a cooling rack.
- After a couple of minutes, invert the timbale moulds and let the bouchons cool upside down in them.
- After removing them from the moulds, dust the bouchons with icing sugar and serve with ice-cream or whisky custard. They are best eaten on the day they are baked, but can be warmed gently in a microwave.
Note: I will sometimes use slightly smaller moulds and make about 20; this reduces the cooking time a little.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 17, 2022 as "Let them eat cake".
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