A Taste of the Old World

Party like it's 1499 with traditional European holiday desserts.

It’s not for nothing that the Bay Area has garnered a reputation as a hotbed of new culinary innovations. But a number of local markets and pastry shops will be kicking it old school this winter holiday season with centuries-old traditional dessert recipes. And while there may be nothing as American as apple pie, many of the sweet treats gracing holiday tables all over the East Bay will have a distinctly Old World, European flair: Stollen from Germany, æbleskiver from Denmark, and Bûche de Noël from France.

Yes, although it’s that time of year when consumers obsess and fuss over the latest shiny new thing, the holidays are also a time when people seek out comforting foods as a way to connect with their roots, said Paul Masse, the pastry chef and co-owner of North Berkeley’s Masse’s Pastries. “You find that people usually go for things that their ancestors did,” said Masse, who recalls the panettone — a traditional Italian Christmas bread — that his Italian-American family always had over the holidays when he was growing up.

Masse will make a variety of traditional holiday desserts at his pastry shop this year, including Stollen, a German Christmas cake that dates back to the 15th century and bears some resemblance to pannetone — it, too, has a bread-like texture and is dotted with candied orange zest and rum-soaked raisins. Masse puts a layer of marzipan in his Stollen and also a special spice mix that he has shipped in from Switzerland. Once baked, the cake is dusted with powdered sugar and served sliced thin, with tea or coffee — “morning, noon, or night you can have it,” Masse says.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Stollen’s shape is meant to evoke the swaddled baby Jesus. Or that’s what it’s supposed to resemble anyway, Masse explains, “but I imagine you need to squint your eyes pretty good to see that.”

What prospective Stollen buyers are probably more interested in is the cake’s taste, which Masse describes as neither too sweet nor overly heavy, yet still eggy and rich from the all-butter dough. He plans to make this year’s first batch of Stollen the day after Thanksgiving. The finished cakes improve with at least a few days’ worth of ripening, so they’ll be available for sale — priced at $20 apiece — around the first week of December.

Meanwhile, at the Scandinavian market Nordic House, which recently moved to a new West Berkeley location on San Pablo Avenue, customers will be able to ring in the holidays early during the shop’s Open House, which will be held during the three days right after Thanksgiving. The store’s owner, Pia Klausen, says that on those days she’ll be putting out a free spread of Scandinavian goodies, including house-made sausages, several varieties of pickled herring, and, best of all, a kind of Danish pancake called æbleskiver.

Klausen makes the pancakes by adding buttermilk and eggs — the whites separated and beaten stiff to keep the batter light — to a special flour mix that the store packages in-house. She then fires up the stove and puts on a special æbleskiver pan — typically cast iron, with several spherical indentations all around, each one big enough for a golf ball to rest inside with room to spare. When the pan is hot enough, Klausen pours batter into the indentations and lets the bottom edges cook before turning each little cake, just a touch, and repeats the whole process — turn and turn and turn, as each side browns — until a perfect sphere has formed. The end result is a cross between a donut hole and the lightest, fluffiest pancake you can imagine, delicious when served hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar and dipped in a good fruit jam.

Although there doesn’t appear to be any good reason not to eat æbleskiver all year round, they’re usually eaten in Denmark during the days leading up to Christmas. As Klausen puts it, “You rarely go, ‘Oh, let’s make a batch of aebleskiver’ in the middle of the summer.” She says what’s most common is for Danish families to have Christmas tree decorating parties where they’ll serve aebleskiver and Glögg, the Nordic mulled wine.

Aside from the Open House — when they’re free — the finished æbleskiver aren’t available for sale at Nordic House. Fortunately, both the mix (priced at $2.95 for a 24-ounce package) and the special æbleskiver pans are.

Perhaps the most well-known Old World holiday dessert is the Bûche de Noël, and holiday shoppers in the East Bay will be hard-pressed to find a better, or more fairly priced, Bûche than the ones that Chef Alain Delangle sells at his Solano Avenue shop, La Bedaine.

Delangle explains that the French dessert, also commonly known as a “Yule Log,” is indeed supposed to look like a log that you might put in your fireplace for Christmastime. For his Bûche de Noël, Delangle starts with a thin sheet of sponge cake that he softens with a rum syrup. He adds golden raisins and a flavored buttercream — chocolate is the most traditional. Then he rolls the whole thing up into one long cylinder and cuts off one end to place on top, to mimic a protruding tree branch. Finally, Delangle decorates the “log” — he carves ridges into the outside layer of buttercream to create a bark-like effect; he artfully arranges little meringue mushrooms and leaves, forming a kind of edible diorama. “Really, there’s no traditional decoration,” Delangle said. “You just have something to do with snow and winter.”

This year La Bedaine will be selling its Bûche de Noël in three different flavors: coffee ($15), chocolate ($18), and chocolate-hazelnut ($18). The price point isn’t insignificant since plenty of pastry shops in the Bay Area will be selling their Bûches for upwards of $30 — a kind of holiday upcharge that Delangle says is unconscionable.

If you do end up buying your $18 cake at La Bedaine, you might even have money left over to splurge on a bottle of champagne, which Delangle says is the traditional beverage to have with your Bûche de Noël, at the end of the Christmas Eve meal.

Delangle notes that not too many bakeries in his native Paris are making Bûches the traditional way these days. There, it’s all about coming up with some new twist: a black truffle Bûche or an ice cream Bûche. As for the Bûche de Noël at La Bedaine, suffice it to say that the buttercream is as rich and decadent as one would hope, and the cake itself is pleasantly crumbly and coarse. It turns out that a traditional Bûche de Noël is a surprisingly rustic kind of dessert — rustic and old-fashioned and, well, just perfect for our American holiday sensibilities.


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