Christmas – French School Style


I used to bemoan the fact that French schools didn’t put the same emphasis on art as English ones. In some ways I am right and others wrong. Art is a very small part of the school curriculum but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a means for artistic expression. There are some very talented artists beavering away all over France to bring art to school children.

I have to take my hat off to the extraordinary talent of Madame Corruble, an active parent at our kid’s school, St Dominique in Rouen. Last year my son in 3ième had the great fortune to study KT (religeous studies) under her and they spent the time making the most amazing Crèche de Noel as seen above. I never believed it could be improved upon. But this year they have done….

IMG_20121213_155022My mobile camera really doesn’t do it justice – but this is the creation of the historic buildings of the Vieux Marché. What you don’t see in this photo is how the students have coloured all the windows as stained glass. The effect is amazing.

IMG_20121213_155116In the centre, the oldest auberge in France, now in minature.

IMG_20121213_155103surrounded by its neighbours.

IMG_20121213_155050Not to be outdone, we parents decided to get creative and make ‘couronnes’ (crowns) of foliage for gates and doorways, to sell at the school Marché de Noel.

I had great satisfaction in making all the French mamans say ‘wreath’ – a tongue twisting impossibility for them to match my recent failure to pronounce ‘canalisation, a word that i’ve needed to use a lot thanks to the leak in my smelly toilet and my landlord’s misguidedly hopeful request that my assurer pays up!

Mais NON, monsieur!



Anyway – along with all the good humoured banter we managed to make a good dozen or so, all for sale at the Marché. I nearly managed to pinch my friend’s much coveted bit of ribbon for my wreath, but she caught me just as I was attempting to attach it!

At 3, we were invited into school to hear the 6ièmes singing a rendition of Spanish and English carols, and to eat all the lovely ‘gouters’ we parents spent half the night before baking. Of course nothing so simple as giving me some English recipes to bake, I was dealt a handful of Spanish delicacies, for which I was missing half the ingredients at approximately 8pm! Apparently most of the French mamans were in the same boat, as on the table for the sing-a-long were about ten versions of the same recipes, the more complex ones having been discarded.

We discovered where all the missing reindeer had gone!

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One little girl piped up “My mum made the christmas pudding because my dad doesn’t like English people”, and whilst the staff  busied themselves trying to restore what they imagined irrevocably damaged ango-french relations, I was laughing uproariously in the corner.

Carols over, we made our way to the Marché de Noel….

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…..where the children were blowing all our hard-earned pennies. Mine were delighted at the vast quantities of sweets on offer, but forgot the point was to buy ‘maman’ a christmas present. Sigh!

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Did you spot the lavender fish in the basket at the back? My youngest tells me he was all ready to buy one for me before the lure of the sweet table became too strong. He knew it was the kind of thing I liked, he said. But that could be because he saw me sewing them all over the last few weeks! december 2012 009

After school I am able to go and collect my christmas tree from the school garden, as the school buy in bulk and the proceeds go towards residential school trips for the kids who can’t normally afford to go.

If you spot a bedraggled woman (it’s raining ‘comme un chien’ today) dragging her tree through the centre of Rouen, that will be me!

And if you see three boys dragging bags of sweets, christmas hats and sparkly decorations, ring me quickly so that I get time to bar the door until the sugar ‘rush’ is over!

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Christmas Atelier de Patisserie -La Bûche de Noel.

For the recipe


One of the things I love best about our region of France is that the preparations for Christmas only begin in December. Suddenly, on the last days of November, ‘cherry pickers’ park up in highly inconvenient parts of the city in the middle of rush hour and the council start to put up christmas lights, causing the circulation to grind to a standstill. Somehow the excitement caused is more intense than the long drawn out decorations of the UK which seem to appear as soon as the British shops have cleared  the last of Halloween.

Today I was booked in for ‘La Bûche de Noel’ at the Atelier de Patisserie and savoured the new decorations as I made my way there.

Nov,dec 2012 002Under the shadow of the cathedral the Marché de Noel was just opening up,

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while the pretty side street that led to the atelier was charming with its simple lights and foliage.

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I was momentarily dazzled by the sweet stall

Nov,dec 2012 005and spent a few moments watching the young ‘Dragons Ice Hockey team on the christmas rink outside the Hôtel de Ville.

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But Arnaud’s atelier was calling, and within minutes I was equipped with Tablier (apron) and ready for the class to begin.

Today we were making the Bûche de Noel (traditional Christmas log) with a roulade of Biscuit Viennoise and Crème de Beurre.

As ever, Arnaud was a mine of information. What he doesn’t know about eggs isn’t worth knowing, but what is, is that egg yolks can be stored in a freezer for a month, and that freshly laid eggs do not whip well. Eggs should always be left for a few days before using for patisserie.   Aparently, although he didn’t know the science behind it, frozen egg whites or a egg white and 10% water mix whip more quickly than standard eggs.

All egged out, we turned to start making the Biscuit viennoise.

We weighed out our ‘Tant pour Tant’ (such for such, the french expression for replacing one ingredient for an equally acceptable alternative) with an equal mixture of ground almonds and icing sugar. Any powdered dried fruit would work, ground hazelnut for example. We added the egg yolks and full eggs and whipped until creamy and light. Arnaud had plans for strengthening our arm muscles, and got us to work with a hand whisk!

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Then we whipped the egg whites into peaks and added the sugar to form a thick meringue.

Nov,dec 2012 030With a soft folding action we incorporated the meringue into the TPT mixture.

Nov,dec 2012 032Once thoroughly incorporated we poured onto  a greaseproof paper on a long baking tray.
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And with a spatula laid it smooth taking care to use as few strokes as possible.

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Once complete we placed it in the oven and prepared to make the filling.

Arnaud educated us on the various types of meringue; French, Suisse and Italien. The French form of meringue already having been used to create the volume for the Biscuit Viennoise.

Meringue Italienne is an uncookable meringue, which does not dry and is always used for making patisserie creams. This is the type of meringue we now use for making the Crème à Beurre.

Arnaud amuses us by admitting that he likes his steak ‘bien cuite'(I have known customers thrown out of restaurants for asking for that)  as opposed to his wife who like’s hers bleu. Can we believe he is really a chef? To achieve this with perfect timing he shows us his thermometer.

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We place the water and sugar mixture on the hob and bring to 115°, at the same time whipping the egg whites into peaks.

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Arnaud shows us what happens to the sugar if the temparture rises to 120°. A brittle, unworkable sugar that would break our mixer!

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We carefully measure the sugar solution temperature and at exactly 115° pour it carefully down the side of the whipped egg bowl.

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We leave the mixer to beat to a smooth thick meringue, before adding the butter to make the crème à beurre.

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There are two ways to add the butter, one is to add the entire cold quantity of butter to the warm meringue mixture where the heat softens and helps it incorporate to a smooth cream.

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The second method is to make the butter into a beurre pommade. Keeping the butter at a constant temperature of 37° we continually beat the butter until the consistancy of a ‘face cream’.

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The end result is a thicker crème for the solid butter, and a lighter crème for the pommade.

We add the flavour, pistachio to one and chocolate to the other, ready to spread over our cooked golden Biscuit Viennoise.

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Our biscuit is golden and we divide in two to form two ‘Bûche’, one of which we spread thinly with pistachio crème, the other with chocolate.

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Before rolling the Biscuit Viennoise into a roulade, moistening where necessary with a sugar syrup.

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We spread the outside of the log with more crème chocolate and fork to give a ‘log’ texture.

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The final stage of the atelier is to experiment with ‘Meringue Suisse’.

The beauty of meringue suisse is that it is excellent for forming little decorations as it looses its shape much more slowly.

We measure a two to one part mix of sugar and egg white. We whisk the mixture whilst heating it at a constant temperature of 50° until it begins to thicken, and then put into the Kitchen Aid to continue whisking until it forms a stiff meringue.

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We place several differently sized ‘douilles’ (nozzles) into several icing bags, twist the bag to form a ‘bouchon’ or cork in the nozzle, and fill the bags with meringue. Once ready we pull out the bouchon and push the meringue firmly into the nozzle.

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We take a baking tray with a greaseproof sheet and begin to form various shapes, mushrooms and snails  and old boots with which we will decorate our ‘bûche’.

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Having dried in the oven, the meringue decorations are ready to use.

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A final photo – well no, that’s for you to create!

As for our ‘Bûche de Noel’ –  its already been eaten!

A little early I know, but it was my birthday today! I think we can be forgiven! (Well we just couldn’t stop ourselves!)

As for you, the ‘Bûche de Noel’ freezes perfectly, so you have no excuses!

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For the recipe: Bûche de Noel

To read further blogs taking part in the Expat Blog Hop, click on the links.

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Steven C Sobotka

What about Your Saucepans

Chronicles of M

Beyond Manana in Spain

Jeno Marz


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