Have you ever spent Christmas away from home?
M.F.K. Fisher did in 1929. This was long before she was the famed food writer who composed evocative prose about the exquisite pleasures of the table. Then, she was a young bride who had just moved to Dijon, France with her new husband, Al. The two traveled South for Christmas, to a little town on the Mediterranean Coast called Cassis. On Christmas Eve, the couple drank rum punch and waited sleepily to go to Midnight Mass at a little church on the top of a high hill. Fisher would describe it as an evening that rang like crystal in her memory: "Midnight mass, with fishermen playing wild sad songs on oddly shaped hautbois and windy flutes, over the bleating of two sheep by the altar glittering with candles; a new human baby wailing in its modern cradle trimmed with blue satin bows, and filled with Christmas straw; all the short square women dressed in black, with shawls over their heads."
When Mass ended, instead of going to sleep, Mary Frances and Al joined a crowd of village revelers for a traditional French holiday celebration. She was handed a plate piled with an anise flavored bread, a piece of sweet nougat, and a glass of pale pink wine.
The seemingly random selection was, in fact, thoughtful. It was a few of the Thirteen Desserts, an array of sweets — fresh and dried fruits, nuts, bread, nougat, and candies — that are traditionally served after Midnight Mass and signify the 13 participants in the Last Supper.
An essential part of the 13 Desserts is a sweet bread made from olive oil and flavored with anise, orange water, and candied citrus. Similar to an Italian panettone, the bread — called gibassier (or pompe à l'huile) — must be torn with the hands when served to insure good luck in the new year.
That night, she and Al were strangers at the holiday feast. She was far from home and family, but the gift of food and wine soothed her soul.
I prefer my 13 desserts to be of the chocolate variety and like to have gibassier for breakfast. I think it's best warm, smothered with butter and honey, beside a mug of bitter black coffee. It's a labor intensive treat — especially at this time of year — but this sugar-sprinkled, yet still not-too-sweet bread is good anytime.
Recipe from The New York Times, adapted from Katzie Guy-Hamilton.
Yield: 16 large gibassiers or 24 small
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons bread flour (see note)
1/3 cup cold milk
1 cold egg
Pinch fresh yeast (see note).
Note: You can substitute a pinch of active dry yeast, proofed (follow maker's instructions), and add an extra 2 tablespoons flour to the sponge.
3 3/4 cups bread flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 ounce fresh yeast (see note)
3 cold eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup cold water
2 teaspoons orange blossom water
2 teaspoons anise seed
1/2 cup diced candied orange peel
7 tablespoons room-temperature butter
Note: You can substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast, proofed (follow maker's instructions), and add an extra 4 tablespoons flour to the dough.
2 large eggs (1 whole egg plus 1 yolk)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (approximately 1 tablespoon per loaf)
1. Make the sponge: In a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the first bread flour, milk, 1 egg and pinch of yeast until a shaggy dough forms.
2. Leave it in the bowl of the stand mixer, covered, and let it ferment for 8 hours.
3. Make the dough: On low speed, mix the sponge with the bread flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, olive oil, waters and anise seed until combined.
4. Turn the mixer up to medium speed and knead the dough for 5 minutes.
5. Add orange peel and continue to knead until dough is shiny and elastic, about 3 minutes.
6. Begin adding butter one tablespoon at a time, until it has completely emulsified. Be careful to not overheat the dough, or the butter will bleed out.
7. Let the dough relax for 15 minutes or, preferably, in the refrigerator overnight.
8. Portion the dough into 16 balls, 100 grams each. If you prefer smaller rolls, make 24 balls. (This part can also be done before letting the dough relax). Roll to achieve a "belly button" underneath.
9. Cut into one side of the dough ball three times with a knife to make 1/2-inch-deep indentations, thereby creating a "paw" effect.
10. Coat two baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray and line with parchment paper. Coat the top-facing side of the parchment paper with nonstick cooking spray, too, before placing the rolls on the lined sheets (8 per baking sheet).
11. Brush the rolls with olive oil, cover with plastic and allow to proof in a warm area for about 1 1/2 hours, or until doubled and light.
12. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
13. Make egg wash: whisk one egg and one egg yolk whisked together. Using a pastry brush, wipe each roll evenly with the egg wash.
14. Sprinkle each roll generously with granulated sugar.
15. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
16. Serve warm with honey butter. (They can be frozen and enjoyed at a later time. First, let them thaw. Then, in an oven preheated to 375 degrees, warm them for 4 minutes.)
• Find Anne's book: An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M.F.K. Fisher at Amazon
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(Images: Anne Zimmerman)