As this goes to press, December has snuck up on us– and I find myself craving a few classic French desserts and sweet nibbles typically enjoyed around Christmas. While I didn’t grow up with these festive treats, I acquired a strong taste for many them after passing several winter holidays in France.
Originating in several regions– from Alsace to Provence and Paris– these festive desserts can be enjoyed at any time of year, but make an eye-catching and warming addition to any holiday spread. They also have a fascinating history. Keep reading as I count down to the top dessert de Noël, delve a bit into the history of each delicacy, and send you to good recipes for a few among them.
5. Kougelhopf (Alsace)
This yeasted bundt cake with origins in Austria is also firmly associated with the Franco-German region of Alsace. Consumed year-round, especially for breakfast, it’s also a favorite around Christmas. Alternatively spelled “Gugelhupf” or “Kouglopf”, all three variations roughly translate to “hopping bonnet”or hood– perhaps in reference to the springy quality of the finished product.
Similar to an Italian pannetone (another Christmas tradition), the kugelhopf is traditionally served plain or laced with macerated raisins, and drizzled in a syrup made with orange, lemon (juice and zest), vanilla and rhum, then dusted in powdered sugar.
Other versions may incorporate candied fruit, rhum, slivered or powdered almonds, kirsch cherries, poppyseeds, or chocolate. At Christmas, extra decorations and color is common.
A bit of history
The history of this simple yet popular cake starts in medieval Austria, where it was commonly served at large celebrations such as weddings, and adorned with flowers, fruits, or even candles. Later, the Emperor Franz Joseph popularized it as a prestigious cake by featuring it at state events. Queen Marie Antoinette of France, who was a native of Austria, is also said to have favored the dessert.
Where to taste & recipes
Bakeries and specialty food stores in Alsace, Paris, and elsewhere in France generally sell this typical holiday treat in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Try Galeries Lafayette or the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marché in Paris, or the baker Yann Couvreur (his kouglof figures among some of my favorite pastries in Paris).
If you want to try making a festive kugelhopf at home, try this recipe (at Epicurious) or this one (at Austrian food blog Strudel & Schnitzel). French-speakers might want to take a crack at this tempting recipe from chef Christophe Felder.
4. The 13 Desserts of Provence
Ok, so I fibbed a bit when I said I’d cover five typical Christmas treats native to France. That’s because I tend to count the famous 13 desserts of Provence as ones to consider together– they’d be awfully lonely as individuals. At least in my book (and on my table).
As you can gather from the lavish feast depicted above, the 13 desserts bring together traditional products consumed in the south of France year-round, but especially during the winter holiday season.
Following a large Christmas feast called le gros souper, Provencal tradition sees a table heaped with 13 treats, meant to represent Jesus and his 12 apostles and composed of some combination of the following:
Dried fruits and nuts (almonds, dried plums, raisins, hazelnuts, etc), as well as fresh fruit (generally winter fruits such as apples and oranges). The nuts are said to represent “the four beggars”, or sometimes, different religious orders (Franciscans, Carmelites, etc).
Candied and jellied fruits (including soft jellied delicacies known as pates de fruit; marzipan; white and black nougat; a sweet, orange-blossom and olive oil-infused flatbread similar to focaccia known as pompe a l’huile; and any variety of sweet or savory biscuits and tartes, including calissons, which are elongated biscuits from Aix-en-Provence flavored with melon and topped with marzipan, walnut tarts, and numerous others.
The desserts are generally left on the table for a couple of days following Christmas, or until around the 27th of December. There are reportedly over 50 different variations of the tradition observed in Provence, depending on the city and sub-region.
A bit of history
The tradition of the 13 desserts has probably existed in some form for centuries, but it was only in the 20th century that its composition was formally noted and then made into firm tradition, after a French magazine article in 1925 listed the treats that should appear on the table per local customs.
Some of the traditions have counterparts in Catalonia, French Languedoc, and around the Mediterranean, with delicacies such as nougat, dried fruits and nuts, and turron (almond bars) served around the year-end holidays in the region.
Where to taste and recipes
You can take part in this Provencal tradition every year in markets around Provence, including the annual Christmas market in Aix-en-Provence, and in Marseille, Avignon, Toulon and elsewhere in the region. If you’re visiting in mid-December, check with local tourist boards to find out about special tastings, dinners and other events in the run-up to Christmas.
As for recipes, there’s no “one” definitive way to compose your own 13 desserts at home. To make a real splash, try your hand at baking pompe à l’huile flatbreads, arguably the star of the show. Then accompany it on the table with dried fruits and nuts, marzipan, nougat, and some of the other treats mentioned above.
3. Bredeles de Nöel (Alsace)
If Christmas cookies and biscuits are your speed, these simple but eternally tempting butter-based treats from Alsace should do the trick. Rather than referring to a single recipe, Bredeles consist in many varieties of sweet biscuits and miniature cakes, from almond-based crescents to mini gingerbread snaps or spiced breads.
Aniseseed-flavored biscuits, jam-filled buttery rounds, and orange zest-infused cookies are also popular. But the base recipe generally consists in flour, eggs, butter and sugar/s.
It remains a tradition for households in the Alsace and Moselle regions of France to bake their own ahead of the Christmas season, and new recipes are developed all the time.
A bit of history
Probably originating in nearby Germany, bredeles — also sometimes called bredle, bredala, or Winachtsbredele (with the latter term referencing Christmas) — have been baked for centuries, possibly as early as the 14th century.
Historians have reported the discovery of earthenware and wooden biscuit molds in the Alsace region, confirming that the tradition probably goes back to the medieval period. Bredeles were also mentioned in official legal texts in the 15th century– ones regulating festivities around St-Nicolas.
Where to taste, & recipes
In Alsace, many good bakeries and specialty shops in cities such as Strasbourg and Colmar sell these festive treats, and traditional Christmas markets (generally opening in late November) typically do as well.
2. Pain d’Epices (Gingerbread) from Burgundy
For those with a subtle palate (or who don’t care for overly sugary desserts), gingerbread or spiced bread (pain d’epices in French) can be an ideal treat, especially accompanied by tea or coffee. And in France, the place to head for excellent traditional spice bread/gingerbread is the Burgundy region, and specifically the town of Dijon. Nearby Reims and Beaune are other noteworthy producers.
While it’s famous for its mustards, the medieval town also has a rich tradition of producing spiced breads. Pain d’épices has been produced by local bakers (and now manufacturers) for hundreds of years, with the traditional recipe consisting in a simple base of flour, eggs, cane sugar, milk, butter, honey, and a combination of spices (nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, green anise, etc).
Other ingredients, including candied orange peel, chocolate, dried fruits, or nuts, can also be added for special occasions.
A bit of history
Pain d’épices has been made in Burgundy (starting in Reims) since at least the 17th century, primarily with rye flour. It has centuries-old roots in a spiced delicacy called Mi-Kong, or honey bread, thought to have been created in the 10th century, perhaps in China or Mongolia.
Some historians believe it was later brought to Europe during the so-called Crusades, adapted from Arabic cultures who had themselves (perhaps) learned the recipe from Chinese traders.
Where to taste, & recipes
In Dijon and the nearby town of Beaune, head to speciality shops such as Mulot & Petitjean for some superb pains d’epices, including festive versions and gingerbread art made specifically for the holiday season.
Crunchy biscuit-style gingerbread is also on offer, ideal for dipping in mugs of tea or coffee.
You can also find excellent gingerbread and pain d’epices in other regions of France, including Alsace where it is also a tradition. In Paris, try specialty stores such as Galeries Lafayette and Fauchon around the winter holidays.
1. Bûche de Noël (Christmas Log)
If you guessed that this iconic French Christmas dessert would snag the top spot, you were correct. While the bûche de Noël (Christmas log or yule log) is now a staple on holiday tables throughout much of Europe and the UK, this elaborately decorated and frosted, rolled genoise sponge cake has origins in France.
Chocolate is a big favorite (for obvious reasons), but these days you can find bûches in all sorts of flavors and guises, from vanilla to lemon, pistachio to chestnut and red fruits. Mushrooms crafted from marzipan or sugar, green branches or leaves (real or sugar-based), red berries, and other decorations are common.
Ice-cream cake bûches are also increasingly popular, and these days chefs compete to create abstract, zany, colorful creations that bear little resemblance to the traditional log.
A bit of history
While this dessert is so dominant during the holidays in France that it seems semi-eternal, it first appeared in its current form in the 19th century, concocted either by a chef in Paris or Lyon (this is hotly disputed).
It only gained its name after 1945, when the arrival of widespread electricity in private homes made the tradition of decorating, then lighting, an enormous wooden log on the longest night of the year fell somewhat out of fashion.
This now-lost tradition often saw revelers pour wine dregs, oil, salt, or even holy water on the log on solstice day, hoping to ward off evil spirits or witches.
Much like the Christmas tree which has pagan roots, some historians trace the popularity of the yule log to pre-Christian, traditions that identified magical or protective qualities in wood and trees.
Where to taste & recipes
Bûches de Noël have practically become a fashion statement in recent years, with patissiers (pastry chefs), Parisian tearooms and specialty foodshops like Angelina and Fauchon, and even hotels unveiling signature logs every year in the run-up to the festive season.
In Paris, try the beautiful and artful bûches of patissiers such as Pierre Hermé, Sebastien Gaudard (pictured above) or Dalloyau. You can find in-depth lists (in English) of the best 2020 yule logs and buches– including some zany creations– at this page.
And elsewhere in France, I suggest visiting reputed bakeries and specialty food shops to look for the perfect log.
To try your hand and crafting an impressive bûche de Noël at home, I particularly recommend this base recipe from renowned French chef Raymond Blanc. Flavored with dark rum and chestnuts, it’s a sophisticated version that can be adapted according to taste– add orange zest, chocolate, vanilla, or any other number of variants.
You can also use this Christmas log recipe from beloved English cookbook writer (and Great British Bakeoff judge) Mary Berry.