One of the many joys of the holidays is the opportunity to indulge in special treats and experiences we don't have the rest of the year. We spend time cooking and decorating to show our loved ones how much we care and to start and keep traditions.
Many American Christmas traditions have their origins in Europe. One of the most spectacular Christmas confections is the Buche de Noel, or Yule log. It's a sheet of sponge cake topped with filling and rolled up, then iced and decorated to resemble a log.
At Baltimore's Patisserie Poupon, the buche is very popular. Owner Joseph Poupon said home cooks can successfully make their own if they follow the rather complicated recipe exactly. "Start with a good recipe," he said. If the cake has too much flour or is baked too long, it will be too dry and will crack when rolled.
Panettone bread pudding
» Serves 6 1 loaf panettone, about 1 pound Unsalted butter 3 whole eggs 8 egg yolks 5 cups half and half 2 tsp. vanilla extract 1 tsp. almond extract 1/2 cup sugar » Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Peel paper off panettone and trim away dark crust. Cut loaf into one-inch cubes and toast in oven for eight to 10 minutes, until lightly browned. Butter a 9-by-12-inch baking dish and add toasted bread cubes. In a large bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour custard over bread. Allow bread to soak up the custard for about 10 minutes. Place dish in a larger baking pan and add boiling water to larger pan until it's halfway up the sides of the smaller dish containing the bread pudding. Cover the pan with aluminum foil. Cut a few holes in the top to allow steam to escape. Bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake longer, until the custard is set and the top is browned, about 40 minutes. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes before serving. Can be served warm or at room temperature.
Be sure to butter the parchment paper on your sheet pan, he said, or -- better yet -- use a silicone mat, such as a Silpat.
Another specialty of Patisserie Poupon is the croquembouche, a conical tower of filled cream puffs held together with caramel. This dessert may be too daunting for the average home cook, Poupon said.
At Bonjour Bakery Cafe ( www.bonjourbakerycafe.com), the holidays also bring Buche de Noel with vanilla or chocolate cake and a variety of fillings, including apricot, chestnut and praline buttercream. "For the first time, this year we are offering two sizes," said co-owner Gayle Brier, noting that at $48.50 for a full buche, some customers could only afford half a cake.
The Falls Road bakery also features Stollen, a dried fruit- and almond-filled sweet bread made by a local Austrian baker. A two-pound loaf costs $15.
During Hanukkah, which this year begins Dec. 21, desserts can have symbolic significance. Many holiday foods are prepared using oil to commemorate the legendary miracle of 167 BCE, when one day's worth of lamp oil lasted eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem.
A traditional dessert during the eight-day Festival of Lights is the jelly donut, or sufganiyot. At Goldman's Bakery in Pikesville ( goldmanskosherbakery.com), a couple thousand jelly donuts are sold in the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, said owner Max Cohn. "It has almost become like the Christmas thing, where people are buying ahead for parties," he said.
Customers are also buying Goldman's sugar cookies, shaped into dreidels and stars, and cupcakes topped with dreidels and menorahs, to give as gifts. "This year, especially with the way the economy is, I think food is a great present," Cohn said. "It makes people feel good. We go under the title 'comfort food.' "
Christine Stutz can be reached at email@example.com.