O! Yule Love This!

In glorious Technicolor, and Stereophonic Sound

In glorious Technicolor, and Stereophonic Sound

Every time I watch a holiday movie, an angel gets its wings. I can’t help it. During the holiday season my fascination with food as it is portrayed on screen dovetails with an obsession I’ve long had with holiday-themed movies. Yes, I know everyone loves “It’s A Wonderful Life”—me too. But there are other movies I watch that are perennial favorites which also tickle my foodie-bone.

“Holiday Inn” is a veritable buffet. Most folks would be content with Fred Astaire dancing and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” beside a glowing hearth in an empty inn. Not me. I look for the scenes where Bing is in the kitchen plating New Year’s dinner to music, and later, lovesick over losing the girl (you know the formula: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back), he refuses to eat “Mr. Jones”, the Thanksgiving turkey, claiming he knew “Jonesey” too well. The Thanksgiving dinner he refuses always makes my mouth water – startling when you consider that the movie is in black and white.

Crosby is perhaps better known for singing “White Christmas” in a later movie named for the song itself. As much as I enjoy that movie, and in spite of the fact that it is also set at an inn, it doesn’t have the same culinary appeal as “Holiday Inn.” The most we get to see is a glass of Coke and the remains of a sandwich. But that’s okay, the movie has other charms.

This year though, my attention has been drawn to a lesser-known holiday movie, “Christmas in Connecticut.” I have been writing this blog for several months and writing about the charms and limitations of cooking in my small New York apartment is, I think, part of what makes the engine run. “Christmas in Connecticut” shares a similar theme, albeit with the conceit that in addition to working from a tiny New York City apartment, the protagonist, Elizabeth Lane, “America’s Best Cook” (played by Barbara Stanwyck), actually can’t cook. (I can!) But here’s a taste of what I mean, and why, this year, I am so tickled by this film:

The camera pans from a close up of a woman’s hands typing on a portable typewriter to a grimy window from which we can see the backs of several New York City buildings. In the foreground, waving in the wind, laundry is drying on the clothesline of a neighboring apartment.

Elizabeth: “From my living room window as I write, I can look out across the broad front lawns of our farm like a lovely picture postcard of wintery New England.”

The camera tilts down to a radiator, which is hissing loudly as steam escapes from a valve.

Elizabeth: “In my fireplace the good cedar logs are burning and crackling.”

The camera pans back to the desk to reveal Elizabeth Lane as she takes a bite of her breakfast: a plate of sardines.

Elizabeth: “I’m just about to go into my gleaming kitchen to test the crumbly brown goodness of the Toasted Veal Cutlets á la Connecticut in my oven. Cook these slowly…”

I’ll spare you the plot synopsis—rent the DVD from Netflix—but suffice it to say that Stanwyck finds herself in a bind and ends up having to go to great lengths to live up to the farm housewife image she has created. It’s a charming film, perhaps a bit old fashioned, but if you’re looking for lessons about life to reflect on during the holiday season, this is not the movie to screen. Stick to “It’s A Wonderful Life” for sermonizing; this flick is purely a romantic comedy.

But it’s that small patch of real estate that Elizabeth Lane and I share that makes me reflect on some of the hoops through which I must leap in my own cracker box-sized urban kitchen. The flip side is, of course, that I think I could teach a thing or two about project planning, including risks, milestones, and scope creep. Cooking or baking is the supreme exercise in organization. Start with a concept, make a list, end with a birthday cake; it’s not magic, it’s organization. (That thumping noise you hear is yours truly patting himself on the back.)

I always joke that if, someday, I am blessed to have a huge, fully tricked out kitchen, due to my experience in my itty-bitty kitchen, I will still use only a few square inches of space, and continue to balance all the bowls on the edge of the sink (uh, the huge, deep, white porcelain farmhouse-style sink.)

Ha ha ha.

The truth – hopefully—will likely find me luxuriously spread out around a marble-topped island while in the background, the oven of my six burner restaurant-grade stove is preheating. “Where did I leave those eggs? Uh-oh, they’re all the way over there.”And ‘round and ‘round that island I will trot, lap after lap, burning off the calories of the goodies I am preparing.

Ah, one can dream. Are you listening, Santa?

Many years ago I waited tables in a distinguished Manhattan restaurant run by an equally distinguished chef. The dirty little secret was that the kitchen was smaller (and hotter!) than most home kitchens, including some New York apartments. Yet, they turned out four-star cuisine (still do.)

I always consider eating to be one of life’s great pleasures. There’s a reason food tastes good. There’s a reason why food in every culture is an expression of love. Consider the word “feed.” We feed our stomachs. We feed our souls. Sometimes if we’re lucky we accomplish both in the same exercise. Food maintains us, helps us thrive and grow—sometimes to excess, yes, but you get the point.

So, it isn’t the size of the kitchen, is it? It’s the size of the heart.

(I’ll just keep repeating that over and over the next time I feel hemmed in by my kitchen.)

Okay, my holiday sermon is done. I’m hungry! Let’s eat!

You’re wondering: what is that big, fat, chocolaty concoction in the picture above? That’s the Buche de Noël I made for a friend’s Christmas party. Also known as a Yule Log Cake, it is not exactly subtle or delicate. Calling it sweet would be an understatement. While transporting it to the party I kept referring to it (in my mind) as “The Beast”—understandable, as it was large enough to serve at least fifteen people. What makes me laugh is that folks at the party were a bit intimidated by it. Someone had to drag me out of the kitchen (where all good parties end up) with the exhortation that, “Everyone wants to eat the Yule Log, but they’re afraid to touch it unless you make the first cut.”

Really? That wouldn’t have stopped me: I would have asked, “Hey, where’s the knife?”

Of course I also made cookies for the party, but I wanted some kind of special focal point on the dessert table, something epic. If I were in the movie business this would be my big holiday release. Consider it my “White Christmas in Connecticut at Holiday Inn.” It stars two flavors of buttercream (chocolate and coffee), with cocoa biscuit á roulade (jellyroll cake) in a supporting role. A chorus of beautiful meringue mushrooms rounds out the cast.

I hope you are duly entertained.

Happy Holidays to you and the ones you love! Don’t forget to leave cookies for Santa and the reindeer.


A few days ago I had the great pleasure of spending time with a wonderful woman named Helen Stafford of the Ronald McDonald House of New York. Helen gave me a tour of this amazing facility which provides a temporary “home-away-from-home” for pediatric cancer patients and their families. The Ronald McDonald House is supported entirely by private donations. Please read about this amazing place, and keep them in mind when considering your year-end charity donation.


Want to make your own Buche de Noël? Write to me at the email address below if you want the recipes and process for the Buche de Noël—or any other thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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