Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Buche de Noel

We were the geekiest geeks in all of Christendom, but we had achieved our own degree of 80's infamy.  We were the coolest geeks there were.  It took me two years to find my niche in high school, but I passed the last two years in the company of a close-knit band of misanthropes; we were the veritable island of misfit toys in the sea of Plattsburgh High School.  We achieved academically at embarrassing proportions, we participated in a host of activities, the likes of which I'd never dream of joining now (French National Honor Society?  What's that?), and "hung out" together.  Sure we were geeks, and everyone knew who and what we were, but we were at the top of our game.  We had each other, and our clique was secure within the social ladder.  We were respected by the popular crowd for our assiduousness and native intelligence. We were happy, successful, and about half of the top 20 students in our graduating class.  As if that weren't enough, I was in seventh heaven because my male geek friends all seemed to want to date me; I was heady with the power of "cool geek girl."

And then came Susan Belknap.  She came from nowhere and started PHS in 1982.  She moved effortlessly between the popular crowd and the brainiacs.  She wasn't pretty at the time, but she was attractive.  She was smart, self-assured, friendly, and she had...something.  She could hold her own.  In my eyes, she COULD HAVE anything she wanted.  She could rule the social scene. She was a threat to my entire existence, and I had turf to protect.

Susan and I were two members of the French Club.  It was an annual tradition that the French club prepared a French Christmas dinner to celebrate the holidays.  Susan and I each volunteered to prepare the buche de noel.  In case you are unfamiliar, the buche de noel is the classic Yule Log, a chocolate sponge cake, filled with whipped cream, rolled and chilled, and frosted with chocolate icing.  And it was essential to my academic and social well being that my buche de noel be better than Susan Belknap's.  I'm not sure how many times I baked that cake in December of 1982; my family may remember because I was in some sort of hysterical baking frenzy.  There was weeping.  There was wailing.  There was gnashing of teeth.  And in the end, my buche de noel WAS better than Susan's.  

Every year since, I have baked that buche de noel.  It takes about two days to process from beginning to end - sometimes three days.  Because of the whipped cream filling, it has to be baked as close to Christmas as possible.  It is always the last thing I do before Christmas.  I am always tired and fed up and want to quit.  There is often weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Sometimes, it is a beautiful cake, and I get lucky with the kitchen gods.  Sometimes, I forget a key ingredient or forget to turn on the timer.  It has flopped completely, and I have pitched the cake into the garbage, only to begin a new one.  Some years, it cracks when I roll it. Once, I baked one for New Year's party, and the host's dog ate it.  Last year and this year, I have an oven that is not level; a sponge cake is a thin cake (to facilitate the rolling), and when the batter all falls to one end, half the cake burns to a crisp. I am learning to adapt to the needs of this kitchen, but it is a formidable challeng.  I've tried a few variations on the cake, the filling, and the frosting.  Most were not popular with my sister, the biggest fan of buche de noel.  I've settled on the same cake and filling I baked in 1983 but use a ganache frosting instead of buttercream.  They don't always look French in a confectionery sort of way...but they always taste outstanding, if I do say so myself, despite the kitchen histrionics.

"It's a tradition," I say when Jamie asks me why I'm making myself crazy each December 24, and each year he says "Traditions are made to be broken."  Why have I baked 25 years worth of buche de noel?  (I don't remember enough French to make that plural)  It's not just about the tradition.  The demands of that tradition help bring me back to my roots.  I am one with hubris; I remember that I don't really have to be the best.  I struggle.  I experiment.  In the heat of the moment, I invent creative solutions to culinary problems.  I think about Susan Belknap and French club and how much we enjoyed that dinner.  I wonder if she is still baking buche de noel.  I rediscover my humanity and my geekdom.  I remember what it feels like to fail...and then try again until I get it right, or until I have to settle, which for me is an even more valuable lesson.  That's a heady little geeky French cake, ripe with meaning and tradition.  Made to be broken?  

What happened to Susan Belknap?  I can't tell you for sure, but what I do know is that by graduation she was dating my friend Brady, who had asked me to marry him every single day of senior year.  He chased me, kidnaped me, serenaded me, and I said no, no, no.  And he kept coming back...until he played the lead in the senior play opposite Susan, who fell to his charms. He was ecstatic at the cast party.  I cried a lot.  I can still bake a great cake, but I don't have to. 

Food for thought.
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