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  • Writer's pictureAine Dougherty

Week Fourteen in France: Tacos and two bûches de Noël

My winning chocolate and lavender bûche de Noël.

21/12/2019: For my last hurrah before heading back to the States for the holidays, J. and I went to the Colmar Christmas market, one of the quaintest around. We shopped furiously for Christmas presents I could take home, then paused for freshly fried churros with Nutella, which tired me out after a few bites with their overwhelming sweetness. After a few hours of strolling and struggling to find a place to eat in the beautiful tourist hell that is Colmar, we headed back to Mulhouse for a delicious meal at Le Vieux Couvent, an adorable restaurant housed in a magnificent old monastery in the city center. I began with a perfect, dry and fruity glass of Alsatian Pinot Blanc, then a creamy St. Jacques risotto and a rustic tarte aux quetsches (local plums) to finish.

22/12/2019: In keeping with the generous spirit of my adopted Alsatian house, we extended the dining room table to fit five or six Dutch friends-of-a-friend for dinner tonight, which featured pumpkin soup with a bit of heat (finally), a fluffy goat cheese and sundried tomato quiche, fall-apart manettes de canard and creamy mashed potatoes. I'll miss these people and this conviviality, even though I'll only be gone for a week. À bientôt, Alsace!

23/12/2019: My sister spoke the magic words the second I landed in the States after a long, exhausting day of travel – "We have a dinner reservation tonight." The family and I headed to Lourdas, a friendly family-owned restaurant celebrating the flavors of our favorite Greek island, Kefalonia, where we've been several times. We caught up on everyone's past three months over a remarkable Greek feast, including spanakopita, babaganoush, halloumi, the best pita I've ever tasted, and salmon with asparagus and rice pilaf. Oh and, of course, galaktoboureko for dessert (phyllo dough filled with custard and honey). When we arrived back home, I was thrilled and grateful that my family had put up a gorgeous tree and draped Christmas lights all over the front of the house (I usually handle this task, and I was worried that I'd step off the plane to a dark, dreary house). Then, I fell asleep at 8 p.m.

24/12/2019: America delivered me the best gift ever on Christmas Eve – I finally got to eat the tacos I've been craving for weeks (France is a Mexican food desert). I scarfed down the chips and guac, then excitedly tore into the corn tortillas stuffed with carnitas, al pastor, plenty of white onion and cilantro, and, of course, a healthy squeeze of fresh lime juice. The cozy night ended in lots of baking (and quite a bit of failure) with my sous chef. Don't worry, you'll see the results of our endeavors tomorrow...

25/12/2019: Merry Christmas! We kicked things off in the morning with brioche French toast with berries and homemade whipped cream, and, keeping with tradition, we opened our stockings with my thoughtful mother and her husband, B. Then, we did something we haven't done in years (we've had Christmas at our house for the past decade, at least) – we headed out for dinner. Well, for an all-day eating extravaganza at my aunt's apartment in the city, actually. The afternoon cycled between apps (goat cheese toasts and a shrimp and avocado salad made by moi), Prosecco with muddled blueberries and thyme, presents and smiles passed between everyone, and, finally, a hefty dinner plate of tender prime rib, a medley of roasted vegetables (maple carrots, sweet potatoes and garlicky broccoli), and luscious mac n' cheese.

Posing with our bûches (feat. my new cowboy hat, a Christmas present straight from the Music City).

The sun went down slowly and, suddenly, the stage for competition was set. The past couple family holidays, my aunt L. and I have been challenging each other to a bake-off. It began last Thanksgiving with cornbread (a tie) and continued through last Christmas with a gingerbread nail biter (another tie, but I still believe my gingerbread Notre Dame deserved first place). This year, in homage to my new life in France, we each set out to beat each other's bûches de Noël. The atmosphere of competition was tense, and the panel of judges took their jobs very seriously. My bûche, an exquisitely rolled chocolate génoise filled with lavender cream and topped with milk chocolate ganache, was dwarfed in comparison to my aunt's monster rainbow bûche, colored with all-natural food coloring and covered with a rich chocolate frosting. However, after much deliberation (during which, most notably, they dubbed Aunt L.'s bûche "dry as hell"), the judges declared me the winner. After a tough year for our family, nothing felt better than seeing everyone laughing wildly and freely together.

I've never felt more proud of an evening I've hosted.

26/12/2019: I spent almost the whole day shopping and setting the scene for a cozy raclette soirée with my best friend A. and her mom (basically my second mother). With a powerful raclette machine borrowed from the Belgian neighbors as the centerpiece, I adorned the table with candles, mugs of homemade mulled wine, plates of cheese and charcuterie, a salad with clementines, candied pecans and champagne vinaigrette, crusty baguette, roasted fingerling potatoes and crunchy cornichons. I basically beamed with pride and I ran around making sure everything was perfect for our dinner – until I couldn't more anymore, I'd eaten so much cheese. Then, I hopped on the train into the city with my two A.'s to see my aunt's impossibly cute new puppies and to stop by one of our favorite Philly bars, Fergie's. The contentedness continued with my favorite beer (melon and raspberry rose sours from Anderson Valley) and lovely live music – featuring my favorite Joni Mitchell song, River – that provided the perfect soundtrack to our chill night of chatting and laughing among old friends.

27/12/2019: After a lazy morning spent sleeping in, A. and I headed with Mom to our favorite Chinese restaurant for lunch before a matinee movie. Finally, good fried rice (accompanied by an almost too-sweet mango chicken dish) and good dumplings. Life is... well, good. Next stop, the Bryn Mawr Theater for Little Women with my women. We may have been sitting in the very first row, but it was nonetheless one of the best movies I've ever seen – shoutout to Timothée Chalamet. I ate a whole box of my favorite addictive candy, Dots, of course. I'm so thankful for my sister and mom, who have always supported me unconditionally (and who have never burned pages and pages of my writing, or married a boy I was in love with!).

It's good to be home.

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