The 13 Desserts of Christmas

Did you know that in Provence, in the south-east of France, the Christmas meal ends with 13 desserts ? And that the main Christmas meal is on Christmas Eve and not on Christmas day ? Christmas supper in Provence ends with 13 desserts, representing Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles. The 13 desserts are traditionally set out Christmas Eve and remain on the table three days until December 27. Today is Day 3 of my

French Christmas Carols Advent Calendar

Christmas Eve marks one of the culinary highlights of the year for many French families, certainly for ours. “Le Reveillon” is a feast fit for kings and queens, which used to start after midnight mass but now more and more frequently happens before mass. The menu varies according to the region, but it is always an occasion for the family to sit down together and enjoy each other’s company as well as a variety of delicious dishes and wines. With the best will in the world, I just can not wait for supper or stay awake that late any more. During our Equine-guided Personal Growth and Meditation Retreats, we eat at 19h00, so that our guests can fit in a meditation after dinner and every one can get to bed at at a reasonable time. Some people serve the main meal before Mass and the desserts after Mass. Children here also receive their gifts on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.

We usually only have a Buche de Noël at the end of our meal – the rest of the 13 desserts are often available in our house round Christmas time anyway : bowls of nuts, fruit, dried fruits, glazed fruit, chocolates (especially as part of the Advent Calendar), ginger and/or spice bread, biscuits and cakes – the only thing we definitely do not have here in Gascony is a Pompe à l’huile !

The thirteen desserts of Christmas usually include the 4 beggars :

The “four beggars” (les quatre mendiants), represent the four mendicant monastic orders:Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinian and Carmelites.

  • Raisins to represent the Dominicans
  • Hazelnuts or Walnuts to represent the Augustines
  • Dried figs to represent the Franciscans
  • Almonds to represent the Carmelites

The rest of the 13 desserts are chosen from the following :

Fruit : dried, glazed and fresh :

  • Dates
  • Dried plums (here in Gascony we serve the dried plums from Agen)
  • Fresh fruit : Appels, pears, oranges, tangerines, melon and grapes
  • Glazed fruit

Sweets, biscuits, tarts and cakes (some typically from Provence):

  • Biscotins from Aix;
  • Calissons d’Aix  (a small diamond shaped marzipan pastry topped with hard icing)
  • Casse-dents of Allauch
  • Cumin and fennel seed biscuits
  • Fruit tourtes
  • Oreillettes, light thin sugar-covered waffles (we have these in Gascony too)
  • Pompe/Fougasse à l’huile d’olive – The pompe is a light cake or brioche made from yeast and eggs, sweetened with sugar, flavoured with grated orange zest and sprinkled with orange flower water. The cake is never sliced, but always broken by hand the way Christ broke bread with the apostles. The pieces of bread are dipped in a vin cuit (cooked wine). 
  • Quince paste (membrillo) and Quince cheese
  • Pain d’épices
  • Buche de Noël (Christmas log)

And finally two kinds of nougat, symbolizing good and evil

  • Black nougat (Nougat noir) – hard and brittle and made with caramelized honey cooked with almonds
  • White nougat (Nougat blanc) – a soft and creamy nougat made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, honey and almonds

The 13 desserts of Christmas are usually accompanied by a sweet wine – in our region, the Buche de Noël is often served with a Pacherenc, made by the local vignerons.

Buche de Noël

What I like best about the 13 desserts, is that one has a choice of eating healthily if one so desires, although I have to admit that I find it difficult to say ‘No’ to a slice of the Buche de Noël. Anyway, it is said that to have good luck the whole year long, one must eat a little bit of each dessert. THAT IS MY EXCUSE AND I AM STICKING TO IT! (with it, I mean).

Buches de Noël now comes in all flavours, vanilla, strawberry, coffee, champagne, Black Forest… but I still prefer a simple chocolate one. My favourite light and moist Buche de Noël recipe :


Sponge cake:

  • 2/3 cups of sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 cup of cake flour

Chocolate icing:

7 egg whites

  • 1 1/3 cups of 
  • granulated sugar
  • 6 ounces of unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon of instant espresso powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup of heavy whipping cream
  • 3 cups of soft butter
  • Icing sugar


Making the Sponge Cake:

Preheat the oven to 200 °C / 400 °F. Grease and line a 23 x 32cm Swiss roll tin with baking parchment.  Beat the eggs for 5 minutes, until they are thick and creamy. Add the sugar, vanilla extract and salt and continue beating for another 2 minutes. Fold the flour carefully, two tablespoons at a time, into the whipped egg mixture.

As soon as the flour is well mixed in, stop stirring to avoid the mixture becoming too heavy. Evenly spread the batter by tipping the pan from side to side to spread the mixture into the corners. . Bake the cake for 10 minutes and then invert the baked cake onto a dry kitchen towel. Peel off the parchment paper. Wait 3 minutes and then carefully roll up the cake, still in the towel. Allow it to cool completely.

Making the chocolate icing:

In a completely dry bowl, whisk the egg whites on high until soft peaks form. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and 2/3 cup water to a boil. Allow it boil until it has reduced into a thickened syrup. Beat the egg whites on high speed again, and pour the hot sugar syrup into the eggs in a slow, steady stream. Add the melted chocolate, espresso powder and vanilla extract to the egg white mixture and continue beating until the mixture has cooled completely – it will take about 5 minutes. Add the butter to the mixture, 2 tablespoons at a time, while beating on high speed.

Assembling the Buche de Noël:

Unroll the cake and remove the towel. Evenly spread 2 cups of the chocolate buttercream on the inside of the cake and then roll it back up. Cover the outside of the Buche de Noël with enough icing and use a fork or to give the appearance of rough tree bark. Scatter unsifted icing sugar on top to resemble snow, and decorate with meringue mushrooms.

Makes about 14 servings.

Today’s French Christmas Carol

At our Christmas Carol Concerts, we are not the only performers. One of the local schools also has a Christmas Carol Choir and they usually perform a few carols, some with us and some on their own. One of the children in France’s all time favourite carols is Petit Papa Noël – a song first recorded in 1946 by French singer Tino Rossi. Written by Raymond Vincy and Henri Martinet, this Christmas song is currently one of the best-selling Christmas singles of all time in France. On Tuesday afternoon our children’s choir sang it with us for the first time – their eyes opening wide in surprise when the adult choir joined in for the refrain :

Petit papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel,
Avec des jouets par milliers,
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.

Little Santa Claus
When you come down from the sky
With toys by the thousands
Don’t forget my little stocking.

Here it is, sung first by Tino Rossi, and then by Céline Dion, in both French and in English :

10 Replies to “The 13 Desserts of Christmas”

  1. I LOVE Buche de Noel and my favorite pastry chef who I got it from each year closed her shop to pursue other career interests. So I am left trying to make it myself. I will be trying your recipe, though I love the coffee flavor so will figure out how to incorporate it in. I love your tradition of 13 desserts of Christmas. I could embrace French traditions. I love the carols too.

    1. Thank you for your lovely note, Molly, and what devastating news about your pastry chef! It really should be illegal for chef that good to explore other career options. The most challenging pert of the recipe is the rolling up part, just do it very slowly and carefully otherwise you may get stuck with a heap of albeit delicious, crumbs. And the sponge must be completely cold before you add the icing. I love the coffee flavour very much too.

  2. Eating healthily? Are you kidding me? With all this delicious stuff around I find it hard to say no. That’s why I aim for a post-holiday detox period!
    Btw, sorry to bother you with this, but the tweet box opens on top of your post, obscuring half of it, and, stupid me, I cannot figure out how to close it. Any ideas?

    1. I so know exactly what you mean! Every year I have such good intentions, along the lines of not going totally overboard…and then, well, Christmas happens in all it’s gastronomic glory! Didn’t know the tweet box did that on mine, but I have come across other blogs where something similar happened and I did not know what to do either. Maybe it’s a wordpress problem and if so let’s hope they sort it out quickly.

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