I knew that New Year’s Eve 2020 would be different; still, I never thought I would be planning to bake a cake. None of my last 20 or so New Year’s Eve dinners ever ended with a layer cake that involved molasses and cream cheese. But then, those dinners were in Paris. And for almost all of them, I cooked for more people than I could comfortably squeeze around our table — one year I had to buy 20 folding chairs and set up dishes on every flat surface in the apartment. No matter how many we were, I always had to use every outdoor ledge, sill and flower box to hold wine. And I always crossed my fingers and hoped that Bacchus would keep the bottles from tumbling.
Those dinners, now a family tradition, started as a dream. I was a graduate student when I got a postcard from a friend whose husband had been transferred to Paris. It upended her life, but whatever difficulties she had, none of them were mentioned in the card I got that January. The postcard, which was pinned to the corkboard near my desk for years, had a picture of the gilded bridge near the Eiffel Tower, the Pont Alexandre III, and on the flip side, she wrote that to celebrate New Year’s Eve, she and her husband ate oysters and drank Champagne on the bridge at midnight. I wanted to do that.
And eventually I did, but in my own fashion and on the Pont des Arts, the bridge closest to where we lived. As soon as my husband, Michael, and I signed the lease for our first apartment in Paris, we made plans to fly there for the new year with our son, Joshua. That apartment was tiny — the kitchen had a hot plate and no oven — but even so, friends came for dinner. I can’t remember what I made, but I remember the excitement of walking to the bridge, clutching Champagne flutes in gloved hands, the Louvre to our right, the cupola of the Institut de France gleaming to our left, the shimmer of the river beneath us, visible through the bridge’s wooden slats, and the Eiffel Tower ahead.
It’s hard to say how many people have sat around our table and walked to the bridge with us since then. Maybe 200? Probably more. There have been dozens of people, friends of friends we’d never met before we opened the door to them. One year, the group was so eclectic that I couldn’t figure out who would be happiest sitting next to whom, so I tossed numbers in a cap and let people pick their places. And there was the dinner in 2014, when Joshua brought Linling Tao. It was her first New Year’s Eve in Paris, and she has been to every one since. They were married in 2018.
Each year, I’d look around the table at my family and friends and get a rush of quiet pleasure. There’s joy in gathering people together in celebration, in making food for people you care about. And for me, there was magic in making a dream real and sharing it with so many others.
Even if I harbored a hope that we would get to Paris for the holidays, I guess I knew it wouldn’t be possible. Knew we wouldn’t see our friends. Knew we wouldn’t walk to the bridge with Champagne and go home to macarons. I always thought of those macarons as a good-luck charm, telling myself that if the first thing we ate in the new year was sweet, the rest of the year would be, too.
We’ll be in New York this year, and there won’t be macarons. I could bake or buy them, but it seems foolish to try to recreate what’s impossible to replicate. A little sad too. And if the end of this year calls for anything, it’s gladness and gratitude. So, in the spirit of hope and with faith in the power of sweetness, I’ll make an all-American celebration cake, one with holiday flavors and enough frosting to anchor an Alpine village. I recently got a copy of Tara Bench’s new cookbook, “Live Life Deliciously,” and it fell open to the recipe for Mulling-Spice Christmas Tree Cake like an invitation to bake.
It was the spices — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger — that sent me into the kitchen. They’re strong, so they hold their own when they’re mixed with the molasses and apple cider. The layers bake up sturdy: easy to work with, easy to cut, good-looking in a plain, wholesome way, very much like gingerbread, which might be its first cousin. And there’s the cream-cheese frosting, unabashedly sweet and absolutely the right choice. The first time I baked the cake, I pulled it from the oven and stayed in the kitchen, where the aromas of warm spices lingered.
I don’t know what I’ll cook for dinner, but I know that this year we’ll be just family, and so there’ll be room for all of us around one table. We’re planning to eat our cake in our pajamas, maybe with cider, maybe with Calvados. I’m thinking this New Year’s Eve will be just the one we need now. That it will be comforting. That we’ll have one another. That we’ll have cake. And if the cake is the charm that brings a sweet year, I might even make it again next year. In Paris.