The desserts that follow are a celebration of milk: an eggy white cake served with strawberry preserves and whipped cream, and another local favorite, beurrée de crème avec sucre d'érable—thick slices of yeasty white bread drenched till soaking in heavy cream, then topped with crisp shards of freshly grated maple sugar. Zen-like in its simplicity, this lovely confection, a perfect counterpoint of bland and sweet, moist and crunchy, moves Monsieur Nadeau, a man of famously few outbursts, to a fit of giggles.
These dishes, both the sweet and the savory, are the backbone of Madame Nadeau's Christmas kitchen—the rich, fortifying foods of the cold months. They owe their character to France, the mother country, and also to Britain, which established a presence in Quebec as early as 1760. Desserts—sugar pie (typically made with maple sugar) and the trifle—and sweet-and-sour condiments like the ketchups all hail from England. Cretons (a poor man's pâté of spiced pork and veal) is similar to France's rillettes; tourtière and soupe au pois are of French origin, too. But Madame Nadeau is quick to clarify that she considers France a distant relation, the source from which Quebec's culture trickled before it became a thriving independent river. "We speak French, but we are not French," she says with a sniff, and sinks her teeth into another spoonful of beurrée de crème.
Like rosy cheeks and caroling, snow on Christmas Eve is a given in La Beauce. And sure enough, at 7:42 p.m. it begins—lightly at first, with tiny, glittering flakes, and then, about an hour later, more heavily, with big, puffy ones like meringues.
Inside the Morissette home, winter might as well be breathing down someone else's neck. Dining-table details are being fine-tuned by Serge and Cyprienne's husband, Marcel: old family flat-ware is placed beside cheery holly-rimmed china; napkins are folded into crisp diamonds. In the wood-paneled rec room, one group of kids is glued to a rousing round of marbles, another to Pokémon. An uncle takes a long-overdue snooze in an out-of-the-way armchair. And in the kitchen, Grandma Morissette's movement continues, unflagging. In addition to the roast pork, the bagatelle, the pork-stuffed roast turkey, the pea soup, and the tourtière, she has made ten other dishes, including fèves au lard (a baked bean dish, all but sacred in La Beauce); a platter of grillades (fried bacon, liver, and crisp chips of salt pork); ramekins of cretons; and luscious, oozy maple-sugar pie—a caramel lover's path to nirvana.
"Oh, God, please stop. Not more food!" is a common cry (a whimper, really) around the table. But this is not a negotiable menu, with dishes decided by caprice. It is a fixed artifact of Morissette tradition, as essential to the family's life as air. Grandma Morissette's great-great-grandmother served this menu, as will Claire's great-great-grandchildren, even though they must assemble it without the original handwritten recipes: family legend has it that, many years back, Claire's long-deceased grandfather inadvertently donated all the heirloom family recipes to the village dump (Claire managed to reconstruct some of them by watching her grandmother cook). "My grandmother was packing up for a move and put the recipes in a plastic bag to protect them," Claire explains. "And poor Grandfather, thinking it was trash, made a very, very big mistake."
Everything that follows this evening is just as it should be. From the countless hugs to the sumptuous spread to the bottles of home-brewed maple liqueur that are cracked open at meal's end, nearly every snug, secure thing in the world seems to have convened here. Later, long after all have toasted Grandma Morissette on a job extraordinarily well done, the entire clan will crunch and fumble through knee-high snow to midnight mass at the nearby St-Georges cathedral, insulated from winter's deep chill by the timeless warmth of family.