Add old-time elegance to your Christmas entertaining this year with an 18th-Century-style ambigue. Impressive, yet easy to assemble, this is one of the secrets of Colonial entertaining that transformed early American Christmas tables into a virtual wonderland of things to eat.
The term ambigue (pronounced AM-bee-gew) is itself a quaint colonial way of saying the French service a l'ambigue, which means things served in an ambiguous style with no particular order of courses--in short, a buffet. But this buffet was certainly no hodgepodge.
Before the 1850s, when the Christmas tree began to appear more and more frequently in American homes, the center of attention was not the exchange of gifts or cards, a tree or festive evergreen decorations. The emphasis was on food. For most Protestant denominations, Christmas was strictly a religious holiday and the spiritual aspects took precedence. But after church, homes were thrown open to lavish entertaining for family, friends and members of the community at large.
This was particularly the case during the period between Second Christmas (Dec. 26) and Twelfth Night (Jan. 6). In that slower-paced age before instant communication by computer or telephone, people went visiting, not to watch football games on a neighbor's television, but to see friends and relatives personally, face to face, and to touch base with the truly human things that counted. This sharing of experience and caring for one another was all brought together with food, and here is where the ambigue proved so useful.
In its most formal appearance, an ambigue was laid out generally on a large round or oval table set in the middle of the room. That way, people could get at it from all sides, and if there was a sparkling chandelier overhead, candlelight would be thrown down like warm moonbeams on the grand display of food. All the dishes were arranged geometrically in sets of two, four or six. If a large platter of cake stood on one end of the table, it would be balanced on the other end with a matching platter holding, perhaps, an ample bowl of Yuletide punch.
Many dishes were arranged in tiers or on varying levels. Glass stands were stacked with frosted fruit, evergreens and dried flowers. Statuary made of paste sugar or simple cookie figures were positioned in strategic locations within easy reach of the children. And all around the table were plates of the most delectable things to eat, such as gingerbreads, macaroons, marzipan "fruits" and hard candies called clear toys that were cast in multitudes of entertaining shapes and colors.
Of course, empty spaces were left here and there in the arrangement because when guests came calling, they were expected to bring a "house gift," something to add to the buffet. It could be anything from a steaming quail pie or a luscious new sausage ready for slicing to a small plum pudding, a basket of Chocolate Apees or even a Gateau de Pommes--if the plan was to stun the host with a culinary tour de force.
The beauty of Gateau de Pommes is that it is inexpensive and as easy to make as gelatin, and if you can give it an elaborate shape with a mold, everyone will think you studied cookery in Paris. It was quite popular with 19th-Century cooks for all of these reasons. Best of all, it makes a stellar table piece when set near candles, and guests will need no nudging to get their spoons working on the masterpiece.
Of course, you do not need fancy glass or china to make an ambigue successful. You can arrange it with whatever sorts of plates and trays you have on hand. You can even use clean flower pots to prop up stray serving dishes.
Just make as many of the recipes yourself as you feel comfortable doing; put the rest together with things from the market. The important point is that you carry through on a theme and make the table appear as inviting as possible. Don't worry about the rest. Your effort will show, and your family and friends will remember with fondness the special gift you created yourself this Christmas.
This is the 1860 recipe of Mary Hamilton Winebrenner, wife of the Rev. John Winebrenner, founder of the Church of God.
\f7 GATEAU DE POMMES
2 pounds peeled and cored apples, peels and cores reserved
3 cups water or red currant juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
Grated zest of 2 lemons
4 envelopes unflavored gelatin
4 drops oil of cinnamon
Candied citron strips
Slivered blanched almonds
Place apple peels and cores in pan along with water. (Water will produce green gateau, red currant juice will produce red gateau.) Cover and simmer 15 minutes. Strain and reserve 2 1/2 cups liquid.
Chop peeled apples into small pieces and puree in food processor along with lemon juice until texture resembles applesauce. Transfer puree to pan and mix in sugar and lemon zest.