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The French enjoy their lavish holiday meal on Dec. 24, says Francois Payard, the renowned pastry chef who grew up in Nice and now lives in New York.

Locals sit down for dinner around 8 p.m., he says, and savor a first course of seafood. That usually means a lobster thermidor — a baked dish of the cooked crustacean mixed with mustard, egg yolks and brandy — or a shrimp scampi.

Then it's on to a large capon — a male chicken that's renowned for its tenderness — and a medley of sides including mashed potatoes and chestnuts sauteed with butter and topped with sage. "Chestnuts are a fixture in any Christmas meal for us," says Payard.

Buche de noel

In France, a bûche de Noël makes for a sweet end to a lavish holiday meal.

Dessert, the grand finale, is a yule log, or bûche de Noël — the French version of a Christmas cake. Often two are served — one chocolate, the other chestnut. To drink, it's the finest wine you can get your hands on, usually red from Burgundy that's not too full-bodied for the capon.

On Christmas Day, the French savor a hearty brunch that may include creamy scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and toast. The meal finishes with assorted cheeses such as Brie, Gruyere and Munster, Payard says.

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