Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Yule Log: How to Create A Beautiful Bûche de Noël

Of all the goodies I bake for the holidays, I'd have to say that the most fun, and the one that gets the most "Oohs and Aahs" is the classic French Bûche de Noël, know here as a Christmas Yule Log. The cake is super simple, and all the real work goes into decorating. Call me silly, but I don't mind spending a couple of hours decorating a Christmas cake, it's what makes the holidays so special for me and my friends, who love to come over and help (yours will too).

I use a recipe from Jacques Pépin, for his Chocolate Roll. On his website he also has a recipe for a Bûche de Noël, but I've found that his Chocolate Roll is quicker, easier, and yummier, and the filling is a simple Chantilly (whipped heavy cream) to which you can add whatever flavoring agents you like (almond extract, Brandy, orange liquor, etc.).

Make the Cake

You'll find pretty much all of the information you need to make the chocolate roll at Jacques Pépin's website. But there's a few things I'd like to mention that aren't in his recipe. First, his "cake" is really a recipe for a chocolate soufflé, but spread into a jelly-roll pan (a cookie sheet with edges), instead of being baked in a ramekin. So while it's a quick batter, it's a very delicate one, so just go easy on it, and if you need further help, read my Baking Tips & Techniques article here at Rollick that explains the ins and outs of folding delicate batters.

When you've baked the cake, let it cool completely on a cooling rack out of the pan—in the pan the edges will continue to dry out, but leave the parchment (not waxed) paper, it's going to be important when it comes time to roll it. You can cover the sheet of cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate it overnight before filling and rolling. It should be cool or cold when you spread the Chantilly.

I actually whip the Chantilly just to the point at which it looks like I've gone a bit too far—it starts to get a tiny bit lumpy—then I stop. The reason I whip the cream this extra little bit is because it won't ooze out under the weight of the cake when you roll it, and it produces a Chantilly that is somewhat like a buttercream in that it's smooth and buttery. In Jacques Pépin's recipe, he uses confectioners sugar, vanilla extract and Kirsch, but like I said above, you can use whatever flavoring agents you like, but stick to confectioners sugar and his measurements.

Let it roll

For making the Bûche de Noël, once you've spread the cream evenly, roll—don't fold—the cake along its long side. Grab the parchment and use that as your rolling aid, removing it from the cake as you roll it by pulling it gently away with one hand while the other helps roll the cake. When it's rolled, you'll see that you can then, in the same movement, wrap the cake back into the parchment. Then wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap to chill.

You'll create the shape of the Bûche de Noël by cutting off small slices of the chocolate roll and placing them on and side-long to the main "trunk." That's why you roll it along the long edge so you get a long, thin log. But, if you want to just serve the chocolate roll as a dessert without decorating, you can roll the cake along the short side so you'll have a shorter, fatter log. This cake is so good that even without all the decorations you've got a fabulous dessert that lasts for 4 days in your fridge (well, if you don't gobble it up sooner).

Whether you turn the chocolate roll into a Bûche de Noël or serve it as is, you still need to refrigerate the completed roll overnight so it can set up well before decorating or serving.

The best part: Decorating!

A traditional Bûche de Noël is covered in a chocolate ganache, meringue mushrooms, and chocolate leaves. A thick, dark ganache, spread or poured over the log and "branches" covers everything and hides the messy "stumps" underneath. Then you just run a fork over it to make the ganache have the appearance of bark.

The mushrooms are made from a Swiss meringue, and get piped in two parts: the stem and the button top. First pipe the tops onto parchment, leaving space on the sheet pan. Bake just until they set, then pull them out of the oven and pipe the stems. Then carefully lift the tops, place them on the just-piped stems, and continue baking. I sprinkle some cocoa powder on them when cooled so they have a brown appearance. I also like to make meringue Christmas trees. With a star-shaped piping tip, pipe the meringue in the same manner as the mushrooms, starting with the smallest tree tier.

For the chocolate leaves, the easiest thing to do is to grab some Holly leaves, wash and dry them completely, and simply spread the melted white chocolate on the leaves in a (not too) thick layer and let them set in the fridge. Once the chocolate is set, you carefully peel away the leaf from the chocolate and you're left with a white chocolate leaf that has the shape, texture, and veins of the real Holly. You can always mix green food color into your melted white chocolate if you want green leaves.

When you've got your mushrooms and leaves (any maybe trees), then you just place them on and around the Bûche however you like. You can also use marzipan for mushrooms and red Holly berries, or just get creative and do your own thing!

When I do my Bûche de Noël, I never make it alone. Friends are always happy to help, and as you'll make way more mushrooms, trees and leaves than you can use on the Bûche, you all can nibble on them as you decorate. The holidays are all about getting together with the people we love, and for me, they're also about making the food I love. Having a Bûche decorating party is a unique way to bring people and food together for a holiday tradition that goes way beyond cookies.

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