Bûche de Noël

Above, the author’s daughter prepares meringue mushrooms as a classic decoration for a Bûche de Noël (pictured at left).

Story and photos by Katherine Larson

Looking for a spectacular Christmas dessert, one that is both decorative and delicious? Consider a Bûche de Noël.

Literally, the words mean “Christmas Log.” It is the culinary version of a yule log, the tradition that early European Christians adopted from pagan Celts and Gaels who burned a large log at the winter solstice. Christians moved the communal log-burning to Christmas Eve.

With the growth of cities, log-burning became impractical for many. Eventually, some resourceful chef invented the Bûche de Noël, and made history. Today, bûches are most popular in France, Belgium, Québec, Vietnam (all places with strong connections to French pastry), and these are all good places to visit in December when pâtisseries are filled with the delectable treats.

We, however, live in the UP, so it’s up to us to roll up our sleeves and make our own.

A word of warning: a good bûche can’t be whipped up in a jiffy. Most of the construction can be relegated to the day before the holiday. Still, if you are already up to your elbows with seven side dishes to accompany the roast goose or roast beef or roast tofu, whatever your holiday feast may involve, and you don’t have a day to devote to this project, pick something else.

But if you do have time—or, better still, if like me you know and love someone who is willing to take the time—a good bûche is hard to beat.

Chocolate is chopped up to create a ganache for the outside of the Bûche de Noël.

In my family, the bûche-maker is daughter Sarah. Her skill with baking long ago surpassed mine, and I’m happy to stand back and watch in awe. I did so recently, and this article ensued. I owe her heartiest thanks.

There are four basic components to a bûche: the sponge cake, the filling, the icing, and the decoration. Traditionally, the icing and (often) the filling are both of chocolate; certainly you want to pick an icing color that makes your end result look reasonably log-like. Some people bake a basic sponge, while others include ground hazelnuts or other flavorings. In my opinion, there is so much going on with the basic bûche that additional flavors become supererogatory.

Sarah started out by tackling the classic decoration that, for the French, virtually defines a bûche: meringue mushrooms. (Marzipan mushrooms are occasionally encountered, too. Me, I’d opt for those, because my track record with meringue is pitiful. Sarah is bolder.)

In a medium bowl, she added half a cup of sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar to the whites of two large eggs. Then she held the bowl over a pot of steaming water while beating the mixture at medium speed, using the electric beater’s whisk attachment, until the bowl’s contents had been gently warmed—not cooked!—to help the sugar dissolve. Off the heat, she continued to whisk the mixture until it was firm enough to hold its shape.

Previous preparations had been meticulous. The oven was preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. A pastry bag was balanced tip side down, using a tall glass to hold it ready to receive the meringue mix, allowing her to fill the bag without extra hands to hold it open. A baking sheet was covered with a big swath of parchment paper, glued down at each corner with a dab of butter. “You want to make sure the butter is only on the underside of the paper,” Sarah warned. “Otherwise your meringues will dissolve.”

Then she piped. Long stems, short stems, and mushroom caps: the long stems by lifting the bag as she pushed out the meringue; the shorter ones by breaking off the meringue stream earlier; the caps by leaving the tip in place as the meringue mixture emerged, so that it came out as a neatly domed circle. (Any too-pointy tops can be smoothed down with a fingertip before baking.) She sprinkled a little cocoa powder on some of the caps to give a spotted effect, then put the tray of mushroom parts into the oven, to bake gently for at least two hours.

I fast-forward here to finish up the meringue discussion: After those two hours have passed, test for doneness by taking a mushroom bit out of the oven and letting it sit for five minutes. If it’s still crisp, it’s done. If it turns gooey, it needs longer. When the meringues are indeed done, leave them in the oven! Turn the heat off and let them sit there while it cools. And if you are not ready to use them when the oven has cooled, put all your mushroom pieces in an air-tight container to keep them crisp. A soggy meringue is a lamentable object.

The filling is spread out onto the cake batter.

Just before serving, you’ll assemble the mushrooms: Melt a square of dark chocolate in the microwave. Brush a little melted chocolate on the underside of a mushroom cap and balance it on top of a stem. Repeat. Save extra mushroom components for later; outside that air-tight container, they won’t last.

Okay, back to our bûche. With the meringues in the oven, Sarah turned to the filling and icing. She decided to make a rich chocolate ganache, to be used as-is for the icing and to be lightened with whipped cream and Grand Marnier (an orange liqueur) for the filling. In our family, when it comes to chocolate the darker the better, so she chose to use bars of European “extra-dark” chocolate, 85% cocoa. “Pick whatever chocolate you yourself like,” she advised.

She finely chopped six ounces of this luxurious stuff, then turned it into a small pot where she had set one and a half cups of heavy cream to heat and stirred until all became melted, glossy, and smooth. She covered the pot and put it into the refrigerator to cool.

Next, the sponge cake. The goal here is to choose a version that rolls well, so Sarah picked a hot-milk sponge because of its superior flexibility.

Again preparation was important. We waited until the meringues emerged from the cooled oven, and then heated it back up again, this time to 400 degrees. She pulled out another big swath of parchment paper, this time to cover the bottom and sides of a jelly-roll sheet pan—a pan with half-inch-high sides that is 11-1/2 inches by 17-1/2 inches. Again she used dabs of butter on the underside of the paper to anchor it in place, but this time she worked carefully so neat folds created crisp corners. She also ran her thumbnail along each of the edges to create sharp corners and, eventually, a tidily rectangular cake. Finally, she dusted powdered sugar onto a clean linen dish towel and then worked the sugar carefully all over and well into the fabric.

Some spruce twigs are sugared to add as decoration to the final product.

Next Sarah put five large eggs and three quarters of a cup of sugar in a large bowl and, again using the whisk attachment on the electric beater, beat it until it was about tripled in volume and the consistency of softly whipped cream, maybe five minutes. Putting aside the beater, she took up a spatula and gently folded in a warm concoction of two tablespoons of butter and a quarter cup of milk that she had melted together on the stove. And then, in three batches, she carefully folded in a mixture of flour and baking powder.

That last bit is tricky. To begin with, you need three quarters of a cup of sifted cake flour and one teaspoon of baking powder. That first sifting, before you even measure the flour, is important to get proportions right. Next, get those dried ingredients well blended before adding them to the batter, either via multiple additional siftings or via a manual whisk. Finally and most importantly, getting the dry stuff into the wet stuff involves a balance: you really, really, really don’t want lumps of unassimilated flour in your final product; at the same time, you really, really, really don’t want to stir all the airiness out of your batter while attempting to work the flour in. So use your trusty sifter again, to sift the flour mixture directly onto the batter, and then use the spatula to fold with care.

Then pour the batter into the prepared pan, spread it gently out to fill the whole pan, and pop it into the oven. A mere ten minutes suffices.

Here come some gymnastics. Right away, while the cake is still hot, place the bottom of a larger pan over the top of the cake pan and flip the whole thing, then lift the cake pan off the cake. Carefully peel off the parchment paper. Cover the cake with the sugared side of the towel and then flip the whole shebang again (extra hands help here) before lifting off the larger pan. Facing you on the counter-top should be the towel with the cake resting on it. Align an edge of the cake with an edge of the towel and roll the two of them tightly up together—yes, together, one spiraled inside the other. Then set the resulting sausage on a rack to cool.

Time for a restorative walk. We found some young spruces and Sarah cut a few sprigs to bring home, rinse carefully in cool water then dip, still damp, in powdered sugar to resemble snow. We wouldn’t eat them, but they sure looked pretty.

Okay! The end is in sight! Get that chocolate ganache out of the fridge early enough to soften it up a bit while you whip some cream.

Sticking with the whisk attachment to the electric mixer, Sarah whipped half a cup of heavy cream, a teaspoon of sugar, and some Grand Marnier together. How much? “Let’s start with a teaspoon… I’ll taste. We need more… A little more… Oops, so much for measuring… Just call it a good big slosh. Or ‘to taste.’”

Fold about two-thirds of the ganache into the whipped cream. That’ll be your filling. The rest of the ganache will be your icing.

Assembly time! Unroll the cake. Remove the towel. Spread the filling to cover the whole cake. Roll it up again. Set it on the serving platter.  Using a very sharp or serrated knife, cut off an end or two and place the cut-off end(s) so that the ensemble roughly resembles a log with the stump of one or two branches. Using a spatula, slather ganache roughly over all, trying for a bark-like texture.

At this point the bûche can go into the refrigerator to be chilled until you are ready to decorate it and serve it forth—the next day, if need be.

For decorations, use those sugared spruce twigs, plus meringue mushrooms and whatever else suits your fancy. Marzipan holly? A spun-sugar bird’s nest? How much time and energy do you have?

It’s quite an undertaking. Is it worth it? Take a bite and see. Yes, oh yes. Bûche de Noël is rich, dark, creamy, complex—truly a once-a-year treat.

Katherine Larson

 

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