A Log By Any Other Name


“Boosh uh noelll!”

“Actually, it’s Bûche de Noël, honey.”

“BOOOSH UH NOELLLLL!”

Aww, never mind. My son was having the grandest time with the name.

“A Bûche de Noël is a traditional French cake made to resemble a yule log.”

“A log?”

They looked incredulous; it did seem a bit silly. Even the sound of the word — log, lawwg, l-o-g — is heavy to the ear, and the opposite of what one would presumably want in a cake. But once I showed them some photos, and gave them a little historical context, they were on board.

(Before we go any further, I’ve got to point out that this project was our most ambitious yet. Meringue mushrooms and a cake in the shape of a log? Thus, we took an hour or so to make the meringues, then two days later we spent the afternoon baking and assembling the cake.)

So, we have — Day 1: Mushrooming

They had made meringue before, so we just jumped right in.

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Once the meringue was silky smooth and held a stiff peak, we loaded it into pastry bags fitted with piping tips.

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The kids took turns piping the mushroom stems by making small cone shapes, squeezing the meringue out onto the parchment while gently pulling up on the bag.  They were tickled by this whole process. Some stems drooped or fell over, but the kids kept going. And going. And going.

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“Guys, we still have to pipe out the mushroom caps.”

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The caps were a little easier; they were just like piping cream puffs.

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Little points on the caps were smoothed over with a barely damp finger.

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While the meringues baked, the kids played, and the moms chatted. All was right with the world.

Day 2: Zee bûche

Oh look, we’re making meringue again!

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The other ingredients for the cake were mixed and sat waiting for the egg whites and sugar to whip to a stiff peak.

We folded a third of the billowy meringue into the cake batter to lighten it.

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Then we quickly incorporated the rest.

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The resulting mixture was placed into a half-sheetpan and we popped it into the oven.

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Making filling and frosting with this crew, on top of everything else, sounded impossible, so I opted to have a batch of plain buttercream and a batch of ganache ready to go.

We wanted to flavor the buttercream though. I suggested a little melted chocolate, (just enough to contrast with the cake), and to build on our last lesson, some caramel powder. Gilding the lily? Maybe. But we wanted this to be an epic log. Also, tasty.

“I made caramel, just like we did for our apple crêpes, but instead of adding butter and cream, I just poured the cooked sugar out onto a piece of foil where it hardened.”

“It’s like glass!”

They picked it up and gazed through it.

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Then squealed as I smashed it to pieces.

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We used a food processor to grind the pieces into a fine powder.

“It’s like sand!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure.”

This would be the start of sampling sugar in several different forms.

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We mixed the chocolate and caramel powder into the buttercream and turned our attention to assembling the meringue mushrooms.

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They trimmed the pointy tips off the stems and dipped the bottoms of the caps in melted chocolate before attaching the two pieces.

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“They’re so cute!”

“Can we taste them?”

“Sure.”

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We were still waiting for the cake to bake, so we decided to make some woodland creatures for the log.

Marzipan is the traditional medium for log decor, but I had some fondant leftover from a birthday cake, so that’s what we used.

“It looks like clay!”

“Can we taste it?”

“Sure?”

I was beginning to worry about answering to one of the dads, a dentist.

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But oh my! They dove right in.

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So much focus and creativity.

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Flora and fauna.

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And proud artists.

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The cake was done. It was time to fill.

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I showed them how to spread an even layer of buttercream over the cooled cake, leaving about an inch, at the topmost long edge, bare.

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Starting from that place, I began rolling the cake onto itself.

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I reassured them that any cracks on the roulade would be covered with frosting and hidden from view.

Using the parchment to help keep the cake from sticking to my hands, I continued rolling the buttercream covered chiffon sheet.

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“Eventually it becomes easy to use the parchment to pull the cake toward you.”

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“It looks like a log already!”

“Yeah, you could leave it as is, but we are going to make some stumpy parts and attach them with frosting.”

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I cut the ends off the roll on a slight diagonal.

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“Where shall we put them?”

They each offered an opinion on placement before we came to a consensus.

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Now for the chocolate “bark.”

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They used an icing spatula to fill in cracks and crevices with the soft ganache.

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The point where the pieces met proved the most challenging, but I assured them that it was supposed to look rough, like a knobby old piece of wood.

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When everyone had had a turn, they used a fork to add texture to the wood.

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“Time to add the decorations!”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The kids pounced on the cake, decorations in hand. They were so excited to bring it to life.

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They encouraged each other and moved things around to accommodate another child’s favorite piece.

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When they had placed the last figure on the cake, we stood back to take a look.

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There were gnomes, and insects, and birds, and foliage.

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We spied colorful flowers and several rocks. There was even a mini-log on the log.

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They were so pleased and proud.

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“Can we eat it?!”

“Sure.”

Just like that, without hesitation or concern for all the work they had put into it, they happily devoured the cake, creatures and all.

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And yes, it was sweet, but not only because of the sugar.

 

Bûche de Noël      (serves about 16 – 18)

You could make this as elaborate a production as you want, or as minimal. Either way, there are several components, but they can all be made in advance so that the actual assembly moves a lot quicker.

Chocolate Chiffon Sheet

Have ready a half-sheetpan (11″ x 17″), ungreased and lined with parchment

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

2 1/3 c  (8 1/4 oz) cake flour

2/3 c (2 3/4 oz) cocoa powder

2 c (14 oz) granulated sugar, reserve 1/2 c (3 1/2 oz)

1 T baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

6 large eggs, separated

3/4 c water

1/4 c neutral flavored cooking oil

1 t vanilla

Sift all the dry ingredients, except the reserved sugar, together and set aside. In a large bowl, combine the egg yolks with the water, oil, and vanilla. Whisk the dry ingredients into the yolk mixture until combined. Whip egg whites with the reserved sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold 1/3 of the meringue into the cocoa mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining meringue, until completely combined. Pour into prepared sheet pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake until the cake springs back to the touch, about 15 minutes. Let cake cool on a rack for 5 minutes before loosening the edges with a knife. Invert on to a cooling rack and remove parchment. Let cool completely before filling.

Buttercream Filling

You will need about 2 1/2 cups, flavored as you like. We used melted chocolate to taste and caramel powder (see above and here).

I like this recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream. Make just 1/2 of a batch for this cake.

You can make this several days in advance. Refrigerate and let come to room temperature before re-whipping.

Ganache Frosting

You will need about  1 1/2 times this ganache recipe. You probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use leftovers for hot chocolate!

This can also be made in advance, (see above recipe for softening cold ganache), but it’s so quick and easy to make as needed, I prefer to do that.

Meringue Mushrooms

Here is a good recipe for the mushrooms. You don’t need superfine sugar, regular works fine, just make sure you add it slowly and that you whip it until it is no longer gritty. The mushroom caps and stems can be made in advance, and stored in an airtight container in a dry spot for several days. Attach the caps to the stems with chocolate just before you assemble the cake.

Other items you might want:

Marzipan to mold into figures, leaves, etc. This can be tinted with food coloring.

If you are going for a more natural looking log, (not ours), rosemary branches or other unsprayed foliage.

Sugared cranberries. So pretty!

Google some examples. The sky is the limit. Have fun. And have a happy and peaceful holiday season!

 

 

 

 

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Stovetop Alchemy

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“Do you say care-a-mel or car-mel?”

We were divided on the pronunciation of the word, but we were united in our appreciation of it.

“We are making a caramel sauce.”

Somebody sighed.

Now, I am not above eating caramel sauce with a spoon, straight out of the pot, but I felt that in order to maintain some sense of propriety we should also make something to eat the caramel on.

“And apple crêpes.”

Now, a cheer.

Since crêpe batter should sit for 30 minutes or so before using, we decided to make that first.

The easiest way to make the batter is in a blender or, in our case, with an immersion blender.

They measured the milk into a pitcher.

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And added the eggs.

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The butter we had put on the stove to brown was ready and it smelled amazing.

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After mixing the browned butter into the other ingredients, we set the resulting batter aside and the kids gathered near the stove to start caramelizing the sugar for our sauce.

Except nobody could see into the pot. So, some chairs were brought in and children were rearranged.

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“What does sugar smell like?”

“It’s sweet!”

“And caramel? Does it smell the same, or different?”

They considered the question.

“How can caramelized sugar smell so different from regular old white sugar?”

I explained that granulated sugar, or sucrose, is made up of fructose and glucose, and that when heated, it breaks down into these two component sugars. Eventually, these molecules break down into other molecules that react with one another to form new compounds that make up the delicious aromas and flavors of caramelized sugar.

There are two classic methods to making caramel: wet and dry. The wet method involves moistening the sugar with water and cooking the mixture. As the water boils away, the sugar breaks down and caramelizes.

The dry method is simply sugar cooked in a dry pan. Because sugar is partially water, heat easily liquifies it.

Of the two methods, I personally prefer the dry caramel. I am an impatient person and because of the added water, the wet method takes longer. A wet caramel is also more prone to crystallization. Again, as an impatient person, I just don’t have time for that.

I reminded the kids that melting sugar is very, very hot. They agreed to be mindful of each other at the stove.

We sprinkled an even layer of sugar into the pot and began cooking it over moderate heat.

After just a few minutes, we could see some sugar liquifying at the edges and a little browning under the surface, near the center.

“Wow, that happens fast!”

As the browning and melting continued, we used the spoon to pull the sugar from the outside of the pot towards the middle.

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The kids took turns using the tip of the spoon to mash and distribute chunks of sugar, allowing them to melt into the darker liquid.

While we didn’t want any one spot to get too dark, (you can’t salvage burnt sugar), I cautioned against stirring too much to avoid excessive lumping and crystallization.

We did end up with some chunky bits, but we lowered the heat and those soon softened into the rest of the caramel.

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The color of caramel at its tastiest point is something like that of an old copper penny. Smell is actually the best indicator of when the sugar is ready. We kept smelling the pot, and as the familiar scent of rich caramel wafted up, we watched the darkening sugar like hawks. Once we could see the caramel start to smoke, we turned off the burner. The caramel would continue to cook from the residual heat of the pot.

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We had butter at the ready and carefully dropped it into the molten sugar.

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Cream went in next.

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The cold cream caused the caramel to seize up a bit, but as we did earlier, we just turned the heat to low and stirred everything together.

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“That smells so good!”

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Now that the sauce was finished, we could turn our attention to cooking the crêpes.

We strained the batter and poured it into a jar tall enough to accommodate a 2-ounce ladle.

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I demonstrated how to deposit the mixture onto the hot pan, tilting and swirling it to cover the surface with a thin layer of batter.

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I used a small offset spatula to loosen the edges of the crêpe and quickly flipped the thin pancake over.

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A few seconds on the other side, and the crêpe was cooked enough to turn out onto a cooling rack.

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I handled the ladling for the first round, while the kids focused on tilting the pan.

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They were more confident the second time around, and did most of the ladling themselves, though they still needed a little help with the flipping of the crêpe.

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We had a bit of fretting over the lack of coverage, but I assured them that we could add a little batter and smooth it with the spatula, and if that failed to produce a perfect crêpe, they wouldn’t notice the difference once the crêpes were filled and folded.

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I quickly sautéed some apples and reheated the crêpes briefly on the pan.

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With the addition of a scoop of the cooked apples and a little of the still warm caramel sauce, everyone was happy.

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It was definitely a clean plate kind of day.

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Salted Caramel Sauce

1 cup granulated sugar

6 T butter, cut into pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream, warmed just slightly

1 t sea salt

Have all ingredients ready and near the stove. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and shake it to make a fairly even layer. Cook the sugar over moderate heat, using a wooden spoon to help push and pull the solid sugar into the liquid sugar. You don’t want any one spot to get too dark or burnt. If the sugar gets really clumpy, just turn the heat to low and continue cooking it and it will eventually smooth out. Keep a close eye on the color, it should be the color of an old copper penny when it’s ready. It should smell strongly of caramel and the pot will start to smoke. Immediately turn off the heat and carefully add the butter, followed by the cream and salt. Return the sauce to low heat to incorporate all the ingredients. Cooled sauce can be rewarmed over low heat.

Crêpe Batter

Makes about 15 crêpes

7 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 3/4 c whole milk

4 large eggs

1/2 t sea salt

1 t vanilla

1 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

Brown butter over low heat until quite dark (see here), immediately pour into a small dish to stop the cooking and cool slightly. Measure milk, eggs, salt, and vanilla into a blender and combine. Add the flour and blend until smooth. Add the butter and blend again. Set aside for 30 minutes or up to 24 hrs in the refrigerator. Strain batter before using.

To cook the crêpes:

I use an 8″ crêpe pan, but you could use a similar size skillet. Heat the pan over moderate heat and lightly butter it, (I only do this for the first crêpe). When the pan is hot but not smoking, (a few drops of water should skitter across the surface), pour or ladle 1/4 cup of batter on it near the center while simultaneously tilting and swirling the pan. It takes a little practice, and it usually takes me a crêpe or two to get into a rhythm. You should hear it sizzle. Any excess batter can be poured back into your container and the resulting “tail” can be cut off. Once the top of the crêpe is set, you can use a small spatula to loosen the sides. I use my fingers to flip the crêpe over, but you could also use a larger spatula to do so. Let it cook for a few seconds and then turn the crêpe out onto a cooling rack. The first crêpe is always a throwaway for me, well, we eat it, but it’s generally an ugly one. You can begin stacking the finished crêpes as they cool. Any unused crêpes can be wrapped and frozen.