Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Buche de Noel

Ever since I received The Cake Bible for my 30th birthday, I have wanted to make a Buche de Noel ("yule log"). I had seen the cakes every holiday season in bakeries, including in our neighborhood Danish bakery (though a buche is a traditional French cake), but it wasn't until the recipe was before me that I became rather fascinated with it. I haven't made any type of cake roll, which should be a fairly straightforward experience albeit for the final decorating to transform the roll into a felled woodland tree.

What finally brought me around to the cake this year was my inital plan to make a chestnut and chocolate cake from chestnut genoise and chocolate ganache. That recipe required chestnut flour. The first online retailed for all-things-chestnut is actually in Washington state, but shipping costs still add up, and the products, while "local" don't seem to be available in stores. The only place I could find chestnut flour without having to pay and wait for shipping was the Italian specialty market which imported the flour from Italy!

With that recipe in mind, but needing some adjustments, I decided to swap the cake and filling flavors and make a chocolate genoise with a chesnut filling. Fresh and canned chesnuts, while still a bit more expensive than other more common ingredients, are pretty readily available in December. Trader Joe's had vacuum-packed chesnuts and canned chesnuts are at the grocery store. Chocolate genoise with chesnut creme are the two primary components to a yule log, so rather than stacking them atop each other in rounds for a more traditional cake, I just needed to spiral them up with each other and decorate like a forest.
My only other experience with preparing chestnuts had been when a few years back when I roasted a goose and made chestnut stuffing as an accompaniment. Because I had started with fresh chestnuts, and recalled the arduous process of cutting through their tough outer shells and painstakingly picking away their inner skins, this year when I saw a package of peeled, vacuum-sealed chesnuts at Trader Joe's, I bought it without even knowing how I would use them. Once I landed on this dessert recipe, I went back for more but alas they had already sold out. They did have fresh chestnuts though, and like a mama who wants another baby but held off due to the pain of labor, I thought to myself, "c'mon, how bad can it be?"

Don't be scared away from this process, or by the ultra-glamourous final cake! It is not difficult and it is completely worth the effort!

I was worried that cutting through the shell would be the hardest part, followed by concern that some would burn before they popped open. In fact, they all opened beautifully, but they must have been old or travel-weary because they came swiftly out of their shells but held firm and enmeshed with their skins. I ended up wasting almost half the batch because I had to cut off the skin rather than peel it away. And chestnuts are shaped like little brains, all twisted on themselves and convoluted around the skins so you can't just shave off the outer layer, you have to dig and gouge to remove the bitter exterior. SUCH A PAIN. So, 2 1/2 hours later, I am documenting how unfortunate a process I find peeling chestnuts to be, so as to remind myself to not attempt it again. I've given it two chances, and now feel safe in justifying to myself the expense of whatever variety I can find that are already past this stage in their processing.

The first thing to do with the raw chestnuts is make them into a puree. The recipe said either canned or fresh would work, and gave separate instructions for each. It also cautioned against using canned puree which would be too moist and perhaps also too sweet, though I am interested in trying that as well - maybe after cooking it down a bit to thicken. In any case, Rose says to cook fresh roasted chestnuts in milk until "easily pierced with a fork." Since the vacuum-packed chesnuts were not that tender, I cooked them together with the roasted ones.

Once they are cooked, drain them and puree in the food processor. It was hard to know what consistency to make the puree. The recipe said to add the cooking milk if the mixture was too dry, but what was too dry? After extensive processing, the mixture still seemed pretty "dry" and crumbly, so I ended up using at least a 1/2 cup of the simmering milk - maybe more - and went for a texture about like peanut butter (though not as sticky!)

All of this I did on Saturday, for Christmas on a Tuesday.

On Sunday, Will helped me make marzipan mushrooms to decorate the finished cake. His were larger and more elaborate than mine, which I technically considered "better," but in the end it was nice to have two different "varieties" in our woodland forest. We watched a video online for how to sculpt them, but that was unnecessary as it is pretty straightforward: roll a small piece of marzipan (purchased from Larson's Bakery!) into a ball, use your little finger to hollow out a depression for the stem, spread the crown into whatever shape you desire, use the back of a knife to impress gills into the underside of the top, roll another little piece of maripan into a cylinder for the stem, and press into the top of the mushroom, then dust/smudge cocoa powder.

Monday afternoon, I baked the genoise. It is not actually a genoise, as it has no flour; it's basically just eggs and chocolate! The recipe says that its texture is perfect for rolling, as it is crack-resistent. Since I have not made a jelly roll before, I don't have a basis for comparison, but I did find this pretty easy to work with (discounting my anxiety level of course!) The instructions also call for covering the baked roll with a damp dish towel immediately after removing from the oven, and until it is completely cool. I left it that way untouched until Tuesday morning with no apparent ill effects or deterioration of quality.

Tuesday, Christmas morning, I made the chesnut filling. It was as simple as whipping creme and stirring in my already-prepared sweetened chestnut puree. I used two cups of heavy cream and 1 cup of puree, which made at least double what I needed to generously fill the roll. I ended up using it to frost as well, which had not been my original plan, and still had over a cup leftover. But it was a tremendously delicious ratio of light airy cream, sweetness, and roasted nuttiness. 

Finally came assembly. This whole process (minus the fresh chestnuts) was actually pretty smooth. I thought a lot about my decorations, which was time consuming, and I was very worried about how the rolling of the cake layer and the stacking of the trimmed log would go, but it all went quite well. Once the cake was rolled, I wrapped the parchment firmly around it, and refrigerated for another hour. My intention had been to frost it with dark ganache, and decided to crumb coat with the chestnut cream. Because of the texture of the chestnuts in the cream, it made what I thought was a lovely, woody-barky look and didn't want to cover it up with ganache which just would have ended up looking lumpy.

I had made chocolate bark that I was going to apply on the ganache, but with my "birch" tree, the bark served its role better when we tore it into thin pieces.  Some washed greenery and pinecones from our yard, along with our marzipan mushrooms and a dusting of powdered sugar snow completed our buche de noel.

I was SO pleased with how it looked! It came out much more lovely than I was hoping; even prettier than some of Martha's (and much more than Rose's). But, more importantly, it was so So SO delicious. It was the perfect ending for a Christmas dinner, because it was unfathomably light, and yet super-chocolately. The chestnuts impart the most wonderful earthy, wintery flavor but it is sweet and nutty and rum-y especially next to the chocolate. I cut thin slices, just about 1" thick, and most people had two servings, but it was completely satisfying, and there was enough for four of us to have leftovers the next day; I am happy to report that this cake tasted exactly as good on day 2... it did not get soggy or dry. The "cloud roll" is aptly named, because it does taste ethereal.

I am looking forward to making another buche de noel next year, now that I have some confidence about the process. And while these recipe components absolutely deserve to be repeated, I am curious to try different flavors next time - either a chesnut cake with chocolate frosting, or other combinations. If you have any comments about buches that you've made or eaten in the past, I'd love for you to post them, or let me know if you have questions or fears about making your own, because this should not be a daunting recipe and the results are truly spectacular.

Chocolate Cloud Roll
from The Cake Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum

1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar (78 grams)
6 large eggs, separated (112 grams yolks, 180 grams whites)
113 grams bittersweet chocolate, melted - I used lindt 70% dark
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa for dusting

Prepare a 17x12" jelly roll pan with parchment. Grease and flour. Preheat oven to 350.
Beat together 1/4 cup sugar and yolks until fluffy. Add chocolated.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until foamy, add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
Fold whites into chocolate mixture until incorporated, careful not to deflate the batter.
Pour batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 16 minutes. As soon as you remove the cake from the oven, dust evenly with cocoa, and cover with a clean, wet dish towel. Aloow to cool completely.

To roll, use parchment as handles to pull cake from pan onto hard flat surface. Spread with filling then use parchment to roll up the long edge.

Chestnut Mousse Cream
from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum
makes 5 cups, which is more than enough to fill and frost a jelly roll

1 cup unsweetened chestnut puree (it is possible to make your own, but I think that is by far the hardest part of the recipe - though it can also be completed well in advance. I suggest looking for canned puree, or at least use canned or vacuum-sealed chestnuts.)
2/3 cup powdered sugar, lightly spooned into measuring cup
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 cups heavy cream

Process puree with sugar and rum.
Beat cream until soft peaks form. Add puree (I spooned it into about 7 chunks) and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Spread on cake and roll into spiral. Chill until firm.

To assemble Buche de Noel
The finished roll should be the long-edge of the cake pan, about 17". Slide roll on a diagonal into two pieces, about 12" and 5". Slice 5" piece in two, again on a diagonal to make the "branches." Because the cake is so soft and light, the branches should affix to the main trunk fairly securely using just the cream filling or some chocolate ganache frosting. Decorate as desired using chocolate bark, holly, cedar or pine springs, pine cones, marzipan or meringue mushrooms and other forest critters, a santa, bows, candies, and for sure some powdered sugar snow!

Keep refrigerated until about an hour before serving. We found this to keep very well for over 24 hours.

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