Bringing the Whimsy of France to Your Holiday Table
The holiday season can be rough when you work in the restaurant industry, but my child-like love for all things Christmas really helps me get through it. I get excited for the music, the decorations, the family traditions and—most importantly—the baking. As a pastry chef, I have to plan ahead for the holidays, I’m drafting menus and sketching desserts as soon as Labor Day hits.
One of my favorite holiday desserts is the classic Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log Cake. We serve this traditional French treat for Christmas Eve every year at 2941. It’s a simple roulade made of sponge cake rolled with cream and covered in icing and it’s made to resemble a literal version of a yule log.
The real joy of making a bûche de noël is in the decorating. Variations range from the traditional and rustic to sleek and modern. Every year the great patisseries of France release their version of the bûche and I’m always taken aback by their stunning and playful takes on the classic.
I decided here to really exaggerate my favorite feature of a traditional bûche de noël: the meringue mushrooms! These little crunchy cookies take me back to my childhood, when my mother would make them for our annual Christmas party. They’re fairly easy to make, add a great texture to the dessert and, when clustered together in various sizes and colors, create a really stunning look that’s sure to wow your holiday guests.
Feel free to experiment with different decorations: You can use marzipan to make holly leaves, coconut to mimic snow, or chocolate shavings to create a bark texture. I have selected a simple flavor profile for this cake, with a cocoa sponge, whipped crème fraîche and dark chocolate frosting. I also incorporated some marmalade to add a tart counterpoint to the rich chocolate. Just as with the decorations, add your own twist to the flavors with different spices or fillings. The possibilities are really endless, so once you’ve mastered the technique, you can look forward to create a new bûche de noël each holiday season.
Bûche de Noël
Yield: 1 cake, serves 8
2 egg yolks
2 egg whites
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup + 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
Confectioner’s sugar, as needed
In a medium bowl, combine the yolks with ⅓ of the sugar. Whisk until the yolks are pale yellow.
Prepare a meringue with the egg whites and remaining sugar: In the bowl of a standing mixer, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and whip, on high speed, until the meringue is stiff and shiny.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder and salt. Add half of the flour mixture to the whipped egg yolks and fold gently to combine. Fold half of the meringue into the batter. Fold in the remaining dry ingredients, followed by the rest of the meringue.
Spread the cake batter evenly in the prepared baking sheet. Bake for approximately 5–7 minutes. The cake will be just dry in the center.
Remove the cake from the oven and immediately remove it from the baking tray. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the hot cake. Carefully flip the cake over, so that the bottom of the cake is facing up. Gently peel the parchment paper off of the cake. With the long side of the cake in front of you, carefully roll the cake with the parchment paper away from you into a log shape. Allow the rolled cake to cool to room temperature. (If the edges of the cake are crispy and won’t roll, trim them off before rolling.)
Rich Chocolate Frosting
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons warm water
6 tablespoons butter (room temperature)
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
Stir the cocoa powder into the warm water to dissolve. With an electric or standing mixer, beat the butter with the confectioner’s sugar and salt until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Beat in the melted chocolate, followed by the cocoa mixture. If preparing the frosting ahead of time, store in the refrigerator until needed. When you are ready to use it, bring the frosting to room temperature and beat until smooth.
Whipped Crème Fraîche
If crème fraîche is not available or you desire another flavor, substitute in equal parts with yogurt, sour cream, ricotta or mascarpone.
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup crème fraîche
¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Either by hand or using a standing mixer, whisk together all ingredients until stiff peaks form. Keep cool.
The meringues can be prepared up to 2 days in advance; store in an airtight container.
3 egg whites
¾ cup sugar
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
3½ tablespoons cornstarch
Melted chocolate, as needed
Preheat oven to 200°. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
Sift together the confectioner’s sugar and cornstarch. In the bowl of a standing mixer, begin whisking the egg whites on medium speed. Once the egg whites are foaming, gradually add the sugar. Whip on high speed until the meringue forms stiff peaks.
Gently fold the cornstarch mixture into the meringue.
Place the meringue into a piping bag with a medium plain pastry tip. On 1 baking sheet, pipe the stems: pipe straight lines of various lengths, from 1 to 3 inches, making the end of each line a fine point (you will later use this point the attach the stem to the cap of the mushroom.)
On the other baking sheet, pipe the mushroom caps: pipe mounds of meringue ¼ inch thick in various diameters, from ½ to 1 inch wide. If you would like to create red caps, as pictured, set aside ⅓ of the meringue and color with powdered food coloring.
Place the piped meringues into the oven and bake until dry, approximately 2 hours.
To assemble the mushrooms, “drill” a hole into the bottom of each cap using the tip of a small paring knife. Dip the tip of a stem into melted chocolate and insert into the hole in the cap. Place on a plate and allow the chocolate to set before placing on the bûche.
Unroll the cake. Spread an even layer (about ¼ inch thick) of the whipped crème fraîche over the cake. Along the long edge of the cake, spread a line of marmalade or jam.
Carefully re-roll the cake, pushing it away from you, using the parchment paper underneath the cake to facilitate rolling the cake and filling into a roulade. Trim the ends of the roulade to create clean edges.
Spread the chocolate icing evenly over the cake, creating a rustic texture. If preparing the bûche ahead of time, store in the refrigerator.
When you are ready to serve the bûche, remove from the refrigerator and place the meringue mushrooms on top.