View From Lodi, CA: Joe Says Make Buche de Noel for Christmas!
December 09, 2005, 04:00 AM
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Two years ago, I wrote a column suggesting that readers throw tradition out the window at their annual Christmas dinner and serve Key Lime Pie.

Not only is Key Lime Pie easy and foolproof but also from my experience, guests prefer the tangy taste of key limes in their pies to apple, sweet potato or any of the other flavors more commonly found at the Christmas table.

This year, I have different advice. Take the time and make the effort to prepare a Buche de Noel. The Yule Log, with its three separate steps—icing, filling and roulade—isn't something you can whip together on a whim. But it is not hard to do by any means.

And my totally chocolate version—which rejects mascarpone cheese or disgusting chestnut flavors—is a treat that your family will be remember for years.

Real Yule logs—as in the kind that come from trees—have played an important part in French history for centuries. Until the late 1800s, the common custom was that when large families gathered together as a group under one roof, each brought a log for the fire.

With everyone standing around the fireplace, the family would sing carols before going to midnight mass.

The Buche de Noel didn't become popular as a dessert until the early 20th Century. With meringue mushrooms adorning the log, the resemblance to a tree trunk is unmistakable.

With our brief history lesson complete, let's proceed without further ado to the kitchen.

Like all experienced bakers, I know the importance of mise en place. For most that means having all your ingredients measured, your pans in place and your oven pre-heated.

In my case, I have one additional step before embarking on a baking project of this magnitude.  My beloved dogs, Fido and Sparkle, must be shipped off to doggie day care.

As much as Fido and Sparkle love their kibble, pastry is what sends them into frenzy. And with no door on my kitchen…well, you can imagine.

The recipe that follows is based on one used by Laduree, the world famous French pastry shop that sells thousands of these rolled, lip-smacking Yule Logs annually.

Begin with your icing. This recipe makes a ton of it. I am of the school that says there is no such thing as too much frosting. If it's too much for you, store what's left over to pour over vanilla ice cream to eat during the Rose Bowl.

  • Melt 12 oz. of semisweet chocolate and 8 tbsp of unsalted butter. Then add 2/3 cup of heavy cream. Whisk until smooth. The frosting will become smooth enough to spread in about four hours. Do not refrigerate.

Prepare your roulade as the frosting cools:

  • Melt 8 oz. of finely chopped bittersweet chocolate with 2 oz of water. Boil one cup of heavy cream and pour over chocolate. Whisk and cool. Separately, beat seven egg whites, gradually adding 2 tbsp sugar, until peaks are firm. Mix one-third of the whites into the melted chocolate until incorporated. Then add remaining two-thirds of whites. Spread the batter into a buttered 16 ½" by 12" jelly roll pan lined with parchment. Bake at 375 for 10-12 minutes. Let cool in pan.

Filling:

  • Melt 4 oz of semisweet chocolate in 2 oz of water. Set aside. Combine 6 tbsp of sugar with 3 tbsp of water in a heavy saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil; swirl the pan several times. Uncover and boil until the mixture reaches softball stage—236 degrees. Place three egg yolks in a standing mixer and beat for about three minutes. Slowly and carefully add the hot water/sugar mixture. Beat for about 10 minutes. Then add 12 tbsp of softened butter one tbsp at a time beating constantly for another five minutes. Add the chocolate mixture.

From this point on, the operative words are BE CAREFUL.

Assembly:

  • Spritz about 2 oz of rum over the cooled roulade. (Optional but recommended). Spread the filling evenly over the cake. Roll the long edge of the roulade over itself, gradually removing the parchment paper as you go. Using two large spatulas slowly and very carefully transfer the roulade from the pan to a clean work surface. (ALERT: don't mess up now. If your Yule Log transfer is unsuccessful, your Christmas mood will vanish in a flash.)

Frost and Finishing Touches:

  • Spread the icing along all sides of the Yule Log. Run the tines of a fork along all sides of the log to create a realistic log effect.

Chef's Confession:

  • I don't fool with meringue mushrooms. While I stand in awe of the presentation they create, they are more work than I want to engage in. Making the mushrooms simply delays eating the Buche de Noel. I add a few red and green Christmas sprinkles to the cake to give it a festive look. Believe me, when your guests cut into your Yule Log, no one will ask, "Where are the meringue mushrooms?"

Final words of encouragement: Don't be intimidated by the Buche de Noel. You can do it.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.