Wandering Gourmand: The Traditional Bûche de Noël, Updated

Original article written for The Vancouver Sun: The Wandering Gourmand

“Bûche it” was the title of the YouTube video I stumbled upon during my research of bûche de Noël (Yule log).

The quick-paced montage, assembled by Paris By Mouth, an online authority on the Parisian food scene, flashed through exciting new adaptations of the holiday tradition created by famous French patisseries.

Among them were teardrop-shaped sculptures by Fauchon resembling neither Yuletide nor logs — one of the furthest departures was a saucy, leopard-print number by pastry chain Eric Kayser, giving Jingle Bell Rock a whole new meaning.

And if you are a Gen X’er like myself, the pinnacle of the video’s creative genius was not a pastry at all, but its soundtrack: Push It by 1980s-era hip-hop girl group Salt-N-Pepa.

Animal print aside, there seems to be an active Yule log revolution happening right under Rudolph’s nose. Considering that its origins date back to pre-medieval times, it’s no surprise the log has seen more than a few iterations.

It began as a ritual to welcome the coming of warmer seasons at winter solstice, or Yule. Early Germanic tribes would burn an enormous log decorated with aromatics such as pine cones and holly, and some sources cite the addition of salt and wine. The tradition was adopted as a Christmas custom and afterwards replaced by the edible version in the late 19th century when wood-burning hearths were either too small or increasingly uncommon.

The cake remained unchanged for many decades. Genoise and buttercream, typically flavoured with chocolate or coffee, were rolled to form a roulade log, with the ends cut on angles and reattached to form branches, dusted with cocoa, and sugar and meringue mushrooms classically adorned the plate. Since, an evolution of Bûche de Noël decorations have ranged from kitschy plastic holly to marzipan Santas sitting on cake stumps.

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After casually querying a handful of French friends, feelings on the Yule log ranged from sentimental to those akin to the average North American’s thoughts about fruitcake. Turkey-like memories of patriarchs carving a slice for each guest came to mind, and childhood winters spent in the kitchen rolling airy pistachio genoise and scoring bark patterns into buttercreams, stealing meringue mushrooms and collecting festive plastic figurines to use for the following year’s bûche de Noël. And for those who didn’t care for the cake, a roll of the eyes and a nonchalant shrug.

But no matter the relationship, hot or cold, one thing was consistent: the bûche de Noël is more than a simple tradition at the holiday table, it remains a symbol of the season itself. No wonder pastry chefs are desperately trying to reinvent the holiday icon into anything but the bûche de Noël they’ve eaten their entire lives, adding fruit gélées and exotic flavours, updating the historic dessert in line with the modern palate.

Outside of France, inventive bûche de Noel can be found at Vancouver pastry shops such as coconut lime at Thomas Haas patisserie, Thierry Chocolate’s pistachio cherry and my personal favourite, the Mont Blanc, at Chez Christophe Chocolaterie Patisserie.

Following this tradition of innovation, I created a new version of the bûche de Noël, a spiced jasmine tea and milk chocolate variation inspired by recent travels to Asia.

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And since this cake is infamous for being cumbersome to create and full of tricky pitfalls for the home baker, I made further adaptations to the recipe, streamlining the process and adding flavour and texture without losing its essence.

So let us honour the holiday spirit of Salt-N-Pepa past, dust off our seasonal baking skills, and “get up on this and bûche it real good.”

RECIPE

Spiced Jasmine Tea and Milk Chocolate Bûche de Noël

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The pliable sponge cake is less tricky to roll without cracking and eliminates the need to roll hot out of the oven to maintain “muscle memory” and re-roll when filling as is needed with the classic genoise. The addition of a soaking syrup helps to keep the cake moist and easy to roll, while adding flavour.

Instead of classic buttercream, a salted milk chocolate ganache does double duty as the filling and icing, making easier to cut cleanly and thick enough to create a rough looking “bark”. The cookie dirt is optional but adds texture, crunch and a little whimsy along with the matcha and cocoa dust to finish the woodland look.

As much as I have adapted this, the one tradition that cannot be replaced, in my opinion, are the meringue mushrooms. In my mind the tiny mushrooms are what makes the fantasy forestscape and it would simply not be its magical self without it.

Meringue Mushrooms: 

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2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 tsp (1.25 mL) cream of tartar
1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar
1/4 cup (60 mL) dark chocolate, chopped into small pieces
1/4 cup (60 mL) cocoa powder

Whip the whites and tartar using a mixer with the whisk attachment, until frothy. Slowly add the sugar while whisking and continue until the whites are at a stiff peak. Scoop the meringue into a piping bag fitted with a No. 3 piping tip and pipe the meringue onto a sheet try lined with parchment into mushroom caps and stems.

To pipe a cap, hold the piping tip upright, 1/2 inch above the parchment. Squeeze the bag and create a circle. For the stems, hold the tip 1 inch above the parchment and squeeze to create a pillar of meringue. Bake in a preheated 200 F (95 C) for 45 mins to 1 hour or until the meringues are dry. Let cool on the sheet pan.

Gently melt chocolate in a microwave and dip the top of each stem in the melted chocolate. Top with a cap and allow to cool and harden. Dust the caps with cocoa powder to give a mushroom texture.

Makes about 2 dozen mushrooms

Cocoa Dirt: 
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (80 mL) light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup (60 mL) dark cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) fine sea salt
5 1/2 tbsp (80 mL) cool unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Mix the flour, sugar, cocoa and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and mix the ingredients with your fingers until the mixture becomes like soil in texture. Chill the soil for at least 2 hours or for up to 2 days in the refrigerator. Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Spread the soil out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and break up any large clumps.

Bake for 15 to 18 mins, tossing the streusel once. Let the crumbs rest on the baking sheet until completely cool. They can be refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.

Makes about 2 cups

Spiced Jasmine Syrup:
3/4 cup (180 mL) water
2 tbsp (30 mL) high-grade jasmine tea, ground in a spice grinder
1 tbsp (15 mL) caraway seeds, whole
2 tsp (10 mL) fennel seeds, whole
1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) fine sea salt
1 vanilla bean, scraped of its seeds
1 cup (250 mL) sugar

Place all the ingredients, except for the sugar, into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat and cover for 15 to 20 mins to steep. Add the sugar and bring to a boil again. Once all the sugar is dissolved, pour into a heatproof container and let sit at room temperature until ready to use. Strain before brushing on the cake.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups (375 mL)

For the Sponge Cake:
5 tbsp (75 mL) high-grade jasmine tea, ground in a spice grinder
1 cup (250 mL) whole milk
7 tbsp (105 mL) butter
1 cup (250 mL) all-purpose flour
2 eggs
9 egg yolks
8 egg whites
1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar

Preheat oven to 325 F (160 C) and line two half sheet pans with parchment.

Place 3 tbsp (45 mL) of ground jasmine tea and the milk into a large saucepan and bring to just under a boil. Turn off the heat and let it steep for 15 to 20 mins. Strain out the tea leaves and place the steeped milk back in the pot. Add the butter and bring to just under a boil. Turn the heat to medium and add the flour, mix vigorously and cook the mixture until the dough becomes a smooth ball. Take the pan off the heat and let cool until warm to the touch. Add the 2 eggs and yolks one by one to the dough, mixing until the dough becomes a thick paste.

Whisk whites and sugar until stiff peaks. Fold the whites into the dough in three additions and divide the dough between the sheet pans. Spread the dough to the edges of the pan using an offset spatula and bake for 10-15 mins or until the cake is springy to the touch in the middle. Cool in the pan and set aside for up to one day covered.

Milk Chocolate Ganache:
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1 cup (250 mL) chopped milk chocolate, preferably Valrhona Jivara
2/3 cups (160 mL) whipping cream
1/4 tsp (1 mL) fine sea salt

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Place chocolate and salt in a bowl. Heat cream until just under a boil and pour over chocolate. Let sit for 5 minutes and stir in concentric circles to create a smooth emulsion. Allow to cool for more than two hours until thick and spreadable.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups (375 mL)

To Assemble:
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1/4 cup (60 mL) cocoa powder, preferably Valrhona
1/4 cup (60 mL) matcha powder

Cut the edges off the sponge cakes and peel off the parchment. Brush liberally with the syrup and allow to soak. Spread each sponge with a thin layer of ganache and roll each tightly to form a log, starting with the short end. Spread the ganache on top of each in large streaks resembling bark. Dust with cocoa powder and matcha to resemble a tree. Decorate with meringue mushrooms and serve at room temperature. Can be made one day in advance and kept at room temperature.

Makes 2 10” (25 cm) cakes

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