Oldroses told me around Thanksgiving that she had selected a coffee-flavored recipe, and suggested I do a plain one. A few days later, I went online to do some recipe research. Google “Buche de Noel” and you’ll get a ton of hits. I came across a recipe for an orange-flavored one. I liked that idea, knowing that orange and chocolate can be a great combination. Eventually I found a recipe I liked and printed it out.
After rereading the recipe for the cake, I turned my attention to the recipe underneath it, for the frosting. It was for a buttercream frosting, the type of buttercream that involves beating egg whites, then adding in a warm sugar syrup and other ingredients. The thing is, the egg whites don’t ever get cooked (unless the sugar syrup is hot enough?). This made me kinda nervous. This Buche was going to be sitting out for a couple of hours at least, and I didn’t want to risk poisoning my fellow gardeners. They might not give me my plot back next year. Besides, this particular recipe called for 7 egg whites and over 3 cups (1 ½ lbs!) of butter. AAAIIIIEEEE! So I went back online and did some more research. But every recipe I looked at used either a buttercream similar to this one, or a whipped cream-based frosting, which to me just didn’t sound right, flavor-wise. Finally I gave up and went to bed in despair.
Sometimes a good night’s sleep helps. The next morning I woke up and thought, hey, what about that chocolate cake frosting? The ganache with a pound of chocolate in it? Yeahhhh…..That recipe does include cream, but at least you heat the cream at the beginning of the process.
Since this is, after all, a French dish, I also consulted my two Julia Child cookbooks. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” doesn’t include a Buche recipe, but “The French Chef Cookbook”, which is based on her first TV series, does. She also uses a buttercream frosting, but for the cake she suggests two or three possibilities, including an orange-almond sponge cake. This sounded even better to me than the orange cake I’d previously found. Also, she gives very detailed instructions.
Many recipes tell you to roll the cake up and let it cool, then unroll and frost it. Julia, however, recommends frosting the cake at once, because if you’ve overbaked it, you might not be able to unroll it again. This sounded prudent to me. Thus, operations were spread over three evenings.
Day 1: make the frosting, so that the cake could be frosted as soon as it was done. The frosting is actually pretty quick and easy to make. I probably could have made it while the cake was cooling. (This would also have avoided the problem I ran into the next day; see below.) Oh, and I didn’t use fancy high-priced chocolate. I just used ordinary chocolate chips. One pound is 2 2/3 cups. And you don’t really need a whisk; a spoon works just fine. When the frosting was finished, I set it, saucepan and all, in the refrigerator overnight.
Day 2: make and frost the cake.
Julia gives detailed directions for buttering and flouring the pan. I used parchment paper instead of waxed, and cooking spray instead of melted butter. Worked just fine.
The pan, by the way, is supposed to be a jelly roll pan, which is 11 x 17 x 1”. Fortunately, I do own such a pan. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit inside my oven. My range is so small that when the pan is in the oven, the door is open a couple inches. But the alternative would have been to cart everything over to a friend’s house, and with a fragile cake like this, that didn’t seem like such a good idea. So I made the cake at home, and compensated by rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.
The cake itself went together just fine. I’ve baked sponge cakes before so I wasn’t too worried about that part. Julia uses a large whip to mix the yolks etc.; a mixer also works. I should comment on the almonds, though. I used finely ground ones that a friend sent me from Germany, where they’re a pretty standard grocery item. They’re more finely ground than a nut topping, but not as fine as a flour. It might be possible to duplicate this using a food processor. Julia suggests a blender or meat grinder; I don’t think food processors existed yet when that book was written.
The trouble began once the cake was in the oven. Julia says to be careful not to overbake it, otherwise it’ll crack when you try to roll it. I left it in the oven a minute or two over the 10 suggested, and it did spring back when I touched it, and it was starting to brown around the edges, but it was so soft I’m wondering whether it was a little underdone. I’ve had my doubts lately about my oven’s thermostat, plus the door was a bit open.
Next, Julia says to sprinkle a thin layer of powdered sugar over the top of the cake. She does say that the powdered sugar should be in a sieve, but that part is in the list of ingredients, which in my cookbook is on the page before that part of the cooking instructions. (I’ve rewritten her recipe below to rearrange the several instructions that were in the list of ingredients.) As a result, I didn’t sift the powdered sugar first, and there were hard lumps of sugar that stuck to the surface of the cake. I was able to pick some of them off, but some of them got embedded in the cake, and would have made holes if I’d pulled them out, so I left them. Also, this made the surface of the cake sticky. I’m wondering whether flour would have been better than sugar. I have read somewhere the suggestion to use powdered sugar rather than flour when rolling out cookies because the sugar won’t make them tough like too much flour will; maybe that’s why Julia suggests sugar.
While the cake was cooling, I pulled the saucepan of frosting out of the refrigerator. It was stiff. About the consistency of fudge, in fact. Way too stiff to apply. It was in a metal saucepan, so I couldn’t microwave it. So, I just set the whole pan in the still-warm oven for about 15 minutes, stirring it frequently, until it got soft enough to spread over the top of the cake without tearing it up. Oh, by the way, the frosting recipe as written does make enough to fill and frost the cake. I was concerned about that, so I kept the filling layer rather thin. I should have used about 2/3 of the frosting as filling and saved only about 1/3 to frost the outside.
Rolling up the cake turned out to be not a problem. The cake did crack a bit toward the end, but the frosting covers that. After carefully moving the log to a serving platter covered with wedges of waxed paper, I applied the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the log, then pulled a fork over the frosting, using short strokes. Then I pulled out the wedges of waxed paper. This is a trick Julia mentions elsewhere, and that I’d learned years ago to keep your serving plate clean. Then I put the whole thing in the refrigerator and made myself a cup of tea.
Day 3: decorations. Often you see these decorated with marzipan or meringue mushrooms that look like the ordinary white culinary mushrooms. But those mushrooms don’t grow on trees. Unless it’s a fallen log, maybe, and would you burn a log that was that rotted? No, the mushrooms I’ve seen on trees are shelf fungi. (Also lichens, but I couldn’t think of a way to make those…) It so happens there’s a tree stump just down the street from where I live that has a nice growth of these, so I was able to get a good look at some.
I decided to try making an ivy vine curling up the log. The mention somewhere of marzipan mushrooms gave me the idea of making it out of marzipan. So I bought a can, and colored part of it green by kneading in a couple drops of green food coloring. Rolling a thin rope for the vine was easy; shaping the leaves was harder. I ended up printing out images of ivy leaves, then cutting them out and using them to cut leaves from a thin layer of the green marzipan. (I believe it’s possible to purchase little ivy-leaf-shaped cutters if you really want to get into this.) I then added a few shelf fungi - simple half-circles of plain marzipan.
And the result? The flavors of the chocolate frosting and the orange cake went very well together. The orange was strong enough to balance all that chocolate. But there was a bit of a problem with texture. The frosting, as I noted, is very dense and heavy, especially when cold, but the cake is light and fragile. So when you cut into it, the cake gets smooshed. Maybe that’s why all those other recipes use a whipped cream filling. Duh! So I would recommend finding something lighter for the filling. For frosting the outside, you could use what I used, or something lighter, but you can get away with a strong chocolate flavor. Or give up on the chocolate altogether and let the orange be the predominant flavor.
Verdict: Has potential, but needs a little tweaking.
Orange-Almond Sponge Sheet
(source: The French Chef Cookbook)
3 tbsp butter
¾ cup ground (see below) blanched almonds
rind of 1 orange
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup strained orange juice
¼ tsp almond extract
¾ cup sifted plain bleached cake flour
Scant ¼ tsp cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp granulated sugar
Melt the butter and let cool to tepid. Reserve 1½ tbsp for the cake. Paint the inside of a jelly roll pan (11” x 17” x 1”) with some of the rest of the melted butter. Line with a 12 x 21-inch piece of waxed paper, letting ends extend beyond edges of pan. Butter the paper, roll flour over it, covering entire inside surface, and knock out excess flour.
Grind the almonds in a blender, or put them through a meat grinder with part of the 2/3 cup sugar.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Separate the eggs; place the yolks in a large mixing bowl, and the whites in a clean, dry smaller bowl. Be sure that there is no speck of yolk in with the whites. Grate the orange rind into the bowl with the yolks. Using a large wire whip, gradually beat in the 2/3 cup sugar. Beat vigorously for a minute or two until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Beat in the orange juice, then the ground almonds, almond extract, and flour.
Beat the egg whites for a moment at moderate speed; when they begin to foam, add the cream of tartar and salt. Beat at top speed until egg whites form soft peaks, sprinkle in the 1 tbsp sugar and beat a few seconds more until egg whites form stiff peaks when lifted with a spoon or spatula.
Scoop the egg whites over the yolk mixture. Rapidly and delicately fold together, using a rubber spatula; when almost blended, rapidly fold in the melted butter ½ tbsp at a time. Immediately turn the batter into your prepared pan, smoothing over the entire surface. Bang pan briefly on table, to even the mixture, and set in middle level of preheated oven.
Bake for about 10 minutes. Cake is done when barely starting to color, when top is lightly springy or spongy if pressed with fingers, and when the faintest line of separation shows between cake and sides of pan. Do not overcook, or cake will break when rolled; it must be soft and spongy.
Remove from oven and sprinkle top of cake with a 1/16 inch layer of powdered sugar in a sieve. Cover with a sheet of waxed paper. Rinse a towel in cold water, wring it out, and lay over the waxed paper. Turn cake upside down and let cool for 20 minutes.
To unmold, loosen paper lining at one end of pan. Holding paper flat on table, gradually lift off pan, starting at the loose-paper end. Carefully dislodge paper from long sides of cake, then peel it off the top. Trim brown edges all around cake; they will crack when rolled. The cake is now ready for filling, which should be done immediately.
It is usually safest to fill and roll the cake promptly. But if you have not overbaked it, you can risk storing it as follows: sprinkle with powdered sugar, cover with waxed paper, roll up in the damp towel, and refrigerate in a plastic bag. The risk is that the cake may dry out, lose its sponginess, and then be unrollable.
Chocolate Ganache Frosting
(source: www.epicurious.com, from their Double Chocolate Layer Cake recipe)
1 pound fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
Finely chop chocolate. In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over moderately low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and add chocolate, whisking until chocolate is melted. Cut butter into pieces and add to frosting, whisking until smooth.Transfer frosting to a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally, until spreadable (depending on chocolate used, it may be necessary to chill frosting to spreadable consistency).
Recycle: almond extract bottle, corn syrup bottle