It’s the eleventh hour so what on earth am I doing fiddling around with a fancy cake for Christmas? I had this lofty idea that I would make a yule log with a twist, something that people who can’t eat gluten can feast on that screams “guess what? holidays are happening now.” In case they haven’t noticed. (it's for you, Marina.)
On the way to thinking up this cake, I also wanted to revise a recipe that feeds way more people than I will be entertaining ever again at one time. In my whole life from now on. Unless I lose my mind.
I am postponing that until New Year’s Eve when every year I agree to help cook for forty of someone else’s closest friends. Yes, I am very stupid. It fits in with my ambivalent personality. And in the end, I always enjoy it. And it’s at Catherine’s house, so I don’t look around and say why are you people here and when are you leaving? I fully relish the company.
But back to the yule log. As I plunged in, a voice in the deep recesses of my mind spoke to me: “Elaborate pastry is very time consuming.” Then I started to panic about all the things I need to do this week. I also remembered that elaborate pastry is made up of many components. And if I didn’t have to figure out several recipes and then take pictures so you could see the end point, it really would be do-able. In fact, now it’s done-able (new word) and in my freezer ready for whipping out to surprise whoever happens to be at my table in the next two weeks. (I’m still working on that plan.)
So here are the steps:
1. Make the cake. This is basically a pavlova (baked meringue) baked on a half-sheet pan with a 1-inch rim. I did not want to make anything with weird flour alternatives.
2. Make the filling. This can be done while the cake is baking. True, it uses a lot of bowls, but I can’t help you with that.
3. Fill and roll the cake. Now you are on easy street.
4. Freeze the cake. The only tricky part is remembering to put it on a tray that fits in your freezer. I forgot that point. So I had to cut off the little yule branch and both the branch and the main log fit on the tray that goes in my freezer, once I divested it of last year’s pumpkin and some soup that no one will ever eat. Now you can just cool your heels, because you can leave it there for up to two weeks.
5. Decorate the cake. This is really the best part, and can be done at the last minute or early in the day you are planning to serve it. Just be sure (again) that your platter will fit in your freezer.
If you back away from this, you can always do it next year. Or only make the filling, which is actually a very chic chocolate mousse that can be served in very chic little dessert dishes with whipped cream. Voilà and Joyeux Noel!
Buche de Noel
At first I wanted to make this with vanilla meringue, filled with whipped cream and raspberries or strawberries (still a reasonable idea) but being a strong traditionalist, I decided in favor of keeping with the chocolate theme. The filling is very rich and does not skimp on the chocolate, so it will make chocoholics very happy, and the coffee in the cake mitigates the sugary meringue. I also considered making it black foresty by covering the filling with some halved frozen sweet cherries, but one more trip to the market might have finished me. Those are all ideas you could incorporate. As I mentioned above, I did not have a platter that fit in my freezer. If you don’t have a large, flat platter either, consider using a wooden cutting board and decorating it with some evergreens. Overall, I like this because those who might miss out on dessert on a special occasion can indulge and be spoiled just like everyone else.
For the cake
4 teaspoons espresso powder dissolved in 1 teaspoon hot water
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons cornstarch
6 egg whites, at room temperature (about 3/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a rimmed 12 by16-inch baking sheet with baker’s parchment. Mix the espresso powder with hot water in a small bowl. Stir in the vinegar, vanilla, and cornstarch
2. Beat the egg whites and a pinch of salt with the whisk attachment of a stand mixer on medium speed or with hand held beaters until white and foamy all the way through. Slowly add the sugar, then add the espresso mixture. Beat on medium high speed until the egg whites are thick and glossy and hold stiff peaks.
3. Spread the meringue evenly on the baking sheet and distribute the almonds over the top.
4. Bake for 10 minutes, decrease the oven heat to 300 degrees F, and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes, until the meringue feels firm and dry on top. Cool for 10 minutes.
5. Sift a generous amount of confectioners’ sugar over the top of the baked meringue. Invert it onto a large piece of parchment paper. Spread it evenly with the filling. It looks messy but don’t worry about it.
7. With the long side of the rectangle facing you, start rolling the cake away from you to form a roll. Use the parchment to help you roll it. Place it on a tray with the seam side down and freeze it, uncovered, until firm, about 4 hours. Remove the roulade from the freezer and carefully wrap it in plastic. Return it to the freezer until you are ready to decorate it. It will keep, wrapped, for up to two weeks,
For the filling
(also makes 8 six-ounce servings of chocolate mousse)
10 ounces bittersweet (60%-70%) chocolate, chopped (about 1/1/2 cups)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3/4 cup sugar, divided
6 eggs, separated
1. Melt the chocolate in a large heatproof bowl over hot water or melt carefully in the microwave.
2. Beat the cream until it forms soft peaks. If using a stand mixer, scrape it into another bowl and wash out the mixer bowl. Make sure it is squeaky clean.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt and when white and foamy throughout, gradually and slowly add 1/2 cup sugar. Continue to beat until the egg whites are thick and glossy.They should look creamy not dry. Scrape into a separate bowl.
4. In the now empty mixing bowl (no need to wash it) beat the egg yolks until they are light in color. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and continue to beat until thick and light.
5. Use a large rubber spatula to stir the beaten yolks and the chocolate together in a large bowl until combined. Add one or two large spoonfuls of beaten egg whites and stir to lighten the chocolate mixture. Add the remaining egg whites and fold in with a rubber spatula. When almost incorporated, fold in the cream. (If using as a dessert by itself, spoon the mousse into small dessert dishes and refrigerate.)
To finish the cake:
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Unsweetened dark cocoa powder
1. Whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until it forms soft peaks. The chocolate and meringue are sweet enough, so the cream needs only a suggestion of sugar. Be careful not to over whip it since you will be spreading it on the cake and mashing it about a bit which further agitates it.
2. Remove the cake from the freezer. Unwrap it and set it on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut about one third of the cake on a sharp diagonal to make a branch. Cut an end piece about 1 1/2 inches thick to make a knot. Assemble the cake on a platter and fuss around until you get the arrangement you want, setting the sharp diagonal against the main branch to form another branch.
3. Once you have determined placement, remove the 2 smaller pieces and clean up the platter if necessary. Cut some waxed paper strips to go about one inch under the cake on all sides. Cover the cake with some of the whipped cream and use the tines of a fork to make a pattern that looks something like bark. Remove the strips. Now place the other pieces of cake where you want them (tuck more wax paper strips underneath if you know you will be messy.) Cover the appendages with more whipped cream and make more bark-like lines. It’s okay and maybe desirable if some of the meringue shows through in places. Place the cake back in the freezer until ready to serve.
4. Just before serving, use a small strainer to carefully sift some cocoa powder in a few places over the cake. Repeat with confectioners’ sugar. Slice frozen cake and serve.