For the last two weeks I have been playing Christmas music without a pause. I know that Hannukah is right around the corner, but it’s really Christmas that gets me all excited for winter. I think Jews and Christmas are destined to forever share their forbidden love. I, for one, have come clean about it. I’m no longer ashamed.
And since I’ve committed to celebrating Christmas with food, what better way to do so than with a traditional Christmas cake – bûche de noël! I searched a variety of cook books for the recipe, and yet, no recipe was to be found. And surprisingly, the internet offered precious little in the ways of a good recipe. But I did find one that caught my eye – not only was it a a bûche de noël, but it was one that evoked flavors of the South – with pecans and bourbon. And how can I say no to bourbon?
Furthermore, the cake came with a bourbon-spiked caramel sauce and I was on a caramel making kick. And since I failed at my first caramel making exercise, I was determined not to let it bog me down. Seriously, how hard is it to boil sugar and water, watch it get to a deep amber color and then stir some cream and butter into it? I learned my lesson in that making caramel requires a pot without a non-stick coating, otherwise the proper caramelization doesn’t occur and you wind up creating thicker syrup that doesn’t much change in color. The result – a failed confection.
Growing up, for many of our wintry family gatherings in Russia, my great-aunt, who was a cook and baker par-excellence, made this incredible rolled cake with butter cream, nuts and chocolate shavings. In retrospect, it was a bûche de noël, but somewhere along the line, my secularized family adopted this tradition as a festive holiday treat. The word for this in Russian is poleno, which literally translates as a “log”. Somehow, bûche de noel sounds sexier than log, don’t you think?
I was really intimidated by this recipe – what with the rolling of the cake to make a log-shaped form. Please note that the cake in this recipe is not a genoise (what?) but a sponge cake with eggs and whites whipped separately and then folded togeter, not mixed (important note on that later) together. A genoise (as I have just learned, being new to cake baking myself) is a sponge cake that doesn’t use any of the leavening agents for the cake to rise, but rather the air bubbles created by whipping the whole eggs (and sometimes adding the extra yolks) together. Having completed this lengthy, though not terribly difficult exercise, I am now curious to experiment with different cake structures and icings.
A few notes:
1. This is not difficult, but it is very time consuming. Prepare to spend ½ day on this but you can do other stuff in between, but it does take time.
2. The directions tells you to keep the made cake at room temperature. I cannot tell you how much better it tastes cold and how much better it will keep and set.
3. Should you forget to do a step, don’t despair, try to think of a way around it. I failed to butter the parchment paper on which the cake was baking and was too lazy to remake the cake portion of it. I instead took a long frosting spatula and gently went around the edge-to-middle part of the cake, thus loosening it from the paper. And since you are covering that side with frosting all over, no-one will see the “ugly” side so to speak.
4. When you are rolling the cake, you will see the cake crack a little bit. Do not worry, it happened to me and I covered it with frosting just fine. Also, the ridges from the cracks make the cake look more log-like – which is kind of the effect you’re looking for.
5. Use good bourbon.
6. I ran out of pecans and subbed about 1/3 of the nuts with walnuts. The result – delicious. If you don’t have enough of a certain nut, just plug along a different nut – and you should be fine.
7. When you are folding your ingredients together (as the instructions below tell you), make your you fold and not mix. Use a rubber spatula and gently lifting the outer part of the batter, pull it into the center. If you are too aggressive and mix instead, you risk of collapsing your cake and not getting the right sponginess to it.
If you’re looking for a delicious and stunning way to impress your guests, this is the way to go – it really isn’t difficult and even though it takes time, it is very much manageable and doable. It sure does look impressive. Your reward – sitting back and enjoying a slice of this divine, rich cake with a cup of coffee while your guests oooh and aaah and are generally impressed with your culinary prowess, which, of course, you have no doubt – just don’t tell them it wasn’t that hard. They won’t believe you anyway.
Caramel-Pecan Bûche de Noël
Bon Appétit, December 2006
2 cups pecans, toasted, cooled
1/4 cup all purpose flour
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup plus 1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
Frosting and caramel sauce
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup water
1 1/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
Fresh bay leaves or lemon leaves
Powdered sugar (for sprinkling)
6 large bananas, sliced (optional)
2 pints butter pecan or pecan praline ice cream
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 17x12x1-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment; butter paper. Pulse nuts and flour in processor until nuts are finely chopped (not ground). Using electric mixer, beat egg whites and salt in very large bowl until foamy. With mixer running, gradually beat in 1/4 cup sugar, beating just until stiff peaks form. Using electric mixer, beat yolks with 1/3 cup sugar and bourbon in large bowl until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add yolk mixture to egg-white mixture. Sprinkle nuts over; gently fold until almost incorporated. Add butter; fold gently just to blend. Pour into prepared baking sheet, spreading batter gently to form even layer.
Bake cake until edges begin to brown and cake is firm to touch, about 14 minutes. Cool in pan on rack.
For frosting and caramel sauce:
Stir 1 1/4 cups sugar and 1/3 cup water in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until deep amber, occasionally swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, about 9 minutes (time will vary, depending on size of pan). Remove from heat; immediately add cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Whisk in butter, bourbon, and salt. Stir over medium heat until any caramel bits dissolve. Transfer 1 cup caramel sauce to small pitcher. Add chocolate to remaining caramel in saucepan. Let stand off heat 5 minutes; whisk until smooth. Transfer to bowl. Let frosting stand until spreadable, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.
Spread 1 cup frosting over cake in even layer. Beginning at 1 long side and using parchment as aid, roll up cake jelly-roll style. Starting 1 inch in from each end of cake, cut off 3-inch-long diagonal piece from each end. Arrange cake, seam side down, on platter. Spread cut side of each 3-inch cake piece with some of frosting. Attach 1 cake piece, frosting side down, to top of cake near 1 end. Attach second piece to side of cake near opposite end. Cover cake with remaining frosting. Run fork in concentric circles on cake ends.
Do ahead:Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover loosely with waxed paper and let stand at room temperature.
Garnish platter with leaves. Sprinkle cake lightly with powdered sugar. Cut cake into slices and serve with bananas, if desired, ice cream, and sauce.