Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bûche de Noël Challenge

(artist's concept)

When friend Katrina mentioned that she wanted to attempt a bûche de Noël, I can't remember who first suggested making the traditional French Christmas dessert together. But I do know it was me who proposed "Bûche de Noël Smackdown."

Katrina laughed nervously at that idea. She is the embodiment of kindness and gentility, and I don't think she has a competitive bone in her body. I, on the other hand, freely trade good-natured insults with friends and often cross the line in my efforts to top their putdowns. Katrina is the one person for whom I try my hardest to be kind. If I ever hurt her feelings, even in a friendly cake contest, I could never forgive myself.

"If I set my dial at Lovefest and you set yours at Smackdown, we'll meet in the middle," I said. And so we agreed to a Friday night baking party.

A classic bûche de Noël is made with a chocolate génoise sheet cake and buttercream frosting. After investigating simpler cake and frosting schemes and assessing their levels of difficulty, we opted to take on the challenge of the traditional recipes. We decided, while we were at it, to make two—one for each of us. "How long do you think this will take?" asked Katrina. "Hmmm... three hours," I replied.

Boy, was I wrong. Katrina, her friend and my partner Beth, and I worked together for five hours on the two bûches. Katrina's poor little hand mixer labored away on high speed for at least two solid hours. We were amazed at how many eggs and how much butter disappeared into the cake batter and frosting. And by the end, I was making only indirect requests; and Katrina was threatening, as a joke, to throw me out of her kitchen.

Bûche de Noël: the great leveler, the great reverser of roles.

The cake:
The génoise cake batter requires that eggs be whipped with sugar until they triple in volume. We doubled the recipe, so there were eight total. Here are four eggs at the start.

Beth whipped the eight eggs for nearly an hour to get them ready. We were afraid to imagine how strenuous it would be to whip them by hand. Clearly French cooking is based on a feudal business model, as it depends on a lot of strong young kitchen workers.

Beth adds equal parts cake flour and cocoa. We spread this into two sheet pans and baked them.

Meanwhile, the frosting:
To make buttercream, first cook two cups of sugar and a cup of water to the soft ball stage. Then pour it in a thin stream into beaten, pasteurized eggs. Since the mixer was in use, I opted to beat by hand. This was fun at first. By the time I finished, though, it was a matter of pride.

Then Katrina beat an appalling amount of butter into the frosting. I am ashamed to tell you how much. Oh, OK, six sticks.

This is what a pound of chocolate looks like when melted with a half cup of water.

And here it goes into the buttercream. You must talk like Julia Child when performing this operation.

By the time this buttercream was ready, the cakes were baked, cooled, and brushed with a quarter cup apiece of equal parts brandy and simple syrup.

Assembling the bûche:

Frost the cake generously.

This was the scary part. We were four and a half hours into this job. The last step was to roll up the cake. And if we screwed this up, all our work would come to naught. Those are Katrina's hands rolling the cake. My hands, at the right, are "helping" because I'm terrified.

My fear was groundless. Katrina rolled it up like a pro.

We wrapped up our cakes tightly, packed up buttercream to spread on the outside, and popped them into the freezer. In a couple of weeks, we'll take them out, frost them to resemble logs, and serve them at Christmastime.

By then, each cake will have taken about 8 or 9 person-hours of work. The moral of the story is this: if you see a bûche de Noël in a bakery for any amount of money, pay it. It's worth it.

Bon appétit!

Post-Christmas Update: Here it is in all its splendor.


  1. I worked in a French bakery for five years, and every Christmas the customers always asked for two things: Stollen and Buche de Noel. The pastry chef made 30 Buche de Noel one year, not only gorgeously done, but decorated with leaves and tiny mushrooms and all manner of frivolity. They were stunning. She was a rockstar

  2. I salute anyone who, after slogging through even one buche, has energy left to make the little mushroom and leaf decorations.


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