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.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Peace, Love, and Gingerbread

True confession: I don’t like Christmas much. I don’t like the music. I don’t like the decorations, or Salvation Army bell ringing, or cards. I don’t like shopping. I don’t like how the presumption of Christianity blots out other perspectives at this time of year. I don’t like how it all happens against a deepening backdrop of cold weather and dark skies; or how in January, all the lights will fade and I will feel abandoned to a bleak winter without even the respite of Christmas’s unwelcome distractions.

One thing that keeps me peaceful at Christmastime is gingerbread. I love the alchemic ritual of boiling molasses, sugar, and fat. I love perfuming the flour with splashes of dark, sweet cinnamon and sharp, warm ginger. I love the surface of the rolled-out dough, smooth and cold like black marble. I love my cookie cutters—those old friends I see just once a year. Tin ones from Mom that we used when I was little. Plastic ones that I bought for myself as a young adult, an act of self-assertion for my first holiday on my own.

In those days, I was slowly realizing that I can define this season however I want. I don’t have to be in the office gift exchange. I don’t have to decorate a tree or send cards. I don’t have to let someone else tell me how and when to give. And I can leave all these things behind without losing what’s important: warmth. Light. Faith that, even in the looming darkness of winter, there are human connections to be made. There are cookies to be baked.

I love to decorate each cookie shape in a particular way. The stars and bells get red sugar sprinkles. The trees and holly leaves get green. The dreidls and stars of David get blue sprinkles. The blue cookies are for friends whose philosophies get crowded out this time of year. I want to say to them, “True, this cookie exists because of Christmas. But I know you don’t ride that train, and I see you.” And really, when I bake gingerbread, that’s what I’m saying to, and for, myself.

Gingerbread Molasses Cutouts
Makes 7 or 8 dozen cookies, each 2 or 3 inches across. The great thing about this recipe is how many times you can roll and re-roll it. You can keep cutting out cookies until the dough ball is too small to make a single ‘nother one.

1 c shortening
1 c molasses
1 c sugar
1 c vinegar
2 eggs
6 c flour
½ t baking powder
½ t salt
1 t baking soda
1 T ginger
1 t cinnamon

Combine shortening, molasses, sugar, and vinegar in a large saucepan. Heat, stirring constantly, and bring to a rolling boil. Cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Add the two beaten eggs.

Sift, mix, or whisk all the dry ingredients together. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and mix well. Roll the dough into a ball and chill it well. Overnight will do it.

On a floured board, bench, or countertop, roll the dough ⅛ to ¼ inch thick. Cut out shapes. Decorate them with colored sugar, currants, and small candies as desired. Bake on greased or nonstick cookie sheets 6 to 9 minutes at 375°.

Use your cookies to celebrate—or not—however you want. But I do hope they'll make you happy this season.