What's a Bûche de Noël? Well, in English, it would be a Yule Log, a fat jellyroll of a cake that's filled and rolled into a long log shape, then iced and decorated to look like a branch fallen in the forest, complete with grooved bark, broken-off stumps,and cute little mushrooms clustered here and there, all under a dusting of powdered sugar "snow."
Typically, the "wood" of the log is a light, spongy cake, baked in a thin layer on a sheet pan. Flexibility is the key here, as the cake needs to keep its shape when rolled up without cracking, smushing, or falling apart. So, most bûche de Noël recipes start with genoise, a French-style sponge cake made from egg yolks, sugar, and a small amount of flour, lightened with stiffly whipped egg whites.
Personally, though, I find that while genoise has a nice springy texture, it tastes like very little, which may be why, in most French desserts, it's usually brushed with liquor or syrups then smothered in fillings and glazes. For true tree-bark verisimilitude, the filling and frosting is typically a truffle-rich, deep-brown chocolate or mocha buttercream. Decorations are exuberant and goofy: bright green-and-red marzipan holly leaves, meringue or marzipan mushrooms, little chocolate banners scrolled in icing spelling out Joyeux Noel.
Classic, then, means old-fashioned, butter-heavy and frankly, a little tacky. But still, the concept remains festive and fun. Why not come up with a seasonal, local cake made for a California Christmas?
So, to start: no more foam-rubber genoise. Instead, an equally light but more substantial almond cake, using whole eggs beaten to a thick cream, then folded together with toasted almonds, flour, and a surprise splash of hot milk.
And instead of a mouthful of chocolate-flavored butter, the filling is a creamy blend of mild fresh goat cheese (chevre) and quark, lightened with whipped cream and flavored with tangerine or clementine zest. I love Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Company's vanilla quark, a mild, spreadable fresh cheese speckled with real vanilla bean, which you can find at many farmer's markets around the Bay Area, but you could substitute Cowgirl Creamery's fromage blanc, or use whipped cream cheese or mascarpone instead.
To decorate, cover your log in lightly toasted almond slices for a rough, eucalyptus-looking bark. Surround with fresh or sugar-dusted rosemary sprigs and whole clementines with leaves or the dried clementine slices sold by local farm Everything Under the Sun. Finally, add a few fat dried figs, poached to plumpness in spiced wine or tea. Nuts, citrus, fresh cheese, dried fruit: that's the taste of California in the wintertime.
California Bûche de Noël
Since both the filling and the cake mixtures require a lot of beating, a stand mixer comes in very handy here. However, you can also use a hand-held electric mixer. Feel free to substitute walnuts or hazelnuts for the almonds; omit almond extract and amaretto. You can make cake, filling, and garnishes the day before serving; filled and rolled, it will keep well in the refrigerator for 1-2 days. Add the garnishes just before serving.
Makes: 1 cake, serves 8-10
1 cup sliced almonds, divided
¾ cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
¼ tsp almond extract
2 tbsp amaretto liqueur, optional
1 cup + 1 tsp sugar
½ cup milk
1 tbsp butter
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9" x 13" rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly grease and flour paper, shaking off excess. Sprinkle a thin, clean tea towel with powdered sugar and set aside.
2. To prepare almonds, spread slices out on a baking sheet and bake for 5-8 minutes at 325 degrees, until they smell toasty and are light golden brown in spots. Remove from oven and let cool. Measure out 1/3 cup of almonds, and set remaining almonds aside. Toss 1/3 cup almonds with 1 tsp sugar. Chop finely or, using a food processor or blender, pulse in short bursts into a coarse powder.
3. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together. Stir in ground almonds. Set aside.
4. Beat eggs with vanilla, almond extract, and 1 tbsp amaretto (if using) for 1 minute. Add sugar a little at a time, beating vigorously for at least 5 minutes, until mixture is very thick (about the consistency of soft mayonnaise) and a pale creamy-yellow. When you lift the beaters, the mixture should form a ribbon as it falls back into the bowl.
5. Over low heat, heat milk and butter together until butter is melted and milk is hot but not boiling.
6. Gently fold flour mixture in eggs. Pour in milk and butter and stir gently until batter is smooth. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes, or until top is pale golden and springs back when pressed with a fingertip.
7. Holding onto the parchment, lift cake off baking sheet and reverse onto prepared tea towel. Peel off parchment and discard. Using a small sharp knife, trim off any hard or crunchy edges. Starting at the short end closest to you, roll the cake and towel together away from you into a fat log. Set aside to cool for an hour or so. (It’s important to roll up the cake while still hot, so it will stay flexible as it cools.)
If you're a goat cheese hater, substitute whipped cream cheese or Neufchatel. Leave out the orange liqueur if you don’t want to splurge on a name brand; cheap triple sec will make the whole batch taste like baby aspirin.
1 cup (8 oz) quark, fromage blanc, or mascarpone cheese
4 oz mild, fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1 tbsp good quality orange liqueur, such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier
2 tbsp honey, or to taste
1 tbsp grated tangerine or clementine zest
1-2 tbsp milk, as needed
1 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp finely chopped candied orange rind and/or 1 tbsp finely chopped candied ginger
1. Beat mascarpone, goat cheese, orange liqueur, honey, and zest together until smooth, adding milk as necessary to get a smooth consistency.
2. In a separate bowl, beat cream to soft peaks. Fold cream gently into mascarpone mixture. Fold in candied rind and/or ginger. Cover and chill until needed.
Sugared Rosemary Sprigs
Fresh rosemary sprigs are a nice touch of greenery around your completed cake. However, if you want to go all out and make them look winter-frosted, beat 1 egg white until frothy. Dip rosemary sprigs into egg white to coat, then dip and turn in granulated sugar to cover. Set aside to dry.
Poached Dried Figs
You can use any liquid you like to poach the figs, such equal parts water and red or white wine; apple cider; or spiced tea.
10 dried figs
2 cups liquid
Rind of 1 orange or tangerine, in large pieces
1 tbsp honey
1 cinnamon stick
4 or 5 whole cloves
Cover figs with liquid, add rind, honey, and spices. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until figs are soft and puffed up. Remove from heat and let cool in liquid. Refrigerate until needed.
To Assemble Cake
Remaining toasted almonds
Fresh or Sugared Rosemary Sprigs
Whole clementines with leaves, or dried clementine slices
Poached Dried Figs, drained and halved
1. Unroll cake from towel. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp amaretto, if using. Spread half the filling across cake, leaving a bare margin of about ½ inch on all sides. Starting from the short end again, roll up cake tightly (without towel).
2. Using a butter knife or offset spatula, cover cake with remaining filling. Trim ends to reveal spiral pattern. Press sliced almonds over filling. Drape cake with plastic wrap and chill for several hours or overnight.
3. To serve, arrange rosemary sprigs, clementines (or clementine slices), and figs around cake. Slice and serve, including 2 poached fig halves with each slice.