THE VERY FIRST LOG CAKE I ever made was two years ago. The frosting was a coffee buttercream I fell in love with the moment it whipped up and I stuck my finger in the mixing bowl for a quick taste. The filling, a chocolate chantilly, was fine, but not as bewitching as the buttercream. The cake was a Jacques Pépin chocolate roulade, which, though simple enough, gave me endless grief. It was essentially a recipe for a chocolate soufflé — melted chocolate and cream blended with stiff-peak egg whites, which was precisely the challenge. The cake seemed to lack body, though it was airy, light, and moist.
Julia Child vouched for its deliciousness. And all the pictures in my Julia and Jacques cookbook confirmed how easy it was to make. I observed how Pépin prepped his jelly roll pan with expert snips of the corner edges of his parchment, how he spread the batter out with a mere rubber spatula — not an offset one that I would have used — and how he sent the roulade rolling so snugly by lifting his parchment and coaxing it forward. How difficult could it be? But it was.
My roulade had a tendency to tear, or get off shape as I rolled. My first attempt ended up in the bin. Then came numerous iterations before I figured out how to scale Pépin’s recipe to fit the size of my pan. My trials may well have had to do with my lack of experience. After all, I had just concluded my first term at baking school, that’s equivalent to two months of hard kitchen labor and being yelled at by a surly, frustrated lady chef, whose sense of elegance was only apparent in her pastry, but not her speech.
Now, one roulade class in school wasn’t going to make me an expert, though with the school’s recipe, you could end up making a relatively sexy roulade in a snap because it had flour in it — in other words, you had a cake with a good body and fine resilience, so it made light and easy work for an amateur.
But I’m a difficult person. If life offered me the choice of working on a damn delicious cake versus an easy-to-make, but not-as-yummy cake, I’d always go for delicious.
You don’t have to take my advice, but this is the kind of decision that would guarantee peace and joy in the heart, and it gives you the chance to make beautiful memories.
Here’s my 2016 bûche de Noël:
It had a bruised left side, as you can see, and a tackily rendered calligraphy, but who cares, it was a cake that served up slices of happiness at my family’s Christmas party on the 23rd. I had grand plans to make another, but I didn’t have time in my hands. By Christmas Day, I had shipped myself off to Paris, and my goodness, what a pastry paradise!
The universe of bûches de Noël alone was enough to make you go twinkling and dizzy with delight, all those cakes flaunting their sexy selves through the frosted bakery windows of a dreamy, Yuletide Paris.
Here are some of the dazzling ones I snapped away on Christmas morning at the storefront of Maison Mulot at Saint Germain des Prés, owned by Fabien Rouillard, a dear friend of mine, whom I’ve known since 1994. Maison Mulot was founded in 1974 by Gérard Mulot who sold the business to Fabien two years ago.
How did I get to know Fabien? I met him at his parents’ café in Annecy all of 24 years ago, a hungry girl looking for a little something to snack on at about four in the afternoon, after a train journey from Paris, hunched over with a backpack that was too heavy for my own good.
His parents were so charmed by my broken French that they had to make a quick call to their son so that yet another membre de famille could be charmed. Fabien was charmed indeed, in the same way I was charmed by his Frenchie English. Isn’t it wonderful how friendships and memories are made?
Back to my bûche story. You think I would have attempted some Parisian-inspired fancy bûche the year after, but I didn’t. I am going to blame it on busyness — no time to get competent. I also have another good reason. My friend, who works in a hotel famous for it’s local pastries, and who’s something of a cake connoisseur and au courant with cake matters, shared with me that Parisian-styled log cakes aren’t really in demand because they look like coffins. I would never have thought that until she shared that observation. And so, I did a repeat of the same cake from 2016, except now, I made my roulade with a cake recipe from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery.
It’s also the very same cake recipe I’m using for this year, a biscuit au chocolat. I decided to quit the meringue mushrooms and decorate the cake with Speculoos cookies instead, a recipe from Bouchon Bakery as well.
My ideal cookie shape would have been a star, but alas, I’m not one who’s too good with getting prepared, and prepared early. I haven’t been able to find a single star cookie cutter at the stores, the tiny, cute ones, so I’ve settled for snowflakes.
This year, I gave up on the buttercream, because I read somewhere that the great Michel Roux tsk’d and tut-tutted at buttercream for log cakes. “Too rich,” he offered. And so, this time, I’m using chocolate ganache. At first, I used a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe, then I tsk’d and tut-tutted that it was too sweet. I stripped out all the syrup and it made for a much better taste. But now, I’ve switched ganache camps, going for the one from my cool new pastry chef teacher, Dominique Ansel, the creator of the cronut.
Spectacular Speculoos Christmas Log Cake — that’s what I’ve called my bûche de Noël this year.
It’s warming to know that the cake pays homage to two chefs, whose works I turn to often and with great dedication. I’m going to be making quite a number of these babies in the next couple of weeks.
With two great masters whose craft and insight grace the cake and some of my own twists copied from here and there, this would be a bûche-filled Yuletide with many blessings.
I’m making memories, yes I am, without the Parisian snow, no doubt, but with some snowflakes that whisper Speculooooos …