By the time you read this, I’ll be in Paris, where every pastry shop, grand or small, will give pride of place to its bûches de Noël, the sweet of the season.
The French await the appearance of yule log cakes with the same gleeful anticipation of kids awaiting Santa. Weeks before the confections show up in the shops, you find them previewed in glossy magazines and in every newspaper. There are traditional logs, the kind made to look like tree stumps with meringue mushrooms and chocolate leaves; logs in a pastry chef’s signature flavors - Pierre Hermé always does a gorgeous rose-litchi-raspberry bûche called Ispahan; and fantastical logs created for particular shops by artists and fashion designers.
And, unlike in the States, where the yule log appears only at Christmas, the cake is served through the New Year in France, after which it is retired to make room for the galettes des rois, the king cakes that celebrate Epiphany. But that’s another story.
Whether you call the cake a bûche or a yule log, at its heart it’s the simple cake we know as a jellyroll: a thin sponge-cake spread with jelly or another filling and then rolled up. Mine is just that, a very simple sponge-cake covered with cookie spread (or peanut butter or Nutella) and jam (apple or pumpkin butter), rolled up, “frosted” with whipped cream and then sprinkled with colored sugar, chocolate bits, cookie crumbs or whatever crunchies you like. Sure, you can add the mushrooms and leaves, but the cake is lovely without embellishment. Easy, too. In fact, I think of this as the Easiest Bûche de Noël. Ever.
I used to be a jellyroll scaredy cat. The roll-up part spooked me. And then I met a guy who knew how to do only two things culinary: grill burgers and make bûche de Noël; he made one of the latter every year for his French wife. Watching him whip up the cake in minutes and metaphorically whistle while he rolled it gave me the courage to go home and get baking.
Turns out, it really is easy. It’s also super forgiving, because any crack, break or flaw can be covered by filling or frosting. Best of all, no matter what you do, it always turns out applause-worthy and wonderfully tasty.
-- Don’t skip the mise-en-place; in other words, have your ingredients measured out and ready. It’s good to separate the eggs into whites and yolks, and let them come to room temperature (egg whites beat to fuller volume that way), and make sure you have a clean kitchen towel and lots of confectioners’ sugar at the ready for dusting.
-- Start adding the sugar to the egg whites when they’re opaque and just beginning to thicken. Add the sugar little by little, beating until the meringue is thick and glossy.
--Be gentle, quick and optimistic when you fold the remaining ingredients into the whites. The whites will deflate somewhat; it’s all part of the plan.
-- Don’t leave the kitchen, because this cake bakes in less time than most cookies do.
-- Pull the cake from the oven, dust the towel generously with confectioners’ sugar and then turn the pan over onto the towel. You don’t want to let the cake cool before you do this. Lift off the pan, carefully peel away the parchment paper (I find this part inexplicably satisfying), dust the cake with more confectioners’ sugar and flip over the paper so the clean side is resting against the cake.
-- Roll up the cake as tightly as you can. Rolling right away, while the cake is hot, gives it “muscle memory”; once it’s cool, unrolling and rerolling it will be a snap.
--After you’ve filled and rerolled the cake, give it a good chill. You can even freeze it. And chill it again after you’ve frosted it. The make-aheadness of this cake is a big plus at holiday time. However, I think it’s best if you wait to add the decoration until just before serving; colored sugar and sprinkles have an unpleasant way of semi-melting in the fridge.
And when Christmas has passed, hold on to this recipe - it makes a great birthday cake!
Dorie Greenspan’s Ginger and Jam Buche de Noel
12 to 14 servings
MAKE AHEAD: The filled, rolled, unfrosted cake needs to be refrigerated for at least 3 hours and preferably up to 1 day, or wrapped airtight and frozen for up to 2 months; defrost in the wrapping. Once covered with whipped cream, the cake should be refrigerated. It will keep for up to 12 hours.
For the cake
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
6 large eggs
Pinch sea salt
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
For the filling
About 1/2 cup spice cookie spread, such as Biscoff (may use peanut butter or Nutella; see above)
About 1 cup thick preserves, jam or fruit butter
For the frosting
3/4 cup cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons sour cream
Sprinkles, colored sanding sugar, Biscoff cookie crumbs, chocolate shavings, toasted nuts or anything that strikes your fancy
For the cake: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a 12-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Have a clean kitchen towel at hand.
Sift together the flour, cornstarch and spices in a bowl.
Separate the eggs. Combine the whites and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment (or in the bowl for a handheld electric mixer), and place the yolks in a medium bowl.
Beat the whites at medium-high speed until they are opaque and just start to thicken and hold their shape. Little by little, whip in the granulated sugar and then continue to beat for another minute or so. The meringue should be glossy and very firm.
Whisk the yolks by hand until they are well blended. Scoop out about one-quarter of the meringue and whisk it into the yolks. The whites will deflate a little, but that’s fine. Scrape the lightened yolks onto the meringue, then pour the flour mixture over the yolks.
Use a large, flexible spatula to gently fold all the ingredients together. Work with a light hand, knowing that it’s impossible not to knock some air out of the meringue, and blend the ingredients together as best as you can. It’s better to have a few patches of egg white than to deflate the batter, so work quickly and carefully, and don’t aim for perfection.
Turn the batter out and smooth it evenly over the pan, making sure to fill the corners. Bake (middle rack) for 8 to 10 minutes or until the cake is uniformly puffed, feels just set and is lightly golden. Transfer to a cooling rack, but don’t let it sit for longer than 5 minutes.
Spread the towel out on the counter and dust it with confectioners’ sugar; be generous. Run a table knife around the sides of the warm cake, then invert the cake onto the sugared cloth. Gently peel away the parchment paper. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar, flip over the parchment and place the clean side against the cake. Position the cake so that you’ve got a long side running parallel to the counter, and roll the cake up snugly in the towel, making the roll as tight as you can. Twist the ends of the towel to secure the roll, and let the cake come to room temperature on the rack.
For the filling: Place the cookie spread in a bowl and stir vigorously to loosen it (so it will be easier to spread). Do the same with the preserves.
Unroll the cake and remove the parchment, keeping the cake on the kitchen towel. Spread the cookie spread evenly across the cake, leaving a margin of about an inch around the cake’s perimeter. Cover the cookie spread with a layer of jam.
Using the towel to help you, gently lift and roll the cake, starting at a long side and finishing so that the seam is on the bottom. Again, try to get a snug roll. Transfer the cake to a serving platter (or cutting board) and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or, better yet, for up to 1 day. The log is better when the filling has had time to meld with the cake.
For the frosting: Pour the heavy cream into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment (or in a bowl with a handheld electric mixer); beat on medium speed until the cream just starts to thicken. Little by little, add the confectioners’ sugar followed by the vanilla extract. You want to beat the cream until it is thick and holds its shape. Use a flexible spatula to fold the sour cream into the stiffly beaten whipped cream.
Use a serrated knife to cut off the uneven ends of the cake. (Reserve for a baker’s treat.) Use an offset spatula or a kitchen knife to generously cover the cake with the whipped cream mixture; you’ll use all of it. If you’re not serving the cake immediately, return it to the refrigerator. (The frosted cake can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours.)
When you’re ready to serve the cake, top it with sanding sugar, sprinkles or other decorations of your choice.
Nutrition per serving (based on 14): 260 calories, 4 g protein, 38 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar