Christmas dishes from around the world: A classic French favorite

 If there is one dish that will wow your guests like no other on Christmas, Buche de Noel is it. A magnificent roulade, it has a soft sponge cake, a mousse-like filling and a butter cream icing that all meld together into the shape of a traditional yule log.  

Buche de Noel has been a French Christmas centerpiece for many decades, representing the winter solstice, which was traditionally welcomed with the burning of a wooden log in the hearth. An innovative 19th century French pastry chef made the leap of creating an edible version of a cake that was log shaped, and it is still enjoyed today. 

Although the recipe might initially seem a bit lengthy and assembly a little tricky, Weekender has enlisted the help of an expert to ensure your Buche de Noel is one to be proud of. Benjamin Kallenbach is the executive pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman. He has studied under renowned French pastry chef Antony Fernandez. Chef Ben confirms that the recipe he shares with the Weekender readers is Chef Antony’s own authentic French recipe (though it has been converted into imperial measurements). 

 

For the sponge cake: (this makes a very good sized yule log that serves 24 people) 

Ingredients: 

  • 4 eggs 
  • 3 yolks 
  • 5 1/2 oz sugar 
  • 4 egg whites 
  • 1 1/2 oz sugar 
  • Pinch cream of tartar 
  • 3 1/2oz flour 
  • 3/4 oz cocoa powder 

 

Begin by making the sponge cake. Preheat the oven to 400F. Whip the eggs, yolks and the 5½ oz of sugar to full volume, then whip the whites, the 1½ oz of sugar and cream of tartar to full volume. Fold one quarter of the whites into egg mixture, then fold in the flour and cocoa powder. Fold in the remaining whites. Pour into a 16” x 24” tin lined with parchment (grease-proof) paper. Bake for 10 minutes. 

 

Now make the pastry cream: 

 

Ingredients: 

  • 9 fl oz milk 
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • 1 whole egg (small) 
  • 2 oz sugar 
  • 1 vanilla bean 
  • 3/4 oz cornstarch 

 

Heat the milk, the vanilla bean and half of the sugar to a boil. Whisk together yolks, eggs, remaining sugar and cornstarch. When the milk mixture comes to a boil, add slowly into yolk mixture while whisking the egg mix. Combine both mixtures, return to the pot on medium high heat and cook, whisking constantly until thickened. Remove from heat, pour into pan with plastic wrap directly on top of mixture, and allow to cool. 

 

This can then be used to make the Hazelnut Mousseline Cream filling: 

 

Ingredients: 

  • 9oz pastry cream 
  • 5oz praline paste (you can use Nutella) 
  • 12 oz whipped cream 
  •  

Combine pastry cream with the praline paste and fold in whipped cream. 

You will also need a simple syrup: 

 

Ingredients: 

  • 12 oz sugar 
  • 9 fluid ounces water 
  • Spices (such as slices of lemon or a couple of star anise or cinnamon sticks) as desired. 

 

Bring the sugar and water to a full boil then remove from the heat, add flavorings and let cool. 

 

For the icing or frosting you will also need to make buttercream: 

 

Ingredients 

  • 5 oz sugar 
  • 3 egg whites 
  • 1 lb butter, room temperature 

 

Slowly whip the egg whites, preferably in a food mixer, while cooking the sugar slowly in a pan. Heat the sugar to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Pour the heated sugar into the whipped whites and continue whipping on high speed. When the whites are slightly warmer than body temperature, slowly add cubed, room temperature butter. Whip until fully combined. Add any flavoring (such as chocolate or lemon) as desired after whipping. 

You will also need a good handful of chopped nuts such as almonds, macadamias, pistachios, pecans or walnuts. Or you could add a handful of berries such as raspberries or blackberries. Cocoa nibs are another lovely addition, if you can find them. 

When you are ready to assemble, begin by brushing your prepared sponge with the sugar syrup, which will add moisture and help you roll up the sponge. This will also add another layer of flavor to the overall dish. 

Next spread your mousseline cream all over your sponge, taking care to completely cover it so there are no dry spots. The thickness of the mousse should equate to around the thickness of the sponge. 

Sprinkle the mousseline covered sponge cake with the chopped nuts, an important stage not to miss because it adds texture as well as great flavor. 

You have to be fairly brave with the next step. Start by gently peeling away the sponge from the parchment paper along the length of the sponge farthest from you. Roll up the sponge as tightly as you can, using the parchment paper to help you roll. Once you have rolled up the sponge, use the parchment paper to tightly seal the sponge, making a neat roll. A ruler is a useful tool here. At this point the roll should be refrigerated until it has firmed up. 

Once the sponge is firm, liberally spread the buttercream all over the length of the sponge roll. Chef Ben says it is better to add too much and you can remove some later, rather than add too little and see the sponge through the frosting. Chef Ben then uses acetate to give an ultra-smooth finish and then uses a pastry decorating comb to give an effect of bark, but home cooks could omit this stage and simply use a fork for an easier, more rustic home-made effect. Place back into the refrigerator to firm up again, as this will aid you in the slicing process. 

Chef Ben says final decoration should be based upon the flavors that you have incorporated into your buche de Noel and so decorates using nuts, chocolate and candied lemon rind that he says goes really well with the chocolate and nut flavours in the roulade. A dusting of cocoa powder (or perhaps powdered sugar) et voila! A fabulous buche de Noel, with every slice bringing a little taste of France to your Christmas table.  

7 Chef Ben with his Buche de Noel (2)

Benjamin Kallenbach, executive pastry chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, with the Buche de Noel.
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