By Chef Julie Wilson
Bûche de Noël. This fancy-sounding Christmas cake may seem intimidating at first glance, but as the old French saying goes, “It’s not that difficult!”. Ok, so that’s not a real phrase. BUT with the help of a friendly CSCA Chef Instructor, it really isn’t! I attended a class run by Chef Meg this past weekend to brush up on my bûche skills, and I found a lot of first-time bûche makers who were able to create something beautiful and festive!
Bûche de Noël is French for what you may know as a Yule log. It resembles something more likely to be found on the forest floor than in your kitchen… you guessed it, a log. Often adorned with mini meringue mushrooms and finished with powdered sugar, the bûche de Noël is a Christmas staple in countries like France, Switzerland, Belgium… and even the country of Cambridge, MA. Here at CSCA, we make sure to have a class or two every holiday season. We love to spread the baking joy.
What you need:
- Flavored Simple Syrup
Chef Meg Newcomb
The base for this bûche is very important. You need to pick the right style of cake since you’ll be rolling it into a spiral. Chef Meg says, “sponge cakes in general are awesome for rolled cakes. And the reason for that is that they have a lot of flexibility and elasticity.” When you’re rolling up a cake, you want to know it will be able to handle that movement without falling apart or cracking. We used a separated sponge, which means the eggs and whites will be used at different points during the mixing. Meg let the class know “we do this so we can have whole eggs, but whip up our whites at the end to make something that’s lighter and fluffier.” Top-notch taste and texture! Yum.
When you’re putting together this separated sponge, you’ll need to pay special attention when folding in the egg whites. Meg told the class “here we want to be really gentle. If we’re too rough we’re beating out all that air we’ve incorporated into our egg whites, and that air and our foam is what’s going to make that cake nice and lite.” She combined those foamy whites with the rest of the batter in 3 additions and was ready to pour it into a parchment-lined half-sheet pan sprayed with cooking spray. Then she sent it off into the oven to bake and focused on the rest of the components. (350 for 10 minutes and check every minute or 2 until done).
Ganache is, as Chef Meg puts it, “an excellent frosting and filling, and really just a magical thing in general”. Chocolate + Cream + Butter = Magic. It’s hard to argue with that math. She warmed up some cream in a pot, careful not to bring it to a full boil, and poured it over our chocolate, making sure every piece was covered. Meg let the class know it needed to stay like that for a while. She said that “It’s really important that we let it sit for a few minutes. When you start to mix it right away, you’re immediately cooling it down”. After the chocolate took a sufficient cream bath, she added the butter and whisked it until it was rich and smooth.
Next up, buttercream. Chef Meg used Swiss meringue buttercream for its flavor and its stability. Swiss meringue buttercream starts, of course, by making a Swiss meringue. This method requires you to heat the sugar and egg whites over a double boiler until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then you let them go for a spin in your mixer until you have a fluffy and glossy meringue. If you need this for the meringue mushrooms, you’re done! If you need this for the buttercream filling, you just add cut-up pieces of butter and a flavor of your choice. Two birds, on method.
Rolling the Cake
At this point, the sponge was ready to come out of the oven. Chef Meg ran a knife around the edge of the cake, dusted the top with powdered sugar, covered it with a clean dry towel, and, with confidence, flipped the pan over horizontally onto the table. “Tada!” she said. Next, she gently peeled the parchment off the bottom of the sponge and dusted that side with powdered sugar too. Chef Meg noted that “if you’re doing a chocolate cake, cocoa powder works as well. It’s just to keep it [the cake] from sticking”. Now we’re ready to roll (pun intended)! Folding the edge of the towel over the cake, Meg skillfully rolled up the sponge into a neat little spiral, pushing it forward along its way. She set it aside for later, like a present ready to be unwrapped.
While she waited for the sponge to cool, Chef Meg showed the class some classic bûche de Noël decorations and some of her own invention. For a classic look, she began by piping meringue mushrooms. Using her pastry bag, she piped one flat round disk and one vertical line with a bit of a tip on the end for each mushroom, in a variety of sizes. Once they were baked, she dipped each end in melted chocolate and connected them. When they dried, she dusted the tops with a bit of cocoa powder for some extra detail. Chef Meg then showed us some of her own “pastry hacks” for a more modern-looking bûche.
Besides these festive fungi, Chef Meg thought outside the box and used matcha powder. She said that “desiccated coconut mixed with matcha powder makes a really interesting mossy color” which, when sprinkled onto the bûche de Noël, brings it to the next level of festive flora. She also added in some candied rosemary by boiling sprigs in a simple syrup and dipping them in sugar. It was like we were in a snow-covered pine forest. Luckily, Chef Meg had already made the class a simple syrup for candying decorations, as well as for soaking sponges. The class flavored their syrups with a an extract or liquor of their choice, (I witnessed Grand Marnier, Chambord, Bourbon, and coffee being used!) and were finally ready for the best part – decoration and assembly!
Unrolling, Filling, Re-Rolling, and Shaping the Cake
Here was the moment of truth. It was time to unroll the sponge and hope it retained the memory of the spiral it was rolled into earlier when it was hot out of the oven. Chef Meg gently unrolled the sponge, removed the cloth, brushed off the excess sugar, and soaked the cake. Easy as can be, right? Sure! She said to be careful how much you soak the sponge, “you want enough so that you can taste it, but not so much that it is super soft and falls apart. I usually do 2 or 3 rounds.”. After a successful soaking, she moved on to filling the bûche. Using an offset spatula, she spread an even layer of buttercream over the unrolled sponge. Then, drumroll please, she began to re-roll the cake. Would it crack?! The pressure was on, but Chef Meg was as calm as could be. She let the cake do the work for her and pushed it back into a spiral. No muss, no fuss. Her sponge retained the memory of being rolled right out of the oven… as did everyone else’s. This method is no joke!
The moment everyone was so worried about came and went without incident, so Meg moved on to cutting the bûche. She trimmed the ends to look “neat and clean” and checked the size of the cake board to ensure proper fit. Then, to give the bûche de Noël that quintessential log-like style, she cut off a piece from one end at about a 45-degree angle. She used that piece to become a branch by positioning it on the top of the roll. Before that placement, however, she frosted the bûche with ganache, making sure to cover the sponge right down to the board. Now the branch piece would be sure to stick to the frosted roll. No one wants a log that’s falling apart. She gave that piece a quick coating of ganache and moved on to the decoration. The forest awaits!
The Finishing Touches
For the finishing touches, Chef Meg took a fork and lightly dragged it in the same direction across each side of the cake, giving the bûche textured, nature-inspired detail. It definitely resembled a log, but you wouldn’t call it a “Christmas” log per se. The details are what brings it to life, so Chef Meg sprinkled this “everyday cake” with the mossy matcha coconut, added meringue mushrooms, and placed the candied rosemary at the base. The final touch was sprinkling powdered sugar over it all – chef’s kiss! The Christmas transformation was complete – it was a bûche de Noël!
Chef Meg really made constructing a bûche de Noël seem attainable, taking the class through it all one step at a time. Taking it task by task made it manageable and even, dare I say, enjoyable. The holiday spirit in the air enveloped the room. It even inspired me to create my own bûche de Noël this year, for the first time in a very long time. I can’t wait to see how it turns out! Has reading this inspired you to create one of your own? Maybe you’d prefer a liiiiitle help. Nothing beats a hands-on holiday experience in a CSCA class. Sign up today and tell them I sent you!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from CSCA!