Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bûche de noël

It’s not that I’ve never had any interest in attempting a bûche de noël before—it’s just that I never had the incentive. For most of my life, I’ve celebrated Christmas in close proximity to Freeport Bakery.

That Sacramento institution has been the source of many defining dessert moments—a Chocolate Charlotte wreathed in delicate ladyfingers, a marzipan-domed Honeybee Cake, a buttermilk Champagne Cake layered with strawberry custard mousse—but the greatest of these is their bûche de noël.

According to their website, this perennial holiday special involves a “light golden sponge cake layered with chocolate and brandy hazelnut mousse filling rolled into the classic yule log, frosted with bittersweet chocolate buttercream.”

In other words:

Say what you will of caroling or tree-trimming: the bûche is without a doubt my favorite holiday tradition. Alas, having now relocated to the East Coast, it’s a tradition that I can look forward to with less and less certainty.

And so this year, after a heroic but failed effort to convince Freeport to overnight a bûche to Massachusetts, K and I decided to make our own.

Below, a photo essay of our journey:

Smoothing the batter with the back of a tablespoon, per Carole Walter's instructions.
Not quite sure why a tablespoon, specifically.

The sponge cake, more velvety than spongy.

Spreading the hazelnut mousse.

We left a small portion of the cake unmoussed, for sealing.

Rolling the cake—the moment of truth.

We used a fork to create the "natural" bark effect. Alas, no marzipan mushrooms on hand.

Our major challenge, as it turns out, was more ideological than technical: how loyal should we be to the Freeport template? The closer we stuck to their model, the closer we might get to yule log glory. But we also risked greater disappointment.

Not wanting to fly too close to the sun, we settled on a similar flavor profile (chocolate and hazelnut), in a composition adapted to our own ambition and know-how: chocolate-hazelnut génoise with hazelnut mousse and dark chocolate ganache.

For those who’d never tasted the Freeport original, it was completely, unequivocally delicious. For the rest of us, still delicious, but not without a little twang of unfulfilled longing.


Chocolate-Hazelnut Génoise with Hazelnut Mousse and Chocolate Ganache

This was largely our own invention, but I used a few recipes in Great Cakes, by Carole Walter as my guide.

For the cake:
3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1/4 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted (skins removed)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flower
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
6 large egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar

For the filling:
1 tablespoon cold water
1/2 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Frangelico
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup finely chopped toasted hazelnuts (skins removed)

For the ganache:
6 ounces good-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon Frangelico
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot water, if needed

Position the rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom (but not the sides) of a 10½” x 15½” x 1” jelly roll pan and line with parchment. Lightly butter the parchment.

Make the cake: Place the cocoa, nuts and flour in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 8 to 10 times, then process until the nuts are ground very fine. Set aside.

Place the egg yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with beaters. Beat on medium speed until thick and light in color, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, taking about 3 minutes to blend it in well. Reduce speed to low, and add the vanilla, then the nut mixture, mixing until just blended. Do not overmix. Transfer the batter to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and beat until whites form moist peaks. With a rubber spatula, fold 1/4 of the egg whites into the batter, taking about 20 turns to lighten. Quickly fold in the remaining whites.

Pour the batter into the pan. Gently smooth the top, spreading it evenly into the corners. Tap the pan gently on the counter to even out the batter.

Bake 12 to14 minutes, or until the top has risen and the cake feels soft to the touch. (It will not feel springy.) Take care not to overbake.

While the cake is baking, get ready a fine strainer and 1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, a sheet of waxed paper at least 18 inches long, and a dampened kitchen towel.

Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a rack. Immediately sprinkle the top with the confectioner’s sugar. Run a thin sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the sides. Cover the cake with waxed paper, then the dampened towel, and invert onto the countertop.

After 20 minutes, carefully lift off the pan. Very gently peel off the bottom layer of paper. Cool the cake flat for 20 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling: Place a large mixing bowl and beaters in the refrigerator to chill.

Pour the cold water into a small heatproof custard cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand 5 minutes without stirring. Gelatin will swell and turn opaque.
Set the custard cup in a skillet filled with 1/2 inch of boiling water. Stir until the gelatin is clear and completely dissolved. Remove the custard cup from the skillet and cool to tepid.

Pour the cream into the chilled bowl, and with chilled beaters whip the cream on medium speed. When it begins to thicken, add the confectioners’ sugar and the gelatin, then the Frangelico and vanilla. Beat until the cream forms soft peaks. (Do not overbeat or the filling will become grainy.) Finish whipping the cream by hand until thick, using a wire balloon wish. Fold in the chopped hazelnuts.

Trim 1/4 inch off the sides of the sponge sheet with a sharp knife to remove uneven edges. Spread the whipped cream across the cake, leaving about 1¼ inches on the far side. Gently slide the towel out from the under the cake.

Holding the edges of the wax paper closest to you, begin rolling the sponge sheet over. Press along the edge to curl the cake slightly downward. Center a cake plate or board on the far side of the roulade. Make the final turn of the roulade and gently remove the wax paper. Be sure the seal of the cake is underneath. Using two wide spatulas, carefully center the cake on the platter.

Make the ganache frosting: Using a serrated knife, finely chop the chocolate and place into a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream and corn syrup on low heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Immediately pour the hot cream over the chocolate. Let stand for about 1 minute, then slowly stir the chocolate and cream together until all the chocolate is melted. Blend in the Frangelico and the vanilla. If the surface is oily, add a bit of hot water. Chill the ganache in the refrigerator until it reaches a spreadable consistency.

Using an offset spatula, carefully spread the roulade with the ganache. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate the cake to set. Let the cake stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.


  1. What a fun thing for me to read. Your yule log was beautiful! You got the fork thing down perfectly.
    Marlene Goetzeler
    Freeport Bakery

  2. It was no Freeport Bakery buche, but your seal of approval means a lot. Thank you for the many Christmases' worth of inspiration!

  3. We love you guys for making this! Mom and I would never even have the guts to look up a recipe! You rock!

  4. Never having had the experience of a Freeport yule log, I had assumed that it was an exemplar of a dessert made for presentation rather than performance, and that they always tasted a bit like cardboard (à la the Dickensian bûches of my childhood). This one proved me wrong: it was a perfect conclusion to the Christmas eve feast. No twangs of unfulfilled longing for me.

  5. The lovely food and photographs is only surpassed by the delectable writing. Kudos to Turtle!