2007 was probably the busiest year of my life. I got engaged, then married, I moved to a new city, I finished my PhD, and I started a new, very time-consuming job. December was an appropriate finish to such a year – on top of all the holiday craziness and a visit from my parents, Dave and I are moving from Syracuse to Philadelphia at the end of the month. It’ll be a great adventure for both of us, but it means we have to pack up all of our stuff – for the second time this year for me, and the third time for Dave.
I knew all this was coming when I joined the Daring Bakers at the end of November. But I was too impatient and excited to be part of such a great group that I didn’t want to wait another month! I have to admit that I was hoping for a relatively simple first challenge. November’s Tender Potato Bread would have been perfect – one item and not hugely work-intensive.
So you can possibly imagine my trepidation when I saw the December challenge – a Yule Log, or Buche de Noel. Fancy cake, buttercream, meringue (or marzipan) mushrooms, plus the intimidating job of combining all of those components. Oh geez.
Wisely, I divided the baking up over two days. I was bushed at the end of each.
I didn’t want to use the coffee buttercream as the filling. It seemed like it might be, well, too much coffee buttercream. I pondered other filling ideas that would go with coffee and chocolate and decided on this recipe from epicurious.com. I had never worked with marzipan before and it’s always fun to try new ingredients.
This is the weirdest custard thing I have ever made, and I’m no stranger to custards. The heating of the milk and tempering of the egg mixture is standard, but what’s with using flour as the thickener? Also, maybe I’m not a big marzipan fan. Eaten plain, it was somehow too sweet and too bland at the same time. Mixing into the custard unfortunately didn’t help much. Uh-oh. The Yule Log wasn’t off to a great start.
Cake is possibly my favorite dessert. I love them all, but if someone cruelly forced me to choose just one, I’d go with cake. Yet I’m not experienced in buttercream. I do remember trying out a Cooks Illustrated buttercream recipe maybe a year ago. It’s hard to mess up a CI recipe, because they give such detailed instructions, but my buttercream curdled, and I threw it out and made my standard powdered sugar-butter-milk-vanilla frosting that I love.
This one didn’t go much better. I only made half the recipe since I wasn’t going to be using it as filling. I’m so spoiled by the precision of Cooks Illustrated recipes that I’m always frustrated when I see something like “whisk until the egg whites are hot.” How hot? “Whip until cooled.” How cooled are we talking about here? Room temperature? Make me use my thermometer!
The real trouble came at “beat in the softened butter.” (How soft?) It doesn’t say anything about gradually, but I figured better safe than sorry and added the butter one tablespoon at a time. It was clear early on in the butter-adding process that things weren’t going well. I tried to convince myself that my butter was just too hard and wasn’t getting beaten into the egg whites, but eventually I had to admit that the buttercream had curdled.
I was not to be discouraged. Apparently I wasn’t the first DBer to have this problem, and I’d heard that there was hope for saving a curdled buttercream. My good friend Google directed me to baking911.com, which had some great advice. Simply melt a portion of the curdled buttercream and beat that back into the mixture. No way! How wonderfully simple!
Apparently I didn’t melt enough of the buttercream the first time, because it didn’t solve the problem. So I tried melting some more, probably half the mixture, and voila! Perfectly smooth buttercream! I packed that away in the fridge until the next day.
The mushrooms just seemed impossibly fussy to me at first. But at least I got to make a meringue. I love using the whisk attachment on my mixer. It’s like magic.
But wow, meringue is some sticky stuff. I scooped it into a pastry bag as best I could, but of course it was totally messy. I started piping mushroom stems and caps. Super fun actually, although it took me a bit of time to figure out the technique. “Pipe 48 mushrooms stems and tops.” Forty-eight?! Why do I need forty-eight mushrooms?! Plus, I must have made my mushrooms too big, because I only ended up with 35 or so.
“Reserve remaining meringue.” Uh…remaining meringue? I scraped up some mushrooms from the baking sheet and squished it back into the pastry bag. I put the mushrooms in the oven. “Dust with cocoa.” Doh! I took the mushrooms back out of the oven and dusted with the cocoa. I put them back in the oven.
Oh my gosh, an hour later, I had the cutest little mushrooms! I love them! Definitely my favorite part of the recipe. Look how much they look like real mushrooms!
What the hell is genoise? Thank god for wikipedia. And the various dictionary websites that told me how to pronounce it. (Except for this one, which got it totally wrong.) Do I pronounce the “s”? If it’s named after an Italian city, why does it have a French pronunciation? I love the internet.
Anyway, I had my doubts about the cake from the beginning because of the cornstarch. Why not just use all cake flour? I also thought that a chocolate cake would go better with the coffee buttercream, so I looked up Malgieri’s chocolate genoise variation. I also had to increase the recipe proportions because I apparently have only half-sheet pans, not a jelly roll pan. Who knew? (And if that’s the case, then why is my Silpat too big for my baking pans?)
Ah, more of the whisk attachment. So fun. I also enjoy folding, so this was all going well.
Oh, here’s a step I should have paid more attention to. “Scrape the bottom of the bowl to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there.” I did see that I was supposed to be careful about scraping to the bottom, but I apparently didn’t finish reading the sentence. I assumed that I’d be worried about the egg mixture accumulating. I didn’t see any evidence of that, so I moved onto pouring the batter into the prepared pan.
And…wait for it…yes, a huge accumulation of flour at the bottom of the bowl! Most of the batter was already in the pan, so I desperately tried to mix the clump of dry ingredients into the little amount of available batter and then I just poured that on top of the batter already in the pan and hoped for the best.
I hate when recipes include a DO NOT OVER____ step. Overmix and you’ll end up with tough muffins, overbeat and your whipped cream turns to butter, and now overbake and your genoise will crack when you try to roll it. The genoise was supposed to bake at least 10 minutes, but I anxiously tested it after 8½ and the toothpick came out clean. Oh no. It felt too early to take it out of the oven, so I put it back in until 9 minutes and 15 seconds, all the while worrying about cracked Yule Logs.
I love how the recipe keeps specifying that the cake be transferred around without any consideration for its completely unwieldy dimensions. I made one transfer – from baking pan to my biggest cutting board. It was pretty clear that something was wrong with my cake. I’m sure the little balls of cooked flour and cocoa weren’t part of Malgieri’s plan when he developed this recipe.
I spread my subpar filling over my subpar cake and followed Malgieri’s unclear instructions on “using the parchment paper to help roll the cake into a tight cylinder.” (Uh…how exactly? Also, from the long or short side?) Of course it cracked. Bake 10-12 minutes, my ass.
Then I took my nice buttercream from the day before and left it out to soften. It wasn’t softened enough when I was ready to use it, so I figured I’d soften it with the paddle attachment of my mixture. And…more broken buttercream. Geez, buttercream is the wussiest emulsion ever. Melt, remix, not enough to solve the problem, melt, remix. (For those interested, I melted the buttercream in the microwave on 30% power for just 30 seconds or so. I was paranoid about accidently cooking the egg whites in it.)
I think it’s funny that the recipe makes sure to remind us to “curve around the protruding stump” when we’re frosting the cake. Like the big stump on top of the cake wasn’t reminder enough.
So, after all of my trials and tribulations, I came out with quite the nice-looking Yule Log, if I do say so myself.
And how many mushrooms did I use out of the 48 the recipe plans for? Five.
Please check out more of the Daring Bakers Yule Logs here!
Filling: (from epicurious.com)
2/3 cup whole milk
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 cup marzipan, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Bring milk to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk yolks and sugar in small bowl until well blended; whisk in flour. Whisk hot milk into egg mixture. Return to same saucepan. Whisk over medium heat until custard thickens and boils, about 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer to processor; cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. Add marzipan; process until smooth, about 1 minute. Blend in butter 1 piece at a time, then both extracts. Cover and refrigerate filling at least 4 hours or up to 2 days.
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup cake flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa
1 10-by-15-inch to 12-by-18-inch jellyroll pan
1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.
2. Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Lower the water to a simmer.
3. Whisk the eggs, yolks, salt and sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Place over the pan of simmering water and whisk gently until the mixture is just lukewarm, about 100 degrees. (Use your finger to test it.)
4. Place on mixer with whisk attachment and whip on high, but not highest, speed until the egg mixture is cool (touch the outside of the bowl to tell) and has increased greatly in volume.
5. While the eggs are whipping stir together the flour, cornstarch and cocoa.
6. Take the bowl off the mixer and sift 1/3 of the flour mixture over the beaten eggs. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the flour mixture, making sure to scrape all the way to the bottom of the bowl on every pass through the batter to prevent the flour mixture from accumulating there. Repeat with the next 1/3 of the flour mixture and finally with the remaining flour mixture.
7. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.
8. Bake the genoise in the preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until well risen and firm. Do not let the cake bake dry.
9. Use a small paring knife to loosen the cake from the side of the pan. Invert the cake to a rack, then immediately re-invert to another rack so that the cake cools on the paper.
Coffee buttercream (half recipe)
2 egg whites
½ cup (3½ ounces) sugar
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons instant espresso
2 tablespoons rum or brandy
Combine the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk gently over simmering water until the sugar is dissolved and the egg whites are hot. Whip on medium speed until cold. Beat in softened butter and continue beating until the buttercream is smooth. Combine the instant coffee and liquor and beat into the buttercream.
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup (3½ ounces/105 g) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (1 1/3 ounces/40 g) powdered sugar
Unsweetened cocoa powder for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a small (no. 6) plain tip. In a bowl, using a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar until very foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar while beating. Increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form when the beaters are lifted. Continue until the whites hold stiff, shiny peaks. Sift the icing sugar over the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold in until well blended.
2. Scoop the mixture into the bag. On one baking sheet, pipe 48 stems, each ½ inch (12 mm.) wide at the base and tapering off to a point at the top, ¾ inch (2 cm.) tall, and spaced about ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. On the other sheet, pipe 48 mounds for the tops, each about 1-1/4 inches (3 cm.) wide and ¾ inch (2 cm.) high, also spaced ½ inch (12 mm.) apart. With a damp fingertip, gently smooth any pointy tips. Dust with cocoa. Reserve the remaining meringue.
3. Bake until dry and firm enough to lift off the paper, 50-55 minutes. Set the pans on the counter and turn the mounds flat side up. With the tip of a knife, carefully make a small hole in the flat side of each mound. Pipe small dabs of the remaining meringue into the holes and insert the stems tip first. Return to the oven until completely dry, about 15 minutes longer. Let cool completely on the sheets.
1. Run a sharp knife around the edges of the genoise to loosen it from the pan.
2. Turn the genoise layer over (unmolding it from the sheet pan onto a flat surface) and peel away the paper.
3. Carefully invert your genoise onto a fresh piece of parchment paper.
4. Spread with the filling.
5. Use the parchment paper to help you roll the cake into a tight cylinder.
6. Transfer back to the baking sheet and refrigerate for several hours.
7. Unwrap the cake. Trim the ends on the diagonal, starting the cuts about 2 inches away from each end.
8. Position the larger cut piece on each log about 2/3 across the top.
9. Cover the log with the reserved buttercream, making sure to curve around the protruding stump.
10. Streak the buttercream with a fork or decorating comb to resemble bark.
11. Transfer the log to a platter and decorate with your mushrooms and any other decorations.