Not For Your Fireplace
Traditionally, a Yule Log does belong in the fireplace – in Medieval England, the men brought in a special Yule log to be burned in the fireplace around Christmastime. The last bits of the log had to be saved throughout the year, and the new log was started off with these remnants. As the Yule log was believed to keep evil at bay in the home, preserving the log extended this protection for the whole year, and starting the new one off with it was a sign of continuity.
With the demise of the rural lifestyle and old-fashioned open hearths, the tradition of Yule logs (and their payment of a free beer for the men bringing it) has slowly died out, only to be replaced with the French version of it, the bûche de Noël – a chocolaty cake resembling a log. This year, grace your table with a slightly revamped, nutty version of this cake!
The first part of the cake is a sponge dough. For that, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. My recipe for this is just as simple as it seems (for more detailed instructions, read my post on cakes here): First, whip 5 egg whites to a firm peak. This is the point when, if you lift the beaters out of the yolks, the little “tip” formed on the top as you pulled the beater out, no longer sags over. Beat in a tablespoon of sugar, and leave it be until we prepare the yolks. Put the 5 yolks in a large mixing bowl, and add a cup of sugar. Beat the egg yolks and sugar until they turn creamy and white. Now comes the first part of the trickery: stir in only about 1/3 of the egg whites, and don’t bother about folding it gently. This will ease the dough up enough that you can fold in the rest a lot easier, and without breaking.
For an even nuttier cake, we will use 100 grams (3.5 ounces; about 3/4 a cup) flour, and 150 grams (5.25 ounces) of finely ground walnuts. You can just grind the walnuts in a regular food processor. To properly leaven the cake to a fluffy texture, also stir in a tablespoon of baking powder.
Smooth the batter into a large jelly roll pan or high sided cookie sheet lined with parchment or wax paper. This makes turning the cake out a lot easier! It only takes 10 to 15 minutes for the cake to finish baking – however, it’s imperative not to open the oven door for the first 10 minutes. The cool air shock can “pop” the bubbles of carbon dioxide that the baking powder forms before they could harden into the cake, so your cake sheet will end up flat and dense like a puck.
Lay out a large kitchen towel (I prefer the floursack types) on a cutting board, and as soon as the cake comes out of the oven, turn it out onto the towel. Peel off the paper, and fold the towel at least partially over the cake. Starting with one of the long sides, roll it up as tightly as possible, and let it cool completely. The towel helps remove the moisture that would make the roll stick together, and rolling the cake while still warm makes the curl stay in it, so it won’t crack as much when rolled back up with the filling.
In the meantime, prepare the creamy filling. I like to blanch and roast my own almonds for it, but you can buy pre-blanched, or blanched and roasted almonds in the store – if buying the latter, be sure to buy non-salted ones!
For blanching your own almonds, all you need is a bowl of hot water and at least half an hour on your hand. We’ll be using 250 grams, about 9 ounces of almonds: blanch a little more, to make up for the loss from the skins and for those that just mysteriously “disappear” after roasting. Soak the almonds in the hot (near boiling) water for a few minutes, then just pop the nuts out of the brown skins. Dry them off on a paper towel, and you’re ready to roast!
Roast the almonds over medium-low heat in a dry skillet, and enjoy the festive smell in your kitchen.
Let the nuts cool down some, then grind them in the food processor, and you’re good to go!
In a small saucepan, heat 300 ml – just about 1-1/4 cups – of milk, and stir in 3 heaping tablespoons of cream of wheat. You can also use flour, but for nutty creams, I prefer the grittier texture of farina. Keep it stirring until it becomes thick and creamy, then cool it completely.
In a large mixing bowl, combine 250 grams of margarine or butter – it’s 9 ounces, or 2 whole sticks and 2 tablespoons – with 250 grams of powdered sugar; about half of a 1-pound box. Add the prepared cream of wheat and blend well, then add the almonds. I like to add some natural almond flavoring for a little extra “oomph” in the flavor.
Once the cake is cooled, unroll it, and frost the inside of the roll with about half of the cream, then gently roll it back up. Cut off the ends for a nice, smooth look, and cut the cake in two parts with a diagonal slice. Position the two sides as if they were branches of a tree. Frost the visible ends with the lighter cream, too.
Mix 2-3 tablespoons of baking cocoa with the rest of the cream, forming the “bark”. Frost the outside (except for the ends) with this cream, then use a fork or a toothpick to make lines in the outside, imitating the cracks in a tree bark.
From here on, the decorating is up to you: dust it with powdered sugar or sweetened coconut flakes for a snowy look, finely crushed green tea for moss, add fondant or gum paste decorations – the possibilities are endless!
This Yule log design has won a Blue Ribbon at the 2011 Big Fresno Fair in the Holiday Decorated Cakes category!
Enjoy your holidays!