Whimsical & woodsy: Seasonal favorite in France — Buche de Noel — can become American Yuletide tradition

For a show-stopping Christmas dessert it's hard to beat the Buche de Noel.

Adorned with frosting, confectioners' sugar and meringue mushrooms, the jellyroll-style cakes are decorated to resemble yule logs, the large logs selected for the hearth -- originally for the solstice, but the practice was adapted and incorporated into the Christian holiday.

Buches de Noel are common Christmas cakes throughout France and Belgium today.

The cakes require a bit of planning, and rolling them can be finicky, but the end result is well worth the effort.

And don't fret even if your cake cracks while rolling: Cracks will only add to its rustic, log-like look.

The meringue mushrooms can be made in advance and will keep in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Traditional Buches de Noel often include a chestnut filling with chocolate ganache or buttercream frosting. Our version uses a rich malted milk chocolate buttercream for the filling and keeps the cake simple with a dusting of confectioners' sugar instead of frosting.

You could, absolutely, make the chocolate sponge for this cake from scratch, but surprisingly, we found cake made using a doctored-up boxed mix to work and taste the best.

Buche de Noel

For the cake:

6 eggs

1 (15- to 18-ounce) box dark chocolate cake mix such as devil's food or chocolate fudge

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup vegetable oil

Confectioners' sugar

4 cups Malted Milk Chocolate Buttercream (recipe follows)

Meringue Mushrooms (recipe follows)

Sugared Cranberries (recipe follows)

Sugared Rosemary (recipe follows)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a half-sheet pan (jellyroll) with parchment paper. We used two pre-cut sheets and overlapped them slightly.

In a mixing bowl, beat eggs with an electric mixer until thick and pale yellow, about 10 minutes. Add cake mix, espresso powder, vanilla, water and oil; beat on low speed 30 seconds, then on medium speed 1 minute, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour batter into pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula.

Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched in center.

Generously dust a non-terrycloth dish towel with confectioners' sugar. Quickly, but carefully, turn cake upside down onto the towel; remove parchment. While hot, carefully roll up cake and towel to form a long log. Transfer log to a cooling rack and cool completely, at least 1 hour.

Gently unroll cake and remove towel. Set aside about 1/2 cup of the Milk Chocolate Buttercream. Using an offset spatula, spread the remaining Milk Chocolate Buttercream evenly over cake; roll up cake. Using a sharp knife, at an angle cut a 4-inch piece off one end. This piece will be used to create a branch. Using some of the reserved frosting, "glue" the angled end of the piece to the side of the cake, roughly in the middle.

Decorate as desired with confectioners' sugar, Meringue Mushrooms, Sugared Cranberries and Sugared Rosemary, using the reserved buttercream to fix the mushrooms in place.

Malted Milk Chocolate Buttercream

1 1/2 cups butter, softened

3/4 cup malted milk powder

Pinch salt (omit if using salted butter)

4 cups confectioners' sugar, divided use

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly

In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, malted milk powder, salt (if using) and half of the confectioners' sugar with an electric mixer on low speed until incorporated. Mix in the vanilla. Add the remaining sugar and beat on medium speed until frosting is pale. In a slow and steady stream, drizzle in the melted chocolate while beating on high, scraping the sides of the bowl and the beaters as necessary, until the frosting is very light and fluffy. Use immediately or refrigerate until ready to use.

The frosting will keep, refrigerated, in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Bring refrigerated frosting to room temperature and beat until aerated before using.

Frosting recipe adapted from Cake Magic!: Mix & Match Your Way to 100 Amazing Combinations by Caroline Wright

Meringue Mushrooms

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Pinch kosher salt

7 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste, optional

Cocoa powder, for dusting

1 ounce dark, milk or white chocolate, melted, for assembling

Making the meringue:

Heat oven to 225 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Fit a medium sized piping bag with a 1/2-inch plain tip, and have it propped up in a drinking glass. (If you don't have a piping bag, you can use a quart-size zip-close bag with one corner snipped off, but your stems will not be as round.)

Put the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, and beat on medium-low until the whites look very frothy, about 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice and salt, then increase the speed to medium.

When the egg whites can hold soft peaks, sprinkle in the sugar a little at a time; it should take about a minute to add it all. Increase the speed to medium high, and continue whipping until the meringue is thick and can hold very stiff peaks. Beat in vanilla.

Transfer half the meringue to the piping bag.

To pipe the mushroom caps: Hold the piping bag about a half-inch above the baking sheet and give the bag one good squeeze. Relax your grip, lift the piping tip slightly.

Pipe caps in various sizes up to 3 inches in diameter until the bag is empty.

Put a little water in a dish, and use a damp fingertip to smooth out any peaks so the caps are smooth and round.

To pipe the stems, refill the bag and hold it as before. As you begin to squeeze, slowly lift the bag straight up. After about an inch, stop squeezing, but keep lifting the bag up. Pipe an assortment of stems, some short and squat and some tall and skinny, and some kinda knocked over to the side. Continue piping until you have a few more stems than caps, to account for breakage.

Bake the meringues until bone dry, about 90 minutes. Cool the meringues to room temperature before proceeding.

Assembling the mushrooms:

Using a fine mesh sieve, lightly dust the mushrooms caps with cocoa powder. Rub the cocoa into the meringue, using your fingers. Repeat the dusting and rubbing procedure at least one more time. Once you've got a nice base color, you can strategically darken the caps here and there to make them look more natural.

Using your cocoa-coated fingers, smudge up the stems, too. There's no need to dust them directly, as they should be lighter in color than the caps for a more natural look.

To assemble the mushrooms: Dip the tip of each stem into the melted chocolate, then stand it upright on a baking sheet and place a mushroom cap firmly on top. Leave undisturbed until chocolate sets. Mushrooms will keep in an airtight container for several days.

Makes about 2 dozen (2-inch) mushrooms.

Meringue Mushroom recipe from bravetart.com

Sugared Cranberries and Sugared Rosemary

2 tablespoons coarse sugar (see note)

1 cup PLUS 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided use

1 cinnamon stick

Fresh cranberries

Several sprigs fresh rosemary

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the coarse sugar and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar in a wide, shallow dish.

In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 1 cup granulated sugar and the cinnamon stick with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat. Let cool several minutes, then remove cinnamon stick. Drop the cranberries, a few at a time, into the syrup to coat completely. Using a slotted spoon, remove cranberries from syrup and let the excess drip back into the saucepan. Roll cranberries in the granulated sugar to coat. Place on parchment to dry.

Dip each sprig of rosemary in the syrup and let the excess drip back into the saucepan. Coat rosemary sprigs in granulated sugar. Place on parchment until dry.

Use cranberries and rosemary to decorate cake as desired. Strain and refrigerate the sugar syrup for sweetening cocktails or other beverages, if desired. Syrup will keep for about 1 week.

Note: If you don't have any coarse sugar, use 1/4 cup granulated sugar.

Sugared Cranberries and Rosemary recipe adapted from Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

Food on 12/20/2017

Print Headline: Whimsical & woodsy: The seasonal favorite in France — Buche de Noel — can become an American Yuletide tradition

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