This column originally ran in 2006, when Honorary Certified Master Sugar Artist Kim Morrison was in her early phase of Buche de Noel making. The award-winning Spring Mills baker still makes the classic confections but no more for this year, as she left for Florida. For more information about Morrison’s Cakes for Occasions or her baking or sugar art classes, check out her website, www.kmcakes.com.
When we leave work tonight and tomorrow, many of us will be plugging in the holiday lights as soon as we get home to brighten the early darkness. We’ll light icicle lights that drip from the roofline or net lights that girdle the shrubs in the front yard or bright colored bulbs that reach to the treetops. Light we must at this time of year in our perennial effort to chase away the gloom of the year’s shortest day, Dec. 21.
Alban Arthan, the winter solstice or Yule, has been celebrated since ancient times. To encourage the sun’s return, virtually every culture in the Northern hemisphere established customs that bring light to the darkness, much like our own practice of illuminating our houses.
Derived from the Nordic word “geol” (the “g” is pronounced with a “y” sound) that means both “wheel” to suggest the passage of the year and “noise and revelry,” the Norsemen celebrated a Yule feast that lasted for 12 days. During this time, log fires were burned to hasten the revival of the sun, shrines and homes were decorated with holly, ivy and evergreen boughs and it was an occasion for much feasting and drinking. Viking invasions of Europe from the 9th to the 11th centuries blended Norse traditions with those of the Celts, whose pagan celebrations led by the Druids also honored the natural world. The Druids regarded the woods as places of divine presence and revered mistletoe, a parasitic plant that they considered the tears of the mighty oak. On these dark and windy December nights it is easy to understand the importance of trees and the fuel that they provided for our ancestors.
Real Yule logs, imbued with meaning both practical and symbolic, have been significant for centuries. It was the custom in France until the late 1800s, especially among the poorer families, to gather extended families under one roof and have each member bring a log to throw on the fire. Warm and toasty, the family would sing carols and then attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Another European tradition involved cutting a huge fresh log for the open fireplace and lighting it with great ceremony from some splinters of the previous year’s Yule log to protect the house and keep the family safe. The tradition diminished with the size of the fireplaces and eventually was replaced with a symbolic log centerpiece that held three candles.
Buche de Noel, or edible Yule logs, first appeared in France at the end of the 19th century, as documented in 1890 by Pierre Lacam, a French pastry chef and culinary historian. By 1928, they were a beloved classic included in August Escoffier’s menu for Christmas Eve, Special Reveillon.
The high art of making a Buche de Noel is accomplished with ease by acclaimed Spring Mills baker and cake designer Kim Morrison. Morrison, who takes special orders for her holiday creations months in advance, has made 17 this season, supplying State College caterer Beth Maas with a dozen for her many holiday parties.
“They are show-stoppers,” Maas said, pausing in her preparations for a party for 120 “and don’t need any decoration at all.”
Recently the recipient of a Best of Show award from the York-based 22nd Annual White Rose Cake show, Morrison is clearly accomplished in both the baking and decorating arts. She has been making Buche de Noel for about six years and has learned to pace herself for the rigors of the assembly. She makes both the meringue mushrooms and the marzipan ivy leaves a couple of weeks in advance and stores them in an airtight container until she needs them. The chocolate ganache icing can be made a day ahead and then brought to room temperature.
She uses Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” for her Cocoa Souffle Roll sponge cake and White Chocolate Ganache filling recipe, which she makes on the day that she needs it. The cake must be rolled while it is warm to set the shape. Once cool, it is unrolled, filled and rolled again.
“That much can be done ahead,” Morrison said. “If it is not for a client, I’ll often do that much ahead and freeze the filled roll for up to two weeks. Then just ice with a whipped, room temperature dark chocolate ganache and use a cake comb or a triangle to score the icing to resemble bark. It’s easy.”
Or so she makes it sound.
The fabulous La Buche de Noel cake is made of three main ingredients — a sponge cake, a filling that is rolled inside the cake and a rich chocolate icing. In France, the filling is often flavored with chestnut puree, but any rich filling, as well as any flavor of sponge cake, will do. It is the shape of the cake, rolled to resemble the Yule log thrown on the fire at Christmas, that gives it beloved distinction.
Kim Morrison uses Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible” for two parts of her creation, incorporating the Cocoa Souffle Roll and the White Ganache into the log. She then covers it with a chocolate ganache and decorates it with meringue mushrooms and green marzipan holly leaves.
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cocoa Souffle Roll
Makes one 17 by 12 inch jelly roll pan, enough for one log
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unsifted Dutch process cocoa or 1/4 cup plus three tablespoons non-alkalized cocoa such as Hershey’s
1/4 cup liquid measure boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (must be softened)
2/3 cup sugar
6 large eggs, separated
3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Prepare the jellyroll pan by greasing it, lining the bottom with parchment paper of foil (extending over the sides) and then greased again and floured. Position the oven rack to the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl stir together all but 1 tablespoon cocoa and the boiling water until the cocoa is completely dissolved. Stir in the vanilla and the butter and cool.
In a mixing bowl beat 1/2 cup of sugar and the egg yolks for 5 minutes or until light and fluffy. Add the chocolate mixture and beat until incorporated, scraping down the sides.
In a large bowl beat the egg whites until foamy, add the cream of tartar, and beat until soft peaks form when the beater is raised. Gradually beat in the remaining sugar, beating until soft peaks form when the beater is raised slowly. With a large balloon whisk fold 1/4 of the whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Then gently fold in the remaining egg whites.
Pour into the prepared pan, spreading evenly with a spatula and bake 18 minutes.
The cake will have puffed and lost its shine and will spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.
Wet a clean dishtowel and wring it out well. Remove the cake from the oven and leave it in the pan. Dust with the remaining 1 tablespoon cocoa and cover immediately with the damp towel. Allow the cake to cool. Remove the towel and, lifting the long edge of the liner or foil overhang, gently slide the cake from the pan to a flat surface. Spread the filling onto the cooled cake and, using the liner as support, gently roll up the cake from the long end, peeling off the liner as you roll. To make a small stump, cut a diagonal 2 inches length from the end of the buche, unroll it and trim to fit. Set stump aside.
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s White Ganache Filling
Makes 2 cups
3 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 cup liquid measure heavy cream
Refrigerate the mixing bowl and beaters for at least 15 minutes before you start. Over a double boiler, melt the white chocolate with 1/4 cup of the heavy cream. Remove from the heat before the chocolate is fully melted and stir until melted. Set aside until no longer warm. In the chilled bowl beat the cream until traces of beater marks just begin to show distinctly. Add the white chocolate mixture and beat just until stiff peaks form when the beater is raised.
Kim Morrison’s Chocolate Ganache
1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 stick of unsalted butter, softened
1 cup of heavy cream, scalded
Melt the chocolate and the butter together over a low heat in a heavy saucepan. When smooth, add the scalded cream and stir to blend. Allow to cool to room temperature. Can be made one day ahead.
To assemble, line a long cake platter or decorative board with waxed paper that can be removed easily after you finish decorating. Place the filled roll on platter and attach stump with a bit of the chocolate ganache. Spread the ganache over the roll and score with a cake comb or cake decorating triangle — or with the tines of a fork — to simulate the bark of a tree. Decorate with meringue mushrooms and green marzipan holly leaves, if desired. To serve, slice the log at a slight angle for best decorative effect.