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Spokane-area bakers share yule log tips

Even if the name of this traditional French dessert doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, no one will mind. Bûche de Noël, the filled, rolled and decorated cake, makes an impressive centerpiece for any Christmas feast.

One bite of the intense, decadent dessert and guests won’t care that your pronunciation was less than perfect.

Bûche de Noël (BOOSH de noh-EHL) – literally, Christmas log or Yule log – can be labor intensive and more than a bit intimidating.

Eva Roberts, owner of Just American Desserts in Spokane Valley, first tackled the dessert as a 14-year-old French student.

“It was just awful,” she admits.

She tried again more than 25 years ago when she was the original pastry chef at Patsy Clark’s restaurant and perfected her technique. The cake is now a holiday tradition for many of the customers of Just American Desserts, which Roberts opened with her family in 1986.

“It’s pretty labor intensive… but you can do a lot of it in advance,” Roberts says.

She creates the cake using a recipe she found years ago in “Cocolat” by Alice Medrich, renowned cookbook author and baker. Then Roberts fills the cake with vanilla custard and covers it with chocolate buttercream frosting. The cake is finished with holly decorations, meringue mushrooms and fresh flowers.

She demonstrated the steps to assemble the cake and shared some of her tips recently at the Just American Desserts bakery in Spokane Valley.

“One thing you have to be real careful of is that as soon as you put the cake in your pan, bake it off because it will deflate,” Roberts says.

“When I was at Patsy Clark’s I had to bake a bunch and I only had a two-pan deck oven … by the time the last ones came out it was like an omelet, just because it’s purely eggs.”

She suggests baking the sponge cake on parchment, and cooling the cake completely before trying to remove it. “If you try to take it off when it’s too warm, it will stick,” she says.

Once it has cooled, the flexible, yet sturdy cake should be rolled up on parchment paper or a kitchen towel sprinkled with powdered sugar until it is ready to be filled.

The sponge cake is versatile and can simply be filled with strawberries and whipped cream and rolled up for a simple dessert, Roberts says. Experiment with different flavor fillings and frostings to create you own signature dessert.

Roberts gently spreads vanilla custard on the cake and rolls it using the parchment to prevent cracking. The custard can also be made in advance, but be sure to place plastic wrap right on top of the finished custard to prevent a film from forming.

Place the rolled cake seam side down on a platter to ready it for frosting. Roberts cuts one end of the log off and places it perpendicular to the log to create a branch.

She uses a pastry bag with a serrated tip to create the look of bark on the log. Home bakers can achieve a similar look by frosting the cake with an offset spatula and then dragging a fork along the log to create the bark.

Roberts finishes each bûche de Noël with twining leaves and red berries, then places fresh flowers around the dessert. The final touch is meringue mushrooms dusted with cocoa and a skiff of a professional-grade powdered sugar.

She pipes the caps and stems of the mushrooms separately and leaves them to dry overnight the bakery’s ovens. A bit of heat from the gas pilot lights helps dry the meringue. Then, she dips the stems in melted chocolate to finish the mushrooms.

The cakes serve 16 to 20 people and cost $47.95.

Fery Haghighi of Fery’s Catering has been making bûche de Noël since she opened her business in 1983. They offer a génoise cake brushed with simple syrup spiked with rum, Grand Marnier or another liqueur. The cakes are then topped with a coordinating buttercream and piping for decoration.

She says home cooks are often intimidated because it can be difficult to roll the cake. The soaking syrup can make that easier. But even if cracks appear, don’t panic, she says.

“If it breaks a little they can just repair it,” she says. “It’s not the end of the world.”

A more rustic and simple Yule log cake can be made simply by filling a thin cake with flavored whipped cream and topping it with a chocolate frosting or a drizzle of chocolate, Haghighi says.

Her desserts, sometimes including slices of her Yule log cake, can be found at Rocket Market, Huckleberries and Maggie’s South Hill Grill during the holiday season. Fery’s is at 421 S. Cowley St. and offers some takeout foods and baked goods each day.

The Yule logs are made to order and range in size from 6 to 20 inches, and cost $3.50 per inch.

At Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie, pastry chef Megan VanStone (formerly Poffenroth) says the bûche de Noël is a European tradition that fits right in with the seasonal offerings at the French-inspired café.

“We like to do things during the holiday that remind our customers of their family traditions,” she says.

The cake was created by Parisian pastry chefs after 1870, according to “Larousse Gastronomique.” They were inspired by the logs that were traditionally burned in the hearth on Christmas Eve.

VanStone says she likes to roll the chocolate génoise cake while it is still warm. She sprinkles it with a bit of powdered sugar and then covers it with a clean dish towel before rolling it.

“If you roll it while it is still warm, it will get into that shape and it won’t crack,” she says.

Madeleine’s Yule logs are filled with chocolate mousse and frosted with a cooked chocolate frosting.

VanStone, who opened Madeleine’s with her mother, Deb Green, also had another helpful tip: Frost the cake with a thin layer of frosting and put it in the refrigerator or freezer to set before you finish with a final thick layer of frosting. The “crumb coat” will set and make it easier to finish the frosting and decorating.

They decorate the finished cakes with fondant cut-outs of holly leaves and meringue mushrooms. The cakes are $35 and serve 8 to 10 people.

Bûche de Noël

From Eva Roberts, Just American Desserts. Roberts uses a recipe from Alice Medrich for hot milk sponge cake to make her bûche de Noël, or Yule log cake. She began making the cake when she was the pastry chef at Patsy Clark’s more than 25 years ago. It has become a traditional Christmas centerpiece for many of her customers.

For the sponge cake:

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

3/4 cup sifted cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs

3 large egg yolks

For the vanilla custard:

3/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 cups milk

4 egg yolks

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon vanilla

For the chocolate frosting:

1 stick (1/2 cup) softened butter

1 pound confectioners’ sugar

3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

Milk or cream, room temperature

Optional decorations: Red and green frosting and meringue mushrooms (recipe  follows)

To make the sponge cake: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line bottom of jelly-roll pan with parchment so that the paper overhangs the pan at two opposite ends.

Heat milk with butter in small saucepan until butter melts. Reduce heat to low, and keep hot, but do not simmer.

Sift flour with baking powder twice. Return to sifter and set aside.

In large heatproof bowl, combine sugar, whole eggs and egg yolks. Hold bowl directly over a stove burner, whisking vigorously for about 1 minute until eggs are warm. (If you fear that the eggs will cook, you can alternatively set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water, and whisk occasionally, until lukewarm to touch.)

Take off heat, and beat at high speed until mixture has cooled, tripled in volume, and has the consistency of thick whipped cream. Sift one-third of flour mixture over batter, and fold in gently by hand, using the largest spatula you have. Fold in half of remaining flour, then fold in the remainder.

Pour the hot milk and butter into batter and fold well, scraping the bottom each time and bringing the batter up the sides of the bowl until you can no longer see traces of liquid.

Turn batter into prepared pan. Bake for about 10 minutes. The cake will have browned on top, and started to shrink from the sides of the pan. Cool cake in its pan.

Once the cake has cooled, invert onto parchment (or clean kitchen towel) sprinkled with powdered sugar. Starting at a shorter side, roll cake into a log, incorporating parchment. Let cake rest seam side down until ready to fill and frost. The cake can be made in advance.

To make the custard filling: In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt.

In a medium bowl, beat milk and egg yolks until smooth. Stir into sugar mixture and beat constantly over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a full boil. Stir and boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla.

Pour hot mixture into bowl and press plastic wrap right on top of custard to prevent a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To make the chocolate frosting: Cream together butter and sugar using a mixer. Blend in melted and cooled chocolate and enough room temperature milk or cream for a spreading consistency.

To assemble the cake: Unroll sponge cake and place on parchment or towel on a baking sheet. Gently spread cooled vanilla custard over cake. Reroll cake around filling, starting on short side. Use towel to help roll the cake to prevent cracking.

Place log seam side down on a serving platter. Tuck strips of parchment under the cake to keep platter clean while frosting and decorating.

Using a serrated knife, cut a section from one end of the rolled cake. Place it perpendicular to the log to form a branch.

Use a pastry bag and serrated tip to cover with chocolate frosting. You can also use an offset spatula to frost the cake, and then use a fork to create a bark-like texture on the yule log.

If desired, decorate with leaves and berries using green and red frosting. Flowers can be placed around the log, if desired. (Just American Desserts uses greenhouse flowers that have not been sprayed with pesticides for decorations.) Chill until ready to serve.

Arrange meringue mushrooms around log and dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Meringue Mushrooms

4 large egg whites

1 cup sugar

Pinch of cream of tartar

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate

Cocoa powder, for dusting

Combine egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar in a heatproof bowl of an electric mixer and set over a pan of simmering water, whisking constantly until sugar has dissolved and whites are warm to the touch, about 3 minutes. Rub mixture between your fingers to test; it should be completely smooth.

Attach bowl to the mixer. Starting on low speed and gradually increasing to high, whisk until meringue is cool and stiff and glossy peaks form, about 10 minutes. Add vanilla; mix until combined. Use immediately.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Using a large pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, pipe meringue onto parchment, forming domes about 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Pipe a stem shape separately.

Bake for 1 hour, then reduce heat to 175 degrees. Continue baking until meringues are completely dry to the touch but still white, 45 to 60 minutes more.

Remove from oven. Let cool. Use a knife to hollow an impression in the underside of each of the mushroom caps.

Place bittersweet chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water; stir occasionally, until completely melted. Dip stems into melted chocolate and place into mushroom caps. Let set until dry.

Dust with cocoa powder and decorate cake with meringue mushrooms.

Mushrooms must be kept in an airtight container in a cool dry place until ready to use.

Yield: About 30 mushrooms

Chocolate Hazelnut Roulade

From “Chocolate Holidays” by Alice Medrich. “This rustic-looking bûche de Noël doesn’t take three days and five different recipes,” she writes. “Add frills, such as meringue mushrooms only if there is time. Substitute different nuts, or flavor the cream with brandy instead of coffee, or serve with raspberry or caramel sauce. No rules or limits here.”

1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted and cooled, skins rubbed off

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces

4 eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

2 to 3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

For the filling:

1 cup heavy cream, cold

2 teaspoons instant espresso or coffee powder

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons sugar

Powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To make the roulade, in a clean, dry food processor bowl, combine the nuts with the flour and pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Set aside.

In the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water or in a heatproof bowl set into a skillet of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is melted and smooth; remove from heat. Or, microwave on medium (50 percent) power for about 2 minutes. Stir until smooth and completely melted. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks with 1/2 cup of the sugar until pale and thick. Stir in the warm chocolate mixture. Set aside.

In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks are formed. Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, beating at high speed until stiff but not dry.

Using a rubber spatula, fold about one fourth of the egg whites and all of the hazelnut mixture into the chocolate mixture. Fold in the remaining whites. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with moist crumbs, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool completely in the pan on a rack.

Sieve a light dusting of cocoa over a 16-inch sheet of foil, reserving the remaining cocoa. Invert the cooled cake on the foil and peel off the pan liner.

To make the filling, whip the cream with the espresso powder and vanilla until it begins to thicken. Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until the cream holds a soft shape.

Spread the cream over the cake and, starting at short edge, roll the cake using the foil to help you. At first, the cake will crack as you roll it. Do not worry; the cracking will get less severe as the roulade gets fatter, and a little crack on the finished roulade looks like tree bark, quite appetizing. Wrap the roulade in foil and refrigerate until serving.

To serve, unwrap the roulade and transfer it to a platter. Sieve a little more cocoa over it or use a little powdered sugar for contrast.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings