Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Birthday Buche de Noel

As I lick the last crumbs of orange-almond cake with chocolate buttercream frosting from my fork today at tea time, I realize it is this delicious Buche de Noel cake that should bring me back from my sabbatical. I’ve taken a few months off to deal with morning sickness – that hormone-induced nausea that saps all energy and makes you feel rotten no matter the time of day. I’m five months pregnant and again able to indulge in sweet delights, like the traditional French Christmas cake shaped like a Yule log.

I decided to make this sweet indulgence for my little girl’s second birthday. We wanted it to be a special day for her – even though the date is so close to Christmas.

Despite the fact that the Buche de Noel was for her, my precious toddler was more of a hindrance than a help baking the cake. I used Julia Child’s recipe (I found it in Food & Wine’s Holiday Favorites not in Mastering the Art of French Cooking) and now I know why Julia did not have toddlers helping her in the kitchen. The second that I turned my back to reach for a spatula to scrape the last of the ground almonds and sugar out of the food processor, my daughter was upsetting the bowl of egg whites I’d just separated. And so it went with me measuring and re-measuring, mixing and folding very, very slowly through the creating of an almond, orange chiffon jellyroll cake using orange zest and juice, almond extract and a scant amount of cake flour. My daughter watched the entire process from the second rung of the step-stool. Luckily I started two days before her party.

What fun it was to show my four-year-old daughter that after taking the jellyroll cake from the oven, it was to be rolled up in a dishtowel! She’s baked many a cake with me, but never a jellyroll. She was flabbergasted!

The next day, both girls helped me knead the food coloring into almond paste (inside a plastic bag to avoid red/green stained little fingers) to create marzipan insects. Julia didn’t suggest them; and I suppose there aren’t many bugs crawling around the snow-covered logs in French forests...but it was a kid’s birthday cake. And while we didn’t resort to gummy worms, we thought a few bright green caterpillars with red spots and red ladybugs with yellow spots were in order.

That night, after the girls were in bed, I made the meringue mushrooms. I felt like a French pastry chef! Well, almost; they easily turned out looking like real mushrooms. Without a Julia-prescribed pastry bag, I used a plastic sandwich bag and piped them onto parchment paper; just little 2-inch wide domes and then a separate stem that stood straight up on the paper. They baked to a golden-cream mushroom color.

And on the day of the birthday party, I whipped up the chocolate buttercream with yummy ingredients like brandy (because our liquor cabinet is fresh out of rum), rum flavoring (just in case the rum was an essential flavor), coffee, rich chocolate and leftover meringue.
Decorating the cake was tricky at first, but easier once I discovered that Julia’s chocolate buttercream could cover a multitude of torn jellyroll cake sins. (Yes, when I unrolled the cake, it cracked quite a bit; more powdered sugar on the cake and dishtowel next time.) Seeing the evergreen boughs on our advent wreath made me think that dying coconut green would make it look like pine boughs. It didn’t. Instead, sprinkled around the cake, it looked like bright green grass. However, it was perfect into which bright green and red marzipan bugs could nestle. Thus I held off on the traditional dusting of snow on the log, since that would confuse obvious summer seasonal look of our log.
The buttercream was lovely glue for attaching the mushroom stems to the tops. Dusted with cocoa, they were fine looking mushrooms; melt-in-your-mouth tasty ones too! And they were the finishing touches to the Yule log.

All the kids, adults and my little girls devoured what became a whimsical (and not very traditional) but most scrumptious Buche de Noel birthday cake.