one day before christmas: simple bûche de noël

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I was crazy ambitious to try Bon Appetit’s recipe for Bûche de Noël two days before Christmas. And I should have been warned; anything that can go wrong will go wrong. I accidentally added too much cream to the mascarpone filling and ended up with cream soup instead of cream cheese. I needed a save. So I did a quick search and found Nick Malgieri’s recipe on Food Network for Bûche de Noël that called for a simple coffee buttercream filling. So I married parts of the two recipes together, using the BA recipe for cocoa syrup and sponge cake, and Malgieri’s coffee buttercream frosting. Figuring I was pushing my luck,  I simply cut the log in two rather than try to decorate it.

Bûche de Noël (adapted from Bon Appetit and Food Network)

Make the Cocoa Syrup (makes 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon rum

Cook sugar and ¼ cup water in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat; add cocoa powder and rum and whisk until smooth. Cool, cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before using.

Make the Coffee Buttercream (makes 3-4 cups)
4 (120g) egg whites, room temperature
1 cup superfine sugar
340g unsalted butter, cubed, room temperature
2 tablespoons instant espresso coffee powder
2 tablespoons dark rum

Dissolve the coffee powder in the rum and set aside.

Put 2 inches of water in a large saucepan on the stove and bring it to a simmer. Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer and whisk in the sugar. Place the bowl on top of the saucepan of simmering water—the water shouldn’t touch the bowl. Continue whisking the eggs whites until foamy and opaque, and the sugar dissolves. The egg white mixture should be warm to the touch and not at all gritty.

Remove the bowl and attach it to the mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk the egg white mixture on medium speed until the egg whites have cooled—the bottom of the bowl will be cool to the touch.

Turn off the mixer and switch to the paddle attachment. Add the butter a tablespoon at a time, beating on medium speed until the buttercream is smooth. Slowly pour the coffee mixture into the buttercream while the machine is still beating. The buttercream will curdle but keep beating because it will come together, about 1-2 minutes to completely blend in the coffee mixture.

Can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature then beat with paddle attachment on medium high speed until smooth and it comes together again.

Make the Sponge Cake
Melted butter for brushing the pan
1/4 cup all purpose flour
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder plus more for dusting
1/4 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
3 large egg yolks, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar

Increase oven to 400°. Line a 12x17x1″ rimmed baking sheet parchment and brush melted butter on it. Flip it over and brush butter on the other side of the parchment and the pan sides and corners. Set aside

Whisk flour, cornstarch, and ⅓ cup cocoa powder in a small bowl. Set aside.

Bring milk, butter, oil, vanilla, and salt to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Keep warm over low heat. It should be body temperature.

Cake Baker’s Note: If the milk mixture is too hot it will cook the eggs. I tested a drop on the inside of my wrist.

Meanwhile, using the paddle attachment, beat eggs and egg yolks with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Increase speed to high; beat until doubled in volume. With motor running, gradually add sugar; beat until very light and fluffy and mixture falls back on itself in a slowly dissolving ribbon (it should be at least quadrupled in volume), about 5 minutes.

Reduce speed to medium and gradually stream in milk mixture. Stop the machine and remove the bowl. Sift one-third of dry ingredients over the top of the batter; gently fold in until only a few streaks remain. Working in 2 additions, repeat with remaining dry ingredients, scraping bottom of bowl and using as few strokes as possible to keep eggs from deflating (a few streaks are fine). Scrape batter into prepared baking sheet and gently spread to edges of pan with an offset spatula. Tap sheet lightly on counter to pop any large air bubbles.

Bake cake until surface is puffed and springy to the touch, 10–12 minutes. Let cake cool in pan 2 minutes, then run a knife along edges to loosen. Spread a towel on a large work surface and sift cocoa powder on top. Invert cake on top of cocoa powder and carefully peel away parchment. Dust top of cake with more cocoa powder. Starting at one of the long sides, gently roll up warm cake inside towel. Let cake cool, seam side down, 30-35 minutes. Can be made 1 day ahead and stored tightly wrapped in plastic at room temperature.

Assemble the Bûche de Noël

Unwrap the thoroughly cooled cake and brush off any excess cocoa powder. Dab the cocoa syrup all over with a pastry brush. Spread about half of the coffee buttercream in a 1/2 inch layer, keeping away 1 inch from the longer edge opposite. Roll up the cake using the towel, but keep the towel on the outside. Chill, keep the seam side down, until filling is set, about 30 minutes. Don’t worry if there are any cracks in the cake; the frosting will hide it.

Transfer the cake to a serving plate. Evenly spread the remaining buttercream all over the cake. Using a serrated knife, trim 1/2 inch pieces from each end to create clean edges. Eat the trimmings!

If desired, create branches on the log by cutting off a 4 inch piece from one end. Cut it in half at a 45 degree angle leaving 1 inch at the opposite end. Attach the angled ends to the cake by using the remaining buttercream to attach the pieces and to fill in the spaces. Put one piece on top and the other on the side. Use an off set spatula to create the appearance of tree bark. Leave the cut ends unfrosted.

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orange angel food cake with caramel sauce and four berry-kiwi fruit compote

Angel food cakes are indeed light and airy but they are tricky to make. This is my second attempt since the first didn’t have the required brown crumb on the outside nor was its height to my satisfaction. I think this version is a little better but could have been higher. The trick is not to make the egg whites deflate when you are adding the flour. I think the trick also entails using a thin rubber spatula, which is becoming harder to find because silicone spatulas are becoming more and more common. The silicone spatula I have is too thick for such a delicate job. I found this recipe on the Bon Appetit site and tweaked it a bit because of the lack of availability of some of the ingredients for the fruit compote.  I must add, though, that this caramel sauce is deliciously sweet and spicy!

Orange Angel Food Cake with Caramel Sauce and Four Berry-Kiwi Fruit Compote

INGREDIENTS
CARAMEL SAUCE
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
1 cup heavy whipping cream (half pint)
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pinch of salt

CAKE
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1 cup cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 cups egg whites (about 9 large)
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated orange peel from 1 medium orange
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

FOUR BERRY-KIWI FRUIT COMPOTE
1 cup raspberries
1 cup blueberries
1 cup blackberries
1 cup strawberries, sliced
2 kiwi, peeled, quartered lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
1/4-1/2 cup powdered sugar or to taste

PREPARATION
SAUCE First, combine the sugar and 1/3 cup water in heavy medium saucepan. I ran out of white sugar so I made it up with brown sugar. If you use brown sugar, be careful it doesn’t burn. Stir the sugar-water mixture over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to medium-high; boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber, occasionally brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan, about 5 minutes. If you use brown sugar, the syrup will become darker but that’s okay. Remove the syrup from the heat source. Slowly add cream. The recipe says the mixture will bubble vigorously but mine didn’t, which makes me suspicious that Bon Appetit forgot to include the sauce temperatures. Place the pan over low heat; stir until caramel bits dissolve and sauce is smooth. In the absence of temperatures, I stirred until the sauce thickened. Remove the sauce from the heat source; add butter, cardamom, and pinch of salt; stir until the butter melts and is incorporated. Cool the sauce. DO AHEAD The caramel sauce can be made 1 week ahead. Cover the sauce and chill it in the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature or re-warm over low heat before serving.

Cake Baker’s Note: I wish the recipe had included temperatures along with the description. It would have made for a more accurate result. Anyway, I found this in an article titled “The Science of Caramel” ( http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Cookbook:Caramel). Basically, a caramel sauce is a sugar solution.

The stages of a sugar solution are generally described by the solution’s behavior when dropped into cold water:

  • Thread Stage (230-234°F) – the solution thickens into syrupy threads when you pull a spoon out.
  • Soft Ball Stage (234-240°F) – the solution can be pressed into a soft gooey ball. Used to make soft chewy candies like taffy.
  • Firm Ball Stage (244-250°F) – the solution can be pressed into a firm ball. Used to make caramels.
  • Hard Ball Stage (250°F) – the solution can be pressed into a dense, slightly malleable ball. Used to make harder chewy candies.
  • Soft Crack Stage (270°F) – the solution solidifies into a glass-like solid that slowly bends under light pressure.
  • Hard Crack Stage (300°F) – the solution solidifies into a hard glass-like solid that breaks or cracks under pressure. Used to make hard candies and brittles.
  • Caramel Stage (310-349°F) – An advanced crack stage, defined by the development of an amber color that becomes tan, brown and eventually dark brown as the temperature continues to rise. Also defined by the development of caramel flavors which becomes deeper, less sweet and more bitter as it darkens.
  • Burned Stage (350°F) – The sugar smokes and eventually turns black. It is completely oxidized (burned) and inedible.

I wonder if brown sugar would have reached the caramel stage sooner? I wonder if the cooks at America’s Test Kitchen have turned  their famously methodical (some would say anal retentive) attention to this problem? Don’t get me wrong! I love ATK. It’s just that I couldn’t test recipes umpteen times just to get a perfectly chewy chocolate chip cookie. I can’t bear to waste food. I keep thinking of my mother, “eat your food! people are starving in America!” (Actually she said China. I just put that in there to mix things up.) Anyway, I digress. Here is the cake part of the recipe.

CAKE Preheat oven to 350°F.

Sifting the dry ingredients. Sift powdered sugar, flour, and salt 3 times. To do this, spread a sheet of waxed or parchment paper on the counter with  a large bowl next to it, and sift the sugar mixture onto the sheet. Rest the sieve on top of the bowl. Pick up the edges of the sheet and pour it into the sieve over the bowl. Place the sheet back on the counter top. Pick up the sieve and sift the sugar mixture over the sheet.  Repeat two more times. (Am I being just a tad too specific here?)

Separating the egg whites. It’s best to separate the eggs when cold. Then allow whites to come to room temperature. This takes about 30 minutes.

Whipping the egg whites. Using the electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat egg whites in a large bowl until foamy, about 1 minute. Add cream of tartar then beat until whites are opaque and soft peaks form, about 1 minute. Increase speed to medium high. Gradually add superfine sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until whites are thick and shiny and fluffy peaks form (peaks should droop over gently; do not over-beat). This should take 1-3 minutes.

This is what the meringue looks like when it has been whipped. It could be stiffer since the peaks on the beaters are still soft.

Adding flavorings and flour mixture. Add orange peel and vanilla to the whipped egg whites; beat just until blended. Sift 1/4 cup of flour mixture over whites. Using a large rubber spatula (preferable to silicone since the batter is delicate), gently fold flour mixture into whites. Repeat with remaining flour mixture 1/4 cup at a time.

Cake Baker’s Note: To fold in flour, cut with the edge of the spatula down the middle. Scraping along the bottom, bring the spatula under the flour to the side of the bowl. Fold the batter over the flour. Turn the bowl one-quarter turn. Repeat: cut, fold, turn until all the flour is incorporated. See this  YouTube video for a folding demonstration.

Baking the cake. Scrape the batter into an ungreased 10-inch-diameter (NOT non-stick) angel food cake pan with removable bottom and 4-inch-high sides (preferably with feet). Smooth the top. Gently tap the pan on the counter to remove any large air bubbles. Bake the cake until golden and springy to touch, about 50-55 minutes. Immediately invert the pan onto work surface if the pan has feet, or invert the center tube of the pan onto the neck of a bottle or funnel. Cool the cake completely, 1-2 hours.

Unmolding the cake. The common way to do this is to use a thin blade knife to loosen the cake from the sides of the pan and around the pan’s funnel. However, Bon Appetit recommends that you gently tap the bottom edge of the pan on the work surface while rotating the pan until cake loosens. Transfer the cake to a platter. DO AHEAD This cake can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover with a cake dome and let it stand at room temperature.

COMPOTE Put all the fruit into a colander and sprinkle on the powdered confectioner’s sugar. Toss gently to combine. To do this I simply shake the fruit in the colander over the sink. That way, if any fruit falls out, I can rinse it and put it back in the colander. Raspberries are extremely delicate so the less handling of them the better. DO AHEAD Can be made 2 hours ahead. Cover and chill.

Serving. Slice the cake with a thin serrated knife. Transfer to plates. Spoon compote alongside each slice. Top the slice with caramel. This cake has a wonderful sugary orange-y smell. Mmm-mm.