'The true cook is the perfect blend, the only perfect blend, of artist and philosopher. He knows his worth: he holds in his palm the happiness of mankind, the welfare of generations yet unborn.'

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas yule log

Noël, Noël!

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us”. Matthew 1:22-23

As an ex-Christian-turned-agnostic, my feeling towards Christmas is somewhat ambivalent. While I think that the claims of Christianity are probably untrue, I continue to be moved by the image of a God who is 'Emmanuel' - not the terrifying God of the Old Testament whose name is so holy that one cannot even utter his name - but a God who loves us so much that he became incarnate and lived amongst us. As Umberto Eco puts it so eloquently:
If I am a believer, I find it sublime that God asked his only son to sacrifice himself for the salvation of all mankind. That's what is specific to Christianity: it isn't the fact that Christianity spent 700 or 800 years debating whether Christ is endowed only with a divine nature, or only a human one, or both, or how many persons and wills he incarnated. Such questions seem to me to belong to a futile theological game, whereas what was really at stake was understanding of the following mystery: How could God have done that for us? But if I think that God does not exist, the the question becomes even more sublime: I have to ask myself how a section of humanity possessed enough imagination to invent a God who was made man and who allowed himself to die for the love of humanity. The fact that humanity could conceive of so sublime and paradoxical an idea, on which mankind's intimacy with the divine is founded, inspires me with great admiration for it. There's no doubt but that this same humanity has done some terrible things, but it was able none the less to invent this really extraordinary story, even if God himself does not exist.
Eco's words resonate with how I feel about Christianity in general: the idea of God becoming man is so paradoxical that, on the one hand I feel that it's the most sublime conception of God imaginable, and a pathetically anthropomorphic conception of the ultimate reality on the other.

The Nativity by Federio Barocci
In spite of any misgivings I might have about Christianity (and fundamentalist Protestantism in particular), every year during this season I cannot help but think of what a wondrous idea the Nativity is. It is in this season that (Christians believe) God is born among us and experiences what it is like to be human. No wonder Christianity still exerts such a magnetic hold on so many peoples even after two thousand years.

Please forgive me for ranting about religion in a food blog - but it is Christmas after all and we should all remember why we have this season in the first place, even for non-believers. Since I will not partake in the Church's celebration of the birth of its Saviour, the best offering I could put on the table is a Christmas yule log, which I'm told is the dessert served around Christmas-time in France. It is essentially a chocolate Swiss roll slathered with frosting and decorated like a tree trunk. There's no end to the possibilities of decorations for a bûche de Noël, and I'm sticking to meringue mushrooms as the only additional decoration, although I may try some crushed pistachios next year as well.

Merry Christmas to you all! May this season be filled with joy, peace and traquillity and may we be thankful for the miracle that we are living in.

A more artistic rendition I made last Christmas...

My version of the log consists of three components:
1. A cocoa génoise cake baked as a sheet cake
2. Whipped ganache for the filling
3. Normal ganache for the frosting

A bûche de Noël is a time-consuming project, but it's totally worth it - it tastes and looks great. It's actually not as impossible to make as it looks, but do make sure you plan and prepare things ahead - don't try to cramp things in one day! Spread the tasks over two days if you can: prepare the whipped ganache filling and the cake on the first day and save the assembling for the second day.

Whipped ganache filling

This is one of the loveliest fillings one can make - it has the smoothness of a ganache but much, much lighter. This recipe is Alice Medrich's - she varies the amount of chocolate depending on the percentage of chocolate you use. The cream can be infused with tea, coffee or spices beforehand for a flavoured version - I used rose tea this time and its fragrance paired very well with the chocolate. Simply steep your choice of tea, coffee beans or spices in the cream beforehand and drain it when you feel the flavour is strong enough. Measure the cream again to match 480ml (2 cups).

480ml (2 cups) heavy/double cream
195g 60-62% chocolate or 168g 70-72% chocolate
Tiny pinch of salt
2 tsp sugar (if using 70-72% chocolate)

I like to flavour with:
Tea: Boil the cream along with 3 tablespoons water, then add 4 tablespoons of tea leaves. Wait till it boils again. Remove from the heat then put the lid back on and wait for it to cool. Reheat the mixture till nice and hot again, and strain through a cheesecloth or fine sieve, squeezing hard to extract all the liquid from the tea leaves. Measure the cream again and add enough water to make up for 480ml (2 cups). Proceed with the recipe.

Coffee: Add 2 tablespoons of coarsely crushed regular roast coffee beans to the cream, and let infuse for half an hour to an hour (taste for intensity). Drain, measure the cream again to match 480ml (2 cups), and proceed with the recipe.

Put the chocolate, half of the cream, salt and the sugar if using in a large bowl, and heat on high in the microwave for two minutes. Remove and let stand for another 2 minutes.

2. Use a wire whisk to blend the chocolate and the cream: using circular motions, start off in the centre and gradually enlarge your circles so that you reach the sides of the bowl.

3. Behold the emulsion that you're forming - it will come together as a smooth, velvety mixture.

4. Add the rest of the cream to the ganache gradually while whisking with your other hand.

5. Cover with cling film/plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 6 hours. Whip the ganache right before filling the cake.

Ganache frosting

150g 70% chocolate
175ml (2/3 cup) heavy/double cream

Make a normal ganache using the amounts above. Wait to cool to a frosting consistency.

Cocoa génoise cake

Make a cocoa génoise cake, but bake it in a 12" by 17" half sheet pan - please refer to this earlier post for step-by-step photos.

5 large eggs
70g (1/2 cup minus 2 tbsp) sugar
1/4 tsp salt
15g SP cake emulsifier (optional)
30g cocoa powder (1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp), preferably non-alkalised
60g (1/4 cup) boiling water
35ml (2 tbsp plus 1 tsp) vegetable oil
80g ( 3/4 cup) sifted plain or cake flour (sifted before measuring if using cup measurement)

Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 180C/350F.
Line the bottom of a 12" by 17" half sheet pan with parchment paper and grease the sides.

1. In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the cocoa and boiling water until the cocoa is completely dissolved. Stir in the oil and whisk again until smooth.

2. In a large mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water, heat the eggs, sugar, salt and SP cake emulsifier (if using) until warm, stirring with a clean whisk constantly to prevent curdling.

3. If you're using a Kitchen Aid, use the whisk beater and beat the mixture on medium-high speed for about 6-7 minutes until thick and fluffy and triple in volume. Reduce the mixing speed towards the end to 'tighten' the air bubbles. When done, the batter should look like softly whipped cream, but don't overbeat it and make it too stiff. If you are using a hand beater, it will take at least 10 minutes.

4. Now sift a third of the flour over the egg foam. Use a wire whisk to blend in the flour gently but swiftly, using circular motions.

5. When all the flour has disappeared into the egg foam, scoop up about a quarter of the egg mixture and add it to the cocoa mixture in the other bowl. Use a spatula to mix the two mixtures together until homogeneous.

6. Repeat step 4 twice more, sifting a third of the flour over the egg foam each time and fold in using a wire whisk.

7. Time to fold the lightened cocoa mixture into the egg foam. Tap your whisk against the side of the large mixing bowl energetically so that you don't waste the batter hanging on the whisk. Switching to your spatula, fold in the cocoa mixture in a few additions. Make sure you reach the bottom of the mixing bowl.

8. Pour the batter into the prepared sheet pan, and tap the pan lightly against the counter top to even out the batter. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes - the cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan. Do not overbake.

The cake will crack when you roll it anyway, but pre-rolling it traps some of the moisture and make it less likely to crack catastrophically.

Place a large sheet of parchment paper on top of the baked cake, and invert it upside down. Remove the pan and the parchment paper on top.

Roll the cake with the parchment paper from the long end - the paper will fill the gap and prevent the cake from sticking.

Let the cake cool completely while being rolled up for 10 minutes. Unroll to let the steam escape.

When ready to fill the cake, whip the whipped ganache filling until a very soft peak forms. Do not overbeat - it will continue to thicken and if you overwhip it it will become grainy and lose that creamy texture that makes this filling so unforgettable.

Apply an even layer of whipped ganache to the cake. Leave an inch or so at the edge of the shorter ends of the cake.

Now roll the cake for real, and naturally do not insert the parchment paper between the layers! Use the parchment paper to help with the forward rolling motion.

Hold the log tightly between your thumb and the other four fingers to tighten the roll. It's ok if a little filling oozes out at the ends.

Place the rolled log in the fridge with the 'end' of the cake facing down. Chill for at least 2 hours for the filling to firm up.

When the ganache reaches a frosting consistency is, take the filled log out from the fridge, and unroll it from the parchment paper. Cut two pieces diagonally from the ends of the log as the branches.

Smear a little ganache on the plate/container you plan to serve your yule log on to help it stick to the surface, and place the log and the branch(es) on it.

Cover the log with the ganache frosting. Use an offset spatula to indent the frosting to create a 'bark' effect, or you can make deep lines in the ganache along the length of the log. Sometimes I leave the ends unfrosted so that you can see the beautiful swirly cake, but consistency might be a virtue here.

I'm sorry, but you do have to chill the frosting yule log again... so transfer it to the fridge again until the ganache is firm.

Shortly before you plan to serve it, dust with icing sugar to resemble snow.

Stick your reserved meringue mushrooms onto the log. If you exposed them to the air for too long they would lose their crispiness, so do this last minute. People love watching you 'planting' the mushrooms too!

Spontaneous generation of life!
Another attempt from last year

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