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Chef Tim Veatch creates traditional La Buche de Noel cake 

Chef Tim Veatch whipping up chocolate sponge cake batter Photos by Mira Advani Honeycutt

Chef Tim Veatch whipping up chocolate sponge cake batter
Photos by Mira Advani Honeycutt

A dramatic centerpiece for the holiday table

–The holiday season is all about indulgence, good food, wine and baking decadent desserts.

So how appropriate for cookbook author Brigit Binns to invite chef Tim Veatch to conduct a dessert class at her Paso Robles Refugio Kitchen cooking school. The evening’s lesson plan was for a single dish — a multi-layered Buche de Noel, the traditional French Christmas cake expertly baked and assembled by Veatch.

Traditional Bûche de Nöel log-shaped Christmas cake

Traditional Bûche de Nöel log-shaped Christmas cake

“It’s a representation of a log the French would burn in the fire place.” Veatch explained of the sponge cake shaped like a miniature log. It is also known as the Yule Log cake.

But it’s no simple sponge cake. This cake incorporates seven components. In addition to the chocolate sponge cake, Veatch cooked up coffee buttercream, candied hazelnuts, chocolate ganache, coffee syrup, meringue mushrooms and chocolate mousse. Think of it as creating seven sweet treats and then assembling them all in a log-shaped dessert, garnished with meringue mushrooms.

“My mom has me make this for my grandmother every year,” said the chef of this demanding process.

Veatch, who practices as a consulting chef currently, has enjoyed a multi-layered experience, from an executive pastry chef at the prestigious Saison in San Francisco and working the wood-fired oven at Camino in Oakland to a chef at Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles. His current passion is baking naturally leavened organic sourdough bread, available at his Morro Bay home (www.waywardmb.com).

The group of 13 students (including myself) was greeted with a glass of Prosecco served by Casey Biggs (aka the Paso Wine Man), co-founder of Refugio Kitchen.

Lineup of wines - Rotta, Cypher and Four Vines

Lineup of wines – Rotta, Cypher and Four Vines

At the start of the session, Veatch admitted that making Buche de Noel is a daunting task.

“Nobody’s got all day to make something like that,” he mused. So he advised to start the cooking process early, preparing items such as chocolate ganache, candied hazelnuts and the meringue mushrooms a couple of days ahead.

Veatch is as much an entertainer as he is a skilled chef. As we sat mesmerized at his whisking, blending and layering, he regaled us with useful cooking tips. The chef sailed through the three-plus hour process with great ease, from baking the cake to the intricate assembly and the final touch of placing the meringue mushrooms around the log-shaped cake.

As two blenders whirled, Veatch began with the chocolate sponge cake baked on a sheet so it could be easily rolled into a log. As the basis of the dessert, Veatch emphasized that the sponge cake is the most essential part. Among some of his baking tips, he suggested to use oil instead of butter in the sponge cake. “It will be a bit more elastic and allow the cake to roll better,” he noted.

Another trick, when mixing ingredients in a blender, is to start with wet ingredients and then add dry ingredients to get an evenly incorporated mixture. Then when folding ingredients, start by using a whisk then switch to a spatula.

Chef Veatch expertly rolling the cream-filled sponge cake into a log shape

Chef Veatch expertly rolling the cream-filled sponge cake into a log shape

“The trick is to roll and fold,” said Veatch demonstrating this technique. Above all, use good ingredients like farm fresh eggs and top quality chocolate. “Don’t go buy Hershey cocoa powder,” he insisted.

The chef’s secret tip? “Use salt, booze and caramel to cut through 90 percent of sweetness in a dessert.”

While the sponge cake was in the oven, Veatch whisked the egg whites into soft peaks for the butter cream. Heady hints of cocoa filled the kitchen when he whipped up the chocolate ganache and smoky aromas of nuts while toasting the candied hazelnuts. As we watched him whip up the coffee syrup, chocolate mousse and pipe the meringue into mushroom shapes with precision, we were treated to delicious wines poured by Christian Tietje, winemaker at Cypher and Rotta Winery.

Tietje poured 2001 and 2002 Zinfandel from Four Vines (a label founded by him) produced from Sonoma Valley fruit. “This is a little risqué tasting,” he cautioned of the older Zinfandel, a wine that is generally not known for its age-ability. Both the vintages were surprisingly good, well balanced with fruit and acidity.

Two cakes - the classic yule log and the contemporary brick shape

Two cakes – the classic yule log and the contemporary brick shape

Staying on the Zinfandel theme, he also poured the 2008 Anarchy, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah and Mourvedre. The Zinfandel port from Rotta was saved for the finale, to pair with Bûche de Nöel. Made from black Manukka, a raisin grape, the non-vintage port is much like a Madeira or Sherry, Tietje explained.

Since the traditional Buche de Noel is time consuming, Veatch gave a brief demonstration of a simpler, contemporary version of the cake. “All the ingredients are the same,” he noted. But the cake is layered in a loaf pan and shaped like a brick instead of a log.

We watched in awe, as Veatch added the finishing touches, garnishing the two cakes with the meringue mushrooms. With a good dose of humor, the chef assured us that in baking there are no mistakes. “You can cover everything with butter cream,” he mused.

Clearly the chef made no mistakes as he presented the two cakes — the classic and contemporary versions of Buche de Noel.

For inspired chefs here’s the recipe for this challenging baking process. But the end result will impress your holiday guests.

La Buche de Noel (aka Yule Log)
Serves 12 – 14

Chocolate Sponge

5 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup flavorless oil
¼ cup water
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar

Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, and grease/oil the parchment.
Combine the yolks and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until mixture reaches ribbon stage. Whisk in the oil and water, then sift in the dry ingredients.

In another bowl, whisk the egg whites until very frothy, then very slowly begin adding the sugar, continuing to whisk all the time until the mixture reaches stiff peaks (firm but not dry).

Fold together the yolk mixture and the egg whites, alternating, beginning and ending with yolk mixture. Spread the mixture evenly over the parchment; bake for 8 to 12 minutes, until springy to the touch

Coffee Buttercream

1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ pound granulated sugar
½ cup water
½ cup egg whites (about 4)
2 tablespoons coffee extract

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water; stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Increase the heat so the mixture is simmering, and bring up to 235°.

While the sugar is heating, whisk the egg whites to soft peaks in a stand mixer at high speed (or with an electric hand-held mixer). Slowly add the hot sugar mixture to the egg whites, whisking all the time on high speed; continue whisking until the mixture is cool.

Mount in the butter in pieces, until smooth, then stir in the coffee extract.

Candied Hazelnuts

8 ounces hazelnuts
4 ounces granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water; stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolves; increase the heat and bring to a simmer. Cook until the mixture reaches 225°; add the hazelnuts, and stir constantly (over medium heat) until the nuts crystallize.

Continue stirring until the crystallized sugar has melted off and caramelized, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and salt; stir until dissolved.

Chocolate Ganache

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon corn syrup

Place the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and set near the stove. In a medium saucepan, combine the cream and corn syrup. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Whisk one-third of the hot cream mixture into the chocolate, whisking until completely smooth. Repeat with the second one-third, whisking until smooth, and finally the last third. Let cool to room temperature

Coffee Syrup

½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup coffee extract

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Add the coffee extract and remove from the heat.

Meringue Mushrooms

2 large egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt

3 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped, for the “glue”
2 tablespoons cocoa powder, for decoration

Preheat the oven to 200°. Place the bowl of a stand mixer over a gently simmering bain marie. In the bowl, combine the egg whites and the sugar and use a balloon whisk to beat until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is glossy. Transfer the bowl to the stand mixer and continue beating with the whisk attachment until the mixture is very glossy and very stiff—firm but not dry—about 10 minutes. Scoop the meringue into a large piping bag fitted with a ½-inch round pastry tip.

On a large, parchment-lined baking sheet, pipe out rounds and “stems” of meringue as demonstrated. Bake for 1 to 1½ hours, until the meringues are dry and crisp. Turn off the oven and allow the “mushrooms” to cool completely.

In a stainless steal bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring until smooth. Spread the melted chocolate onto the flat side of the mushroom cap and press the stem firmly into the chocolate; let cool fully, to set firmly.

Turn the “mushrooms” right-side-up and sprinkle with cocoa powder. Store in a cool dry place. (They may be stored on baking parchment in an airtight container at room temperature for several days.)

Chocolate Mousse

2 tablespoon granulated sugar
4 large egg yolks
½ cup plus 2 cups heavy whipping cream, divided
1 cup whole milk
1 cup bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

In a heatproof bowl, whisk together the sugar and yolks until smooth. In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and ½ cup of the cream; bring up just to a simmer and immediately remove from the heat. Temper the egg yolk mixture and hot milk together carefully, as demonstrated, so you do not risk curdling the yolks. Return the mixture to the saucepan and place over low heat. Thicken gently, stirring all the time. Place the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and pour the hot custard over the chocolate; stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Allow to cool slightly. While the chocolate custard is cooling, whip the remaining 2 cups of cream to soft peaks. Working with one third at a time, gently fold the whipped cream into the chocolate until fully incorporated; scoop into the mold.

To assemble

All of the elements above
Powdered sugar

Carefully remove the parchment paper from the sponge cake. Using a pastry brush, soak the sponge with the coffee syrup. In an even layer, spread the buttercream over the sponge. Sprinkle the candied nuts over the buttercream. Carefully roll the cake over itself in a tight fashion. Wrap firmly with plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.

Unwrap the cake and place it on a platter. Cut off a wedge of cake from one side of the roll at a 45-degree angle. Place the cut wedge on top of the roll and affix it with a little chocolate ganache “glue.” Comb the ganache with a fork to create a bark-like texture, and decorate with meringue mushrooms and powdered sugar.

For the daring baker:

Coat the buche mold with non-stick spray and line with plastic wrap. Cut the sponge into pieces, to line and fit inside the mold. Prepare the chocolate mousse and pour it into the mold, filling it up halfway. Insert the ganache mold and cover with remaining mousse; cap with sponge. Place the mold into the freezer overnight. After freezing, unmold the cake by dipping it into warm water for 5 seconds. Prepare the ganache and pour it over the cake. Allow the cake to set in the refrigerator and, when ready to serve, decorate with meringue “mushrooms.”

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About the author: Columnist Mira Honeycutt

Honeycutt has more than 20 years of experience as a wine consultant and wine journalist. Currently, she is the California contributor to Sommelier India Wine Magazine. Her wine and food coverage has been published in the Harper’s Bazar India, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Tatler, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and www.zesterdaily.com. She was a contributing wine blogger on the highly popular Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s Good Food blog. Honeycutt is also the author of “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles,” as well as the curator of the soon to be published book, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.

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