Six things I’d rather not do:
- Have my gums scraped.
- Stumble into a nest of Brown Recluse spiders.
- Eat a razor blade.
- Spend a week in a locked bank vault with Rush Limbaugh and half a pack of Fig Newtons.
- Listen to an album of country favorites recorded by The Kingston Trio.
- Make a Buche de Noel.
I prefer option one through five to the last item on the list.
I did it once.
What is a Buche de Noel, you ask?
It is something only the French could conceive, smug as they are, hiding behind the thin veneer of continental rationalism, snug in the PJs of faded colonial glory.
It is, in short, a cake.
A Christmas Log.
The infernal thing is a clumsily crafted facsimile of a hunk of rotten tree branch, replete with fungus.
My nightmare featuring this monstrosity occurred twenty years ago.
It’s not hard to guess whose idea it was. Since Dr. Mengele was dead, it had to be my wife.
“Let’s make a Buche de Noel,” said Kathy, her tone of voice gilded with the studied, brittle enthusiasm of a francophile. She repeated her suggestion in French, buttressing the sentence with a frivolous hand gesture.
I knew instantly it was a bad idea: This is something you don’t want to attempt if you have a small kitchen, a poor oven and limited counter space. And a bad attitude.
Guess what? Our kitchen at the time was the size of an airplane bathroom; the oven was made in Poland, circa 1938, jury-rigged out of old tin cans and isinglass. We had counter space equal in surface area to a pocket atlas.
I had a very bad attitude.
“It’s such a lovely Christmas tradition. We need Christmas traditions,” chirped my bride. “ Right now all we have is you sitting around in old sweatpants and a torn T-shirt, watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, making fun of Christians and Christmas trees and griping about spending money on gifts for relatives you don’t like. This is a new idea.”
Oh yeah, what a great idea for a new Christmas tradition: laboring for hours in order to clog your arteries, choking down a cake that looks like rotten wood. The artery thing I appreciate; the French log leaves a lot to be desired. After all, these are the same folks who sneer at me when I try to order in a Paris brasserie.
I agreed to the experiment, under duress.
This French log production is not simple.
First, you bake a génoise. Génoise is French for, “crappy cake that’s more difficult to make than it’s worth.” In this case, the génoise is flavored with cocoa and baked thin, so it can be rolled like a jellyroll. The cake has a ton of egg in it, so it’s extremely flexible: four eggs to a cup of cake flour. The batter is made with flour, salt, sugar, sifted together and mixed with beaten egg whites, egg yolks, more sugar, cocoa and vanilla.
The batter is baked at 400 degrees, cooled and turned on to a towel that has been sprinkled with powdered sugar.
The cake is then brushed with a syrup made of sugar, water and rum. I enjoyed this part of the process. I used a couple tablespoons of the rum in the syrup and drank a great deal of what remained in the bottle.
The kiss of death, heart-disease wise, is the buttercream. This is the only desirable part of the dish.
You need a ton of buttercream. Perhaps a ton and a half.
Put about four cups of semisweet chocolate morsels in a food processor. Grind it up for a few seconds and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Put in a large bowl (a mixer bowl if you are a member of the privileged class). If you are poor, take out the electric mixer. Add a half-cup of boiling water and a half-cup of boiling coffee to the chocolate and mix for a while. Add about eight to ten tablespoons of sugar, then temper sixteen to eighteen egg yolks and — here’s the critical part —adding loads of butter. Try at least two cups. If you want, pop in a teensy bit of vanilla and definitely put in about eight tablespoons of rum, if you haven’t finished off the bottle.
Make even more of this stuff, if you want, there’s never enough.
You spread a goodly layer of buttercream on the génoise then, using the towel, roll the cake like a jellyroll. Your roll should be about 18 inches or so in length and fat as all get-out.
Here’s where the French get tooty.
Cut a chunk off the roll, maybe four inches long, on the diagonal. Smear a wad of buttercream on top of the roll and glue the piece to it. Cut of another, smaller chunk and do the glue thing with it. The French think these lumps look like broken branches.
They also think they won World War II.
Baste the log and its stupid-looking clunky branches with rum syrup. Proceed to frost the whole kit and kaboodle. Then (another clever French idea) drag the tines of a fork through the frosting in a pathetic attempt to mimic the appearance of tree bark.
Get yourself some marzipan. Personally, I can’t think of anything to do with marzipan other than to use it as caulk, but you manufacture clumsy imitations of mushrooms with the junk and put them next to the clumsy imitation of a rotten log with its clumsy imitation of tree bark. Just roll balls of the icky, stiff stuff for the mushroom caps, then roll cylinders for the stems. Squash the end of a cylinder into a ball and, voila, a hunk of marzipan that looks like a preschooler’s idea of a mushroom. Or some goofy French cook’s idea of a mushroom.
What a treat. It took me only seven hours to complete the Buche de Noel.
The kitchen looked like Atlanta after Sherman finished his churlish work.
Go ahead, try it this season.
What a nice treat for you and the kids, or the grandkids. What a neato Christmas holiday project, eh?
I have a better idea for a new Christmas tradition.
Take it from me: Skip everything about the Buche de Noel but the buttercream. Whip up a couple pounds of the glorious, fatty stuff, put it in a bowl and arm yourself with a big spoon.
Put on some tattered sweats and a rancid T-shirt, plop yourself on the couch, play “The Kingston Trio sings the Best of the Oakridge Boys” gorge yourself on buttercream, finish off the rum and gripe about your relatives.