Among the plethora of simple, straightforward French desserts that fill the pages of Dorie Greenspan's new Baking Chez Moi, there is a handful of more involved desserts, and those she reimagines in her own way. Her Gingerbread Bûche de Noel is both. Yule logs are a staple of the French holiday season, but this version seems quite American to me, with its cream cheese filling and sweet meringue frosting. A gently spiced, light-as-air sponge cake is rolled around a mixture of cream cheese and butter fragrant with vanilla and cinnamon, sweetened only by the addition of caramel-coated pecans. A simple meringue covers the cake, which gets a finishing sprinkle of more of those pecans. Although there are a few components, none are terribly tricky, and the cake comes together in spurts over the course of an afternoon (though you can make everything except the frosting ahead of time). I wouldn't recommend it for a novice, as there is caramel and hot syrup involved, but it's a very doable, very rewarding project for a semi-experienced baker.
Notes: My only quibble is with the frosting. I found that the quantity of cream of tartar gave it a weirdly sour edge, and I desperately wanted a pinch of salt to round out the sweetness. And, heck, while I'm at it, I'd add a touch of salt to the pralined pecans, too. On a happier note, she mentions in the introduction to the recipe, "The filling, packed in a jar, is a great gift on its own, to be spread over toast or on cookies." I second that emotion.
Excerpted from BAKING CHEZ MOI, © 2014 by Dorie Greenspan. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
- For the Praline:
- 1 cup (120 grams) pecan halves or pieces
- 1/3 cup (67 grams) sugar
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) water
- For the Cake:
- 3/4 cup (102 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup (32 grams) cornstarch, sifted
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 6 large eggs
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons; 2 ounces; 57 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting and rolling
- For the Filling:
- 8 ounces (227 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons; 4 ounces; 113 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- Pinch of fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- For the Frosting:
- 1/2 cup (120 ml) egg whites (about 4 large)
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 cup (240 ml) water
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
For the Praline: Center a rack in the oven and preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat and spread pecans out on the baking sheet. Bake nuts for 3 minutes (you want to heat, not toast, them), stir them around and then put them in a warm spot while you cook the sugar.
Put sugar in small saucepan and pour over water. Swirl to moisten sugar, then put pan over medium-high heat. Cook sugar, washing down the sides of the pan if needed with pastry brush dipped in cold water, until sugar turns a medium amber color. (Stay close; sugar changes color quickly.) Turn off heat, add nuts to saucepan (set the lined baking sheet aside), and stir a few times with a heatproof spatula or a wooden spoon, just to coat nuts with syrup. Pour caramelized nuts out onto baking sheet and use spatula, spoon, or offset metal spatula to spread them out. If they won’t spread out, no matter—you’re going to chop them anyway. Let cool completely.
(The praline can be made up to a day ahead, packed in a container and kept in a cool, dry place—moisture is praline’s nemesis.) Finely chop 1/2 cup of the praline; coarsely chop the remainder.
For the Cake: Center a rack in oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 12- x 17-inch rimmed baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. Butter the paper, dust with flour, and tap out excess.
Whisk flour, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and pepper together in a small bowl.
Have a wide skillet about 1/3 full of simmering water on the stove. Working in the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a heatproof bowl in which you can use a hand mixer, whisk together eggs and brown sugar. Set the bowl in the pan of simmering water (pour off some water if you’re concerned that it will slosh over the sides) and whisk nonstop until mixture is very warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
If you’re using a stand mixer, attach the bowl to the stand and fit it with the whisk attachment, or use a hand mixer. Working on high speed, beat sugared eggs until they are thick and pale, have more than doubled in volume, and have reached room temperature, 7 to 10 minutes. Switch to a flexible spatula and fold in flour mixture in 2 additions. Be as delicate as you can and don’t be overly thorough now—you’re going to continue to fold when butter goes in. Put melted butter in a small bowl, scoop a big spoonful of batter over it, and stir. Turn this mixture out onto batter in the bowl and fold it in: Cut deep into the center of the bowl and search the bottom for unincorporated flour—find it and fold it. Scrape batter out onto prepared baking sheet and spread it evenly with an offset spatula.
Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, or until cake is golden brown, lightly springy to the touch, and starting to pull away from the sides of the baking sheet. Transfer baking sheet to a cooling rack, but keep it on the rack for no more than 5 minutes; you want to roll the cake while it’s hot.
Lay a cotton or linen kitchen towel (not terrycloth or microfiber) on the counter and dust it generously with confectioners’ sugar. Run a table knife around the sides of the cake and invert the cake onto the towel. Carefully peel away the parchment. Lightly dust cake with confectioners’ sugar and replace the parchment, putting the clean side against cake (or use a new piece). Starting at a short end, roll cake into a log; this is a preroll, so it doesn’t have to be tight or perfect. If cake cracks, keep rolling—the filling and frosting will patch everything. Return rolled-up cake (still in its towel) to the rack and let it cool, seam side down, to room temperature.
For the Filling: Put softened cream cheese, butter, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or work in a large bowl with a hand mixer. With the mixer on medium speed, beat until cream cheese and butter are homogeneous and smooth. Beat in cinnamon and vanilla. If you’re going to use filling now, stir in the 1/2 cup finely chopped praline; if not, wait until you’re ready to fill Yule log. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate. (You can make filling—without praline—up to 2 days ahead and keep it well covered in the refrigerator.)
To fill the log: If filling has been chilled, give it a good whisking to return it to a spreadable consistency; add praline if you haven’t already done so.
Unroll log and carefully remove parchment; leave cake on kitchen towel. Beginning with a short end, gently roll up cake, peeling away the towel as you go. Unroll cake onto towel or clean piece of parchment.
Spread filling across the surface of the cake, leaving a scant 1-inch border uncovered on the long sides. Again starting from a short side, roll up cake, leaving the towel or parchment behind and trying to get as tight a roll as you can. If you’d like, tighten log using the paper-and-ruler technique. Place cake on parchment-lined cutting board, cover it and chill it for 30 minutes.
For the Frosting: Meanwhile, put egg whites in the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl that you can use with a hand mixer.
Stir sugar, cream of tartar, and water together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover and boil for about 3 minutes. Uncover, attach a candy thermometer to the pan, and cook until the thermometer reads 242°F (117°C). This can take almost 10 minutes.
When sugar reaches 235°F (113°C), begin beating whites on medium speed. If you get to the point where whites look like they’re about to form stiff peaks and syrup isn’t at 242°F yet, lower the mixer speed and keep mixing until sugar is ready.
At 242°F, with the mixer on medium speed, stand back and carefully and steadily pour hot syrup into the bowl. Try to get syrup between the side of the bowl and the whisk. Perfection is impossible, so ignore any spatters; don’t try to stir them into the frosting. Add vanilla and keep beating until frosting cools to room temperature, about 5 minutes. You’ll have a shiny, marshmallow frosting, which you should spread now.
To frost and finish the log: Remove cake from refrigerator. You can frost it on the cutting board and then transfer it to a serving platter or put it on a platter now. To keep the platter clean during frosting, tuck strips of parchment under the log, putting just a sliver of the parchment under the cake and leaving the lion’s share to protect your platter.
If the ends of the log look ragged, trim them. Using an offset spatula, table knife, or the back of a spoon, swirl frosting all over cake in a thick layer. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour to set the frosting and firm up the filling.
Sprinkle cake with remaining coarsely chopped praline before serving.
For Serving: Bringing the cake to the table is its own dramatic event, but there’s no reason not to add to the drama by making it the sole event. Instead of waiting to serve the log après dinner, have an afternoon holiday party and serve just the cake and Champagne. It’s a very chic way to say Merry Christmas! And just because it’s called a bûche de Noël doesn’t mean you can’t stud it with candles and call it a birthday cake.
For Storing: Covered lightly and kept away from foods with strong odors, the cake will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Serve it chilled.