Sunday, December 30, 2012

Burning Bûche

I was denied sugar as a child.  The deprivation started when I was five.  I like to blame my brothers who required multiple root canals when they joined our family that year, but the truth is by the time I was eleven I had already had eleven fillings myself (despite six years sugar free).  Some of us just have teeth that feel more deeply than yours.

The house rule was pretty extreme, and included potato chips, honey and raisins - anything that could stick and start a r(i)ot in the crevices.  But somehow we convinced my mother that baking was an "educational experience" (algebra! chemistry!), and that after the fact, it was cruel to deny us the (marzipan) fruits of our labors.  Sugar was suddenly allowed if you were using it to cook.  And so began my love affair with baking - souffles, cakes, 100 almond meringues for my mom's birthday when I was 8, the flaming cherries jubilee flan when I was 10.

When this gas station went up for sale this year, I may have briefly fantasized about starting my own cafe/bakery, opening the garage door so people could dine al fresco, planting morning glories that would climb the rusty gas pumps.  J would stop in for a milkshake on her way home from school and I'd pretend not to eavesdrop as she told her friends about her latest crush. I'd paint everything in the colors of Frida Kahlo's house and decorate the walls with works by local artists...  But reading  Confections of a Closet Master Baker was a reality check- 3:00 a.m. is a good occasional bedtime, not an hour to wake up on a daily basis, and really would I want to do this all day every day?

I always thought I really loved baking, but I'm coming to terms with the idea that maybe I don't love it that much after all.  I remember when my mother met my husband for the first time.  After seeing our tiny, open-to-the-rest-of-the-house kitchen she asked him "where do you hide when she bakes?" I was totally puzzled, but  he seemed to know just what she was referring to and replied "I try to just get out of the house when that's happening."  If all goes well with a dessert, I am focused, annoyed by interruptions (your presence is an interruption) but pleased with myself in the end.

When things do not go well, however, I throw things.  On the floor, in the sink, in the trash prematurely.  I have an early memory of getting banned from baking for a month after removing a sheet of smoking cookies from the oven and taking them outside where I threw them one at a time against the side of the house (no mom, I still don't know what I was thinking).

Baking is not relaxing for me.  I like decorating (when it works), I like presenting pretty desserts to an appreciative recipient and I really, really like eating sweet things when I master a recipe I like.

This Christmas, I decided to try a bûche de noël (aka yule log).  My mother-in-law had suggested it last year, and if ever there was a dessert that was all about the decorations, this is it.  I figured if I gave myself enough time, I could do each of the difficult things in advance, and how hard is it to bake a jelly roll the day of?

So I made some meringue mushrooms and attached the stems with milk chocolate from instructions I got here.  And I painted holly leaves with three types of chocolate (semi-sweet - in the freezer for 15 minutes before peeling worked best)

And I made birds out of both egg white and marzipan to see which would come out better (marzipan looked less like silver poo).

and I even got crazy with a spun-sugar nest for my birdie.  I was having a grand ol' time!

And then, ho-hum, I thought I'd just throw together a cake.  I wanted a chocolate sponge with mascarpone filling to keep it light, and a chocolate ganache frosting because it's so pretty.  I started with Julia's sponge, but I added rum to my chocolate after it started melting and the whole thing seized (the person who suggested I try to salvage this mess for truffles narrowly escaped getting hit with a whisk).

My whisk-assault victim braved the store on Christmas eve at 4:00 to present me with $16 of replacement chocolate, which I managed to ruin again, I'm still not sure how.  At that point I cried.  Loudly. And I would have totally given up, but what a waste of decorations!  So I sought the most basic cake recipe I could find (Joy of Cooking) and with the help of my mother-in-law, managed to bake, sprinkle with khalua, fill and roll it without a hitch.  We cut off the ends to make a couple of limbs.

The ganache (recipe here) couldn't have been easier, and I thought the spatula made it look bark-like without me having to take a fork to it, so I left it alone.

Then I dressed it.  First I added my bird's nest with a couple of chocolate 'eggs' (truffles made by my sister-in-law).

Did I mention I made a chocolate Joyeaux Noel sign, but forgot the y?  There is no erase on chocolate. Fortunately I had tools to numb the pain.




  1. Wow!!! Some day we'll have to trade holiday baking horror stories over a bottle of wine:-) I finally had to throw in the towel on the Bouche de Noel... never as lovely as yours!

  2. Yes! I'd like to say this is the only year I'll try it, but I'm sure amnesia will set in before next December!

  3. I really did LOL! I too bake and was once crazy enough to sort of open a bakery, but that doesn't stop me from dreaming about the perfect storefront. I was denied sugar also, I swear it turns us into sugar beasts and bakers! Great post!

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