Each year since I met my husband, I have made sure that Christmas is filled with traditional baked goods close to his heart. This has meant baking many traditional British holiday treats such as mincepies, Christmas pudding, shortbread, etc. and other classics like vanilla kipferl. This year, I wanted to add something that was traditional for me and I couldn't think of a better treat than a Bûche de Noël, a traditional yule log cake.
As a kid, my mom would make a bûche every Christmas. I still remember her swearing over rolling this cake which is made to look like a piece of cut off wood. I also remembered that she would make it with chestnuts, although it would be years until I caught on that the, "marron" flavor she talked about was in fact - chestnut. Thank you Google translate for this epiphany moment! I will admit, I didn't do my research before embarking on this baking journey. I kept seeing the canned chestnuts in the baking aisle of our regular grocery store, and I naively figured, that's all your really needed. How wrong I would be! When I finally started studying recipes for a traditional chestnut bûche, I quickly learned that most recipe actually use chestnut spread - not a whole chestnut in site. So just in case, I ran out and purchased chestnut spread in preparation. Turns out all of Quebec was also planning to make bûche this year because most places were sold out - Yay pandemic baking!
As we started getting ready to Christmas, I quickly realized our house was quickly filling with far too many treats... Definitely more than we could consume with no company coming this year (as per public health authority recommendations). So the bûche took a back seat and I decided instead I'd save this cake for a new year's eve treat. Come December 31st and I am ready to bake! I jump online to decide which recipe I am going to follow, but quickly I am disappointed that most recipes only use a small portion of the chestnut spread - typically using it as the single component of the filling. But I want the chestnut flavour to shine! This is where decades of baking came in handy.
So I look at my canned chestnuts and I think, surely if I cook these down in sugar, I'll get something that resembles candied chestnuts and I can make it work in the cake? And so I emptied the chestnuts into a pot with 1/2 cup of sugar and some water and left that on medium heat to see what would happen. The chestnuts broke down and could be "mushed-up" and the sugar helped turn the mixture into a lovely caramel as the water evaporates. Total success! I put this mix aside to let it cool down before assembling the cake.
As for the pureed chestnuts, I knew I didn't want to use the spread as is and I also knew I wanted the filling of my bûche to be on the creamy side. So I added a small splash of whipping cream to the spread and whipped that up. In a second bowl, I whipped up about 1 cup of whipping cream with some icing sugar to make a simply chantilly cream. I gently folded the chestnut spread mix in with the chantilly which made a lovely creamy filling. I popped that into the refrigerator until I was ready to assemble.
Once I had my baked sponge ready to go, I topped it with any remaining chestnut spread first, covered that with my "candied chestnuts" and finished it off with the chestnut Chantilly cream.
My roulade cake was already looking quite pretty at this point, but I did want to do some sort of icing or decorating to make it look more like a traditional yule log. I saw lots of chocolate or buttercream based decorations, but that wasn't the feel I was going for. And then it clicked! Meringue would provide me with a pretty and easy finish which could easily be made to look like tree bark. Success! And here was the final product. It looked a little better the night before, but the lighting wasn't working for me so I couldn't get a good picture.
CHOCOLATE & CHESTNUT BÛCHE DE NOËL
For the base:
6 large eggs
150g super fine sugar (caster sugar)
50g cocoa powder
For the filling:
280 g chestnut spread
1 cup 35% whipping cream
3 tbsp icing sugar
For the meringue:
4 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
For the sponge... Separate your eggs and place the egg yolks in a medium bowl and your egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using an electric hand whisk, whisk the egg yolks until they start to pale and thicken. Add the sugar and continue to whisk until the mixture becomes thicker and smooth. Add in the cocoa powder and continue to whisk until thoroughly blended in. With your stand mixer on medium speed, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Spoon about a quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and fold gently. Once smooth, carefully fold the entire chocolate mixture into the egg whites. Use a cutting and folding motion until the mix is just combined. Spread the mixture into a swiss roll baking sheet which has been lined with parchment paper. Give the mix a few taps to even it out. Bake it in the center of the oven for about 20 minutes or until it is risen and puffy and feels springy in the center. Don't overcook or the sponge will be difficult to roll. Let it cool until easy to handle.. Loosen the edges of the chocolate base all round and turn it out onto a tea towel sprinkled with icing sugar. Carefully peel off the base parchment paper. Using the tea towel, very gently roll the cake to form the log and allow to cool completely.
For the "candied" chestnuts, empty your canned whole chestnuts into thick bottom pan. Add the sugar and water. Cook on medium-high stiring regularly until the chestnuts breakdown. Continue to cook down on medium heat until the sugar and water have turned into a nice brown caramel. Keep an eye on the pot during this process to make sure your caramel doesn't burn. When the chestnuts have reached a "jammy" consistency, pour them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a plate. Spread out the mix and allow it cool.
For the fillings, using about 240g of the chestnut paste, add a tablespoon of cream and whip to ensure the paste is fluffy and smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the whipping cream and icing sugar until you obtain a nice consistent whipped cream. Gently fold the whipped cream into the chestnut cream until well combined without overmixing. Place in the fridge until the cake is ready to be filled.
Unroll your cake very gently ensuring not to crack or bread the sponge. Spread your remaining chestnut paste evenly across the cake followed by the candied chestnuts. Spread your chilled chestnut cream across the cake. Roll the cake back up using the tea towel under the cake to nudge the cake over itself and to help ensure it doesn't crack. Place the cake on a plate or platter and store in the fridge until ready to eat or decorate.
Decoration: N.B. The meringue is optional and simply dusting the roll cake with icing sugar will render a beautiful cake.
Remove eggs from the refrigerator and separate. Place your egg whites in the clean bowl of your stand mixer. Allow them to reach room temperature to ensure they whip to their fullest. Whip the egg whites until they are glossy and smooth, then add the cream of tartar. Slowly add the sugar to the egg whites about a tablespoon at a time all while whisking and continue until all the sugar is incorporated. Whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Spread meringue on top of the roll cake and using a fork create grooves and cracks on the surface to give it the look of tree bark. Using a kitchen torch, toast your meringue until you are happy with the look.