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Bûche de Noël: Denver

21 Dec

For my European Holiday Challenge post, I decided to make a classic Bûche de Noël. For those of you who don’t know much about French holiday cooking, the Bûche de Noël is a “yule log” cake: a rolled genoise cake filled, frosted, and then decorated to look like a log. For many families, I suppose the presence of a Bûche de Noël must mark Christmas dinner, but not my family.  I’ve never had one of these before! It seemed like quite an undertaking, but I have nothing but time on my hands so I figured I’d give it a go. I decided to make it for the christmas dinner my parents had for me and Boris.

The recipe sources from The Martha Stewart Cookbook, which I own and love very much. I’ll transcribe the recipe below, but it’s a long one, so I may make some abbreviations here or there.

CAKE

  • 1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted, non-self-rising cake flour
  • 2 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted granulated sugar
  • 1 cup sifted unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 10 egg whites

To make the cake, butter two 13 x 11 -inch jellyroll pans, then line them with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on the short ends. Butter the parchment paper and the sides of the pan. Lightly dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, 1 1/2 cups of the sugar, the cocoa, baking powder, and salt.  In a large bowl, whisk the whole eggs, oil, and vanilla until frothy. Stir in the flour mixture until blended and thick.

In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks start to form. One teaspoon at a time, add the remaining 9 tablespoons of sugar and continue to beat until stiff but not dry.

Fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the egg-and-flour mixture. 1/3 at a time, continue to incorporate the remaining egg whites by folding. Do not overmix. scrape the batter evenly into the prepared pans and spread evenly. (This is very important to try to spread into a flat surface! The cake has no butter in it, so it won’t melt and even out the way some other cakes do when they bake.)

Bake the cake for 12-15 minutes, until it springs back when gently touched in the center. (I thought my cakes weren’t nearly done enough when I pulled them out of my oven but they harden considerably when cooling – and you don’t want to over-bake them because they’ll crack when you roll them.) Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the pan. Cover the cake with a large piece of plastic wrap, and then cover with a damp towel. Invert the cake onto a baking rack. When it is just cool enough to touch, start at long side and roll the cake, with the parchment paper, plastic wrap, and towel, into a cylinder. Cool the rolled cake to room temperature.

Whew. Sounds like a lot, right? My cakes turned out beautifully, though.

Here’s halfway through folding in the glorious egg whites. I love whipped egg whites. I have since I was a kid.

Once my cakes came out of the oven, they both looked like lovely fields of chocolate. They were probably just under an inch thick, some total, and I did my best to flatten them without pressing the air out of them– a large offset spatula helped in this task. It didn’t take long for them to cool in my cold kitchen. Remember, you need them to be as warm as possible to roll (more on this in a second), so don’t be shy about handling them hot.

Then came the rolling. If I’ve ever been panicked about baking something, this was the time. You want me to WHAT? Roll them? HOW? Won’t they shatter into one million pieces? You just, like, go for it? It sounded too easy – but somehow, it really wasn’t that bad. First, it’s so helpful if your parchment really does hang out two inches from the sides of your cakes before you put them in the pan. Secondly, the damp cloth kitchen towel makes it easier, too. I made mine hot and damp, though they were mostly cooled anyway by the time I rolled them. Oh, well. Also, don’t use towels you don’t mind getting stained – because they WILL get stained when you fill the cakes.

So, I took a deep breath, covered my cakes with saran wrap and a hot damp tea towel, and rolled. Roll tightly!

Ta-Dah! Never mind my mother’s cat-shaped oven mitt.

While the cakes are cooling to room temperature, I made Almond Cream Filling to fill my cakes with. I love almond anything. I added a teaspoon of instant espresso powder to the mixture in the sauce pan to deepen the color (I wanted my Bûche to look swirly, like a cutaway portion of a tree.) My filling looked like it was made of silk.

Once my filling was complete and cooled, I unrolled my cakes – which, to my immense relief, looked beautiful! I filled my cakes (below), and rolled them back up. Into the fridge they went!

Filled, re-rolled in their tea towels, and in the fridge, my cakes spent the night while I went home and felt only relief at the so-far-so-good results. The next morning I got up and got ready to decorate, because Christmas Eve dinner was that night! (It wasn’t actually Christmas Eve, as Boris would be with his parents in Nevada that night. My parents really wanted to have a proper “Christmas Dinner” with him, though, so we did ours on the 20th.) My cookbook recipe included one for white chocolate swiss meringue buttercream for the cake – I made it, and it was beautiful and glossy and white but made me nauseous when I sampled the finished product (white chocolate has, puzzlingly, never agreed with me), so I threw out the entire (~4 cup) batch. Boo! I went to the store the next day and made true, plain Swiss Meringue Buttercream to ice it.  Does this cake have a lot of eggs in it, or what? The frosting also adds just the tiiiiniest bit of butter:

I also made and assembled some meringue mushrooms, which are the traditional decorations of the Bûche de Noël.

To assemble my cake, I unrolled my cakes and removed all the parchment and towels etc. I cut all ends of my two cakes at a diagonal, to emphasize the swirly tree-like look. WOW! I was so excited to see how mine turned out. One of my rolls was prettier on the inside than the other – so I used the uglier roll for my long log “base”. The other, prettier roll was cut in half (on the diagonal again), and one “branch” was attached to the side, flat, with a glob of icing and the other “branch” was stuck to the top of the log with icing glue. Then I frosted! I decided a wooden cutting board would be a good platter for my cake, so that’s what I assembled, decorated, and presented on.

Frosting was fairly delicate work, as the cakes were soft. I got a nice, thick layer on it. Don’t worry about it being smooth – it’s supposed to look messy like tree bark. I ran a fork through my icing to make it look more like bark.

The final touches I added were a sifted dusting of cocoa powder (often, the frosting is chocolate and you dust with powdered sugar to make it look like snow, but since I chose a white icing I thought brown dust would look lovely). I also sifted some silver Wilton Pearl Dust over mine, which looked very snowy and decorative, if I do compliment my own taste. Finally, I added my meringue mushrooms.

Viola! 

This made a TON of cake. We ate it for like three weeks, ha.

St. Lucia Buns and Marcipani Cookies: Portland

15 Dec

Before Christmas, one of my coworkers had a cookie swap soiree, and I, of course, felt obliged to make a bazillion baked goods for the occasion. For Hannah’s Christmas challenge, I wanted to make traditional Simon-Teteak family favorites.

So naturally, I chose St. Lucia buns (from the Swedish Andersens on my dad’s side of the family) and Marcipani cookies (from the Czech Teteaks on my mom’s side of the family).

And as you can see, I had a special baking guest: our very own wee law receptionist, Christopher.

These Christmas cookies and buns are special not only because they’re part of my heritage (which I’m an extreme sucker for). It’s the spices that make these marcipani cookies special: Ground fennel and caraway seeds give these gingerbread-esque creations a wonderfully sharp yet subtle flavor. The saffron buns (otherwise known as lussekatter in Swedish, meaning little cats), are sweet yeast rolls with ground saffron. Because saffron is so expensive usually, these are reserved for the St. Lucia Day holiday, which my family celebrates every December 13.

I had the pleasure of borrowing my friend’s KitchenAid mixer, which helped quite a bit when it came time to knead the saffron bun dough. It tends to get extremely sticky, which I remember always frustrated me as a child when it came time to shape them into rolls.

The little spots you see in the cut up rolls are golden raisins, which are a lovely addition to the saffron. Once you’ve let the dough rise once, you divide it into 32 pieces, which will make 16 buns. Basically, you roll out the dough segments into 12-inch strips and then twist them together to make this shape (I obviously need to do better about taking pictures of my baking step by step). Then you let the rolls rise again until they get nice and puffy and are ready to bake.

Next, Chris and I rolled out the cookie dough. It made a ton, so I took the other half to my cousins’ house for Christmas (they’re Teteaks too) so we could make some together.  I didn’t have a rolling pin yet, so you can see here that Chris is resorting to my method of choice, the cooking spray can.

After several hours of mixing, rising and baking, here’s the final result! The cookies were far more airy and light than I would have expected, and for a person who doesn’t like fennel or caraway seed that much, I was really surprised with how light the flavor was. As for the saffron buns, they were delightful as usual. They’re also very good for breakfast.

Challenge #8: CYOC Multicultural Christmas Celebrations

14 Dec

Time for a Choose-Your-Own-Challenge for Nora and myself! Instead of picking one recipe to do as per normal, we thought we’d sort of pick a theme and leave ourselves way more room for interpretation. Our next challenge will be a Christmas- or holiday-themed baked good that sources its history or inspiration from a non-American culture.  I already know what I’m making, but I’m leaving it a surprise until I post it (I’m baking on Saturday, so probably early next week.)

Ready, Set, Go!

Brown-Sugar Buttermilk Pie: Denver

26 Nov

Whelp. I was able to steal my parents’ camera after Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, so this blog will have pictures. What?! I am hoping to buy a new camera some time in the next few months (read: am begging for one for Christmas…come ooooon mom ‘n dad), so ideally my blogs will not suck as substantially as my last one did.  Anyway.

I thought that this pie was ok – I am not huge on custard pies, as I generally prefer summery fruit pies – however, this pie had a really nice texture and its simple flavor would have been good with some wildly-flavored ice cream. Actually, I think it would have been amazing with eggnog-flavored ice cream…do they make eggnog flavored ice cream? I hope so.

I didn’t make this for Thanksgiving, as Nora did.  I made a pumpkin pie for my parents/The Boy, because my father will literally riot in our house if there isn’t pumpkin pie to eat after dinner on this holiday.  I also made a special other dessert, and I’ll tell you about it at the end of this post. No cheating and skipping ahead.

The recipe was pretty cut-and-dry.  My pie crust was not very pretty. Nora’s was so neatly crimped! This is what mine looked like, because I am lazy, and no one is gonna see this pie but me and The Boy. Well, and you, blog-reader. So, I guess I owe you an apology for my ugly-ass pie.

The baked crust shell (ugliest):
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Finished pie (slightly less heinous but with un-smooth surface due to knife-test):
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In meek effort to redeem myself, the pumpkin pie that I made at my parents’ house on Thursday morning was BEAUTIFUL. I was so proud of it. I even cut out little leaves out of extra pie dough and decorated it. Photo evidence below, because I feel really smug about how pretty it was. Also, it was amazing. I rebelled against the evaporated-milk-in-pumpkin-pie bullshit and instead used heavy cream and half-and-half…it was AMAZING. It was so pumpkiny and not too sweet, which is usually my issue with pumpkin pies. Look at this lovely:

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Anyway, back to the point of this blog: Buttermilk Sugar Pie. It made a ton of custard, so I baked some extra in a little ramekin.

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Also, the texture was really silky and beautiful. See:

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With regard to the special dessert that I made on Thanksgiving: I usually make a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and one additional dessert every year. Last year, I made pumpkin-chocolate cupcakes, but they were sort of “too much”.  This year, I opted for Martha Stewart’s Cranberry-Vanilla Pavlova.  If you’ve never had a pavlova before, you haven’t been living. They’re essentially giant meringues (my favorite food) topped with freshly-whipped cream and fruit.  This was extraordinary, light, flavorful, and beautiful. It made a great Thanksgiving supplementary dessert, but it would be delicious for a christmas eve treat, too. Look at how pretty it was!:

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Brown-Sugar Buttermilk Pie: Portland

23 Nov
Like a zombie chef, I’ve got pie on the brain.

I made not one, not two, but four pies this week, with at least three more to follow. When holidays come around, I go crazy with the need to distribute my baking bounty. My victims this Thanksgiving: my sister, roommate, coworkers, neighbors, friends and my half-marathon training schedule.

Round 1: This week on Cooking By The Book, I had a special guest star: my little sister, Gail.

We made an early Thanksgiving side dish feast on Monday night while she was visiting Portland, complete with tomato-olive stuffing, sour cream mashed potatoes, Alton Brown’s homemade green bean casserole, cranberry-orange-apple relish.
And of course, for dessert, we had this week’s challenge: buttermilk brown-sugar pie with homemade whipped cream with Amaretto. The pie was delicious, and I have a sneaking suspicion it was the butter. Butter in the crust, browned butter in the filling. I’m obsessed.
During the baking fest, we stayed true to an annual Simon family tradition (of which there are surprisingly few; we’re a unabashedly unsentimental family) and watched the 1949 black & white version of Miracle on 34th Street, as well as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
Gail was in charge of the wet ingredients for the filling (she’s not as fond of crusts as I am).
I’ve always been tempted to try powdered buttermilk (you know, the package with the guy with the moustache), so I bought some just for this. It worked great, and now I can keep it in my fridge and use it whenever I need for banana bread, etc.

I finally learned how to crimp a crust properly (no more of that fork on the edge crap). Thanks, Internet! How would I have ever learned to bake without you? A sad observation, but very true.
The pie crust I usually make (to go with the pumpkin pie) has vinegar and calls for vegetable shortening, but I always use butter. For the buttermilk pie, I tried out the food processor variety with butter and water, and it was fine. I think I’ll stick with the vinegar variety, though.

Something about that one tiny tablespoon keeps it a nice rollable consistency and creating a flaky pastry with an interesting flavor dimension. Also, one of my coworkers told me about this awesome pie crust recipe (secret ingredient: vodka), which I know I’m going to have to try.

Round 2: Then on Thanksgiving Eve, I made it again to take to work, and the second time was definitely better than the first. (You can tell this one has a much better crimped crust because I did it correctly.) Blue Ribbon Pumpkin Pie (with a secret ingredient in the filling; can you guess what it is?) and Karo label pecan pie followed.

Round 3 (To be continued): For Thanksgiving Day, I’m planning pecan chocolate chip and pumpkin pies (to take to dinner), plus a sweet potato pie (for my neighbors).

Challenge #7: Brown-Sugar Buttermilk Pie

17 Nov

Next up, it’s pie time for Thanksgiving fare.

This year, I’m making millions of pies, including your standard pumpkin and pecan. But for early Thanksgiving with my sister (little Gail), we’re trying something new. It’s brown-sugar buttermilk pie, which I (again), borrowed from the Thanksgiving issue of Martha Stewart EVERYDAY Food. If I haven’t already, I would recommend buying the issue. It’s really well designed and edited (plus, I love pictures of food and new recipes).