Buche de Noel

I love all the tradition that surrounds the holiday season. My family has so many wonderful traditions, many which I still do even when celebrating the holidays with just my husband. And, in getting married, him and I have also adapted some of his family's traditions. As a couple, Chris and I have created traditions together. One of our favorites is making a traditional Buche de Noel (Yule Log) cake every Christmas.

Originally, the Yule Log was an actual log. It started as a tree, which members of the family would go out and cut down, then bring the whole thing into the house. Once it was cut down, it was brought to the house with much fanfare, as this activity was thought to ensure good luck in the new year. The log was then placed on the hearth and set afire with a scrap of yule log from the previous year, which was meticulously preserved for this use. This tradition was done to ensure not only good luck from year to year, but from generation to generation as well. (If you're interested in learning more about this tradition, click here.)

No one is really sure where the idea of turning this tradition into a cake developed, but most food historians believe it happened in the 19th century. It was made to resemble an actual log, complete with a rolled cake to look like rings. Some were very fancy, and included meringue mushrooms, almond paste leaves, and other decorations to make it look like a true log. I, however, forgo the fancy stuff and do a simple dust of powdered sugar to look like snow. The cake is fabulous all on its own.

Now I realize that the ingredients are not all that local when compared to my other recipes, which usually emphasize locally grown produce or locally made artisan products. I do, however, believe that part of what makes a local food community is its traditions. In addition, I use local dairy and eggs, and also source my ingredients from my local co-op, not from a large chain store. You can find ways to integrate the idea of "local" even into recipes like this.

This delicious cake has several steps which make it seem complicated, but it is in fact a very easy cake to execute when the directions are followed properly. Do not be scared of making a rolled cake; again, it is really simple if you follow the directions. The cake itself is a delicious soft yellow sponge cake, filled with a rum-spiked chocolate spread and topped with a cocoa-whipped cream frosting. As you see in the picture, I like to slice off pieces from the end and place on the roll to make it look more like a log. The cake is best served cold or a little chilled, since leaving it at room temperature will cause the filling and frosting to fall.

I hope you enjoy this cake, and maybe it will become a part of your traditions!

Happy Holidays!

Buche de Noel
Makes 1 cake

¾ c cake flour (you must use cake flour; all-purpose will not produce the same result)
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
5 eggs, separated
1 c granulated sugar, divided
1 tsp vanilla
½ c powdered sugar
1 c semisweet chocolate chips
¾ c heavy cream
1 tbsp rum
Powdered sugar, for dusting
2 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder

Cocoa Frosting:
1 c heavy cream
2 tbsp unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted*
½ c powdered sugar, sifted
1 tsp vanilla

To Make the Cake:

Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease 15-½x10-½-inch jelly-roll pan; line with waxed paper. Grease waxed paper; set pan aside. Place flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl. Stir to combine. Beat egg yolks and ⅔ cup granulated sugar in a separate small bowl with electric mixer at high speed about 5 minutes or until thick and lemon colored, scraping down the side of bowl once. Beat in vanilla; set aside.

Beat egg whites in clean large bowl using clean beaters with electric mixer at high speed until foamy. Gradually beat in remaining ⅓ cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, until stiff peaks form.

Fold flour mixture into egg yolk mixture. Fold flour/egg yolk mixture into egg white mixture until evenly incorporated. Spread mixture into prepared pan. Bake 12-15 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched with finger. Meanwhile, lightly sift powdered sugar over a clean dish towel.

Loosen warm cake from edges of pan with spatula; invert onto prepared towel. Remove pan; carefully peel off waxed paper. Gently roll up cake in towel from short end, jelly-roll style. Let rolled cake cool completely on wire rack.

For chocolate filling, place chocolate chips and cream in heavy, 1-quart saucepan. Heat over low heat until chocolate is melted, stirring frequently. Pour into small bowl.; stir in rum. Cover and refrigerate about 1½ hours or until filling is of spreading consistency (should be pretty thick), stirring occasionally.

Prepare cocoa frosting (see below); refrigerate until ready to use.

Unroll cake; remove towel. Spread cake with chilled chocolate filling to within ½ inch of edge; re-roll cake. Spread cocoa frosting over cake roll. Dust with powdered sugar; sprinkle with cocoa.

To Make the Frosting:

Beat cream, cocoa, sugar, and vanilla with electric mixer at medium speed until soft peaks form (do not overbeat). Refrigerate until ready to use.

Adapted from Treasury of Christmas, page 336-338.

*Note: I usually use Hershey's Special Dark cocoa for this recipe, which provides a great, dark chocolate color and intense flavor to the frosting. The photo, however, was the buche I made at my mother-in-law's this year, and she only had regular cocoa. Either work fine, but the former will provide a stronger result.


Candied Orange Peel

Amazingly enough, the holiday season is already upon us. While it is undoubtably stressful, with seeking the perfect gift, decorating the house, coordinating travel plans and holiday parties, there is nothing like a little holiday baking to relieve all that stress. A warm kitchen with my favorite podcasts playing in the background, I feel at home stirring pots of caramel and hearing the whir of my stand mixer as I make cookies. I have this great apron that my aunt made me when I was little; it is bright red with an applique of stacked presents, outlined in puffy paint, with my name written at the bottom, also in puffy paint. I only wear this apron for holiday baking, and I love it.

This year, I am expanding my candy horizons. For the last few years, I've been making toffee, which has gone pretty well. I love giving candy as gifts because it's pretty, delicious, and a great break from cookies. This year, I decided on candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate and salted caramels. These recipes would show off two great local ingredients: citrus (which is just coming into season here) and dairy products from Clover in Petaluma.

The caramels turned out beautifully, but what would you expect from butter, cream, and sugar being simmered and heated to the perfect temperature? Once cooled, it became soft, smooth, buttery, and stunningly golden. I sliced the caramel into cubes and wrapped in waxed paper. A tin of these, combined with the candied orange peel, will make a perfect gift for your friends, family, co-workers, anyone!

The recipe I am going to share with you is for candied orange peel. This process takes a while, so I would recommend setting aside about 2 hours. It is, however totally worth it. Be sure to get off as much of the pith (white part) of the orange as you can. It is what makes the peel quite bitter, even after being simmered in sugar water for 45 minutes. The recipe I was working off of did not make this a large part of the preparation, so I've emphasized it in the recipe below. Take your time, be diligent, follow the recipe, and you'll get a delicious result.

In addition to the candied orange peels, here are links to some of the other treats I made:
Enjoy, and happy holidays!

Candied Orange Peel
Makes about 2 cups of peel

6 thick-skinned (firm) Valencia or navel oranges, organic if possible
4 1/2 cups cane sugar, plus more for rolling
1 1/2 cups water
6 oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate (I used a Dagoba semi-sweet baking bar)

Cut off the top and bottom of each orange, then score the peel into quarters, making sure to cut only through the peel and not into the fruit. Peel the skin and pith off of the fruit (if you have an orange peeler, it works great for this step); save fruit for another use. Cut the peel into 1/4-inch wide strips. Using a paring knife, go through each strip and remove as much of the pith as possible.

Put the peels in a large saucepan and fill with cold water until it just covers the orange peel. Bring to a boil over high heat, then pour off the water. Repeat this blanching process (each time starting with cold water) two more times. Remove the orange peels from the pan.

Whisk the sugar with the water in the saucepan. Bring to a simmer and cook until a candy thermometer* reaches the soft thread stage (230-234 degrees F). Add the peels and simmer gently, reducing heat to maintain a simmer, until the peels become translucent, about 45 minutes. Resist the urge to stir the peel during this process, since it will cause the sugar to crystallize. If necessary, swirl the pan a bit to move the peels around. Drain the peels, saving the syrup (it is delicious in iced tea, over ice cream, etc.). Roll the peels in sugar, then place on a sheet of parchment paper to dry for 4 to 5 hours.

When the peels are dry, they are ready for the chocolate. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or using the double-boil method. Dip half of each candied peel in chocolate, then place back on the parchment to dry. Once dried, store in an airtight container.

*A candy thermometer is a necessary tool for good candy, since temperature is such a key factor, so I would recommend purchasing one. I got mine for $10 at a kitchen store.


Pizza with Mushrooms & Arugula

Homemade pizza is by far one of my favorite things to make because it is such a fun and versatile food to put together. Making the crust satisfies my love of making anything that requires yeast and dough-rising. Second, you can put basically anything you would ever want on it, which means I get to venture to my local food co-op or farmers' market and pick the best and brightest of the local seasonal produce and cheeses.

Chris and I have been craving pizza for a few days, so I headed over to the Sacramento Natural Food Co-op to see what was available. I left with some beautiful chanterelle mushrooms and fresh baby arugula, among other items, all local of course. Putting the pizza together this evening was one of those great happy food moments. The dough, a different recipe than what I usually use, rose beautifully. As a shout-out to my dad, who always made homemade pizza dough when I was growing up, I sprinkled a little cornmeal on the pizza pan prior to laying down the dough. It is a great way to give the crust a unique and satisfying crunch. I spread out a generous helping of my husband's homemade pasta sauce, which we freeze copious amounts of every fall, then folded the dough over a little to make a little sauce pocket. I had pizza folded over like this during the summer, and loved how it turns pizza crust - which is usually dry, flavorless, and ignored - into a soft fold of dough that is a true part of the pizza. Topped with veggies and some herbed goat cheese and paired with a delicious glass of local red wine, this pizza was a perfect homage to all that is local and homemade.


Pizza with Mushrooms & Arugula
Makes 1 pizza

1 c water
1 packet (or 2 1/2 tsp) instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp olive oil
2 1/2 - 3 1/2 c flour

1 medium size leek, thinly sliced (white part only)
1/4 lb chanterelle mushrooms (you can use other kinds as well, whatever you like!)
1 small portobello mushroom cap
1 c pizza or pasta sauce
Handful baby arugula (or regular arugula, torn)
4 oz of herbed chevre, or whatever kind of cheese you prefer

To make the crust, combine the yeast and water and let stand 5 minutes, until foamy. Add the salt, olive oil, and 2 1/2 c flour; mix until combined. Add remaining flour, a little at a time, until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.* Transfer dough to an oiled mixing bowl. Roll dough around the bowl to evenly coat it in oil. Cover with a clean dish towel and let sit in a room-temperature, non-drafty place for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, a little salt and fresh ground pepper, and saute until leeks are soft and caramelizing, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms (and a little more oil, if skillet seems dry), saute 2-3 minutes; set aside.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. If using pizza stone, put in oven while it is preheating.

After dough has risen, punch down. Brush olive oil on a pizza pan and sprinkle with cornmeal. Place dough on pizza pan and stretch out to cover whole pan. Add sauce; spread evenly. Fold over about 1-inch of the dough all the way around the pizza. Top with leek-mushroom mixture, arugula, and goat cheese. Place pizza in oven on top of pizza stone and bake for 15-20 minutes.

*Note: I use my stand-mixer with a dough hook for this recipe, which makes it pretty easy to see when the dough is truly ready, as it incorporates ingredients more evenly than mixing by hand. If you do this by hand, mix it slowly and gently, being sure that all flour is incorporated before adding more. I usually use just a little bit less than what this recipe calls for.