I have a love-hate relationship with the holiday season, probably because some of my best and worst memories are associated with it. As a kid, holidays meant a yearly trip to Union Square to marvel at the lights and store windows, after which my dad would buy us each a corsage to decorate our Christmas finery. On the flip side, they also meant huddling at the top of the stairs with my older sister listening to my parents scream at each other late into the night about whose idiotic idea it was to buy something that needed assembling. As a young adult, holidays meant an annual shopping trip and tea with my adored grandmother to choose gifts for all of our far flung relatives, but also peeling my alcoholic mom off the floor while she ranted about how ungrateful I was. And as if things weren’t complicated enough, in September of 2001 my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer and given 3 to 6 months. He went down fighting, but he went down. Christmas was the last day he could speak. My birthday, which is two days later, was the last day I saw him conscious. He couldn’t talk, but he wiggled his fingers and sparkled his eyes at me for happy birthday. The vigil started the next day and he died on January 4th. Even though my Mom’s no longer around to complicate things, most years since Daddy died I feel like I take a breath in late September and hold it until January 5th, when I finally breath it out in relief. Along with the annual trip to Union Square with my nieces and the Stocking Smackdown with my husband and sister Sally, a Buche de Noel is one of the ways I keep the wolves at bay.
A Buche de Noel is a traditional French Christmas cake made in the shape of a Yule log, which is what the name literally means. My grandmother taught me to make it. Making one is a way of remembering her – her joy in the world and in us and her love of France and all things French – as well as reminding myself that the holidays are not all bad. Like a diminutive version of Babette’s Feast, it’s also an offering to friends and family and the season. It takes a while – two recipes minimum (cake and frosting), five if you go whole hog, which I do (cake, frosting, rum syrup, decorative icing, and meringue mushrooms), six if you’re truly insane, which so far I’ve mostly avoided (the sixth is the spun sugar ). And because of the sponge cake, it’s ephemeral – you spend half a day making it, serve it that night to oohs and aahs of admiration (and a sigh of relief from my nieces that tradition has been respected once again) and toss whatever’s left. I use the recipe in Gamma’s New York Times Cookbook, where I still find little handwritten notes of hers (which I carefully tuck back where I found them so I can find them again next year).
First, you make the sponge cake (page 545).
When it’s done, flip it quickly onto a clean dish towel dusted with powdered sugar (so it doesn’t stick), trim a 1/4 inch strip off each side (the sides are crunchy; trimming them makes it possible to roll the cake) and roll it from one of the short sides into a jelly roll with the dish towel spiraled inside it.
Leave it to cool.
Next, make the rum syrup (page 546), which is simple, and the Mocha Cream Frosting (page 575). When the cake is lukewarm, unroll it gently. Brush rum syrup on the inside; spread the icing, and roll it back up (without the dish towel, of course).
With a serrated knife, cut the ends diagonally and use a dab of frosting to stick them on as branches.
Then brush rum syrup on the top and frost the entire cake, including the ends. Use a fork to mark the frosting with vertical strips to resemble bark.
If the frosting’s super soft, you might want to put it in the refrigerator for an hour to set. The next few steps are decorative. On the simple side, make some decorative icing (I use about a cup of powdered sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla, a tablespoon of melted butter, a drop of yellow food coloring, and enough milk to make it stir-able). Fill a pastry bag or icing gun and make spirals on the ends of the log and the branches so it resembles the rings in a tree.
You can stop here, add some sprigs of greenery for visual appeal, and right before serving, sift a bit of powdered sugar over the top for snow, and your guests will be thrilled. But if you want to go nuts, add some meringue mushrooms. Make a half recipe of meringue (page 606). Drop small spoonfuls onto a waxed cookie sheet for caps, and drag the spoon to make stems (you can also do this with a pastry bag or icing gun). Make extra stems, as they break easily. Bake at 200 degrees for about an hour. And if you really want to go crazy nuts, as I did this year, after you mix the meringue, divide it into three bowls. Add some cocoa to one (brown mushrooms), and a few drops of red and yellow food coloring and some grated orange peel to the second (chanterelles). Dust cocoa on the white ones after they’re shaped. Then bake as above.
When they’re done and cool, use a small knife to carefully make a hole in the bottom of each cap and then insert a stem.
Press the mushrooms carefully into the frosting – I like to group them in twos and threes.
Then add a greenery garnish and snow as above (but don’t do the snow til right before you serve it or the frosting will absorb the sugar).
Next year maybe I’ll add the spun sugar spiderwebs.
Don’t forget to light a candle tonight y’all, for a man who had a temper but who was, all in all, a good man, a good sport, and a good father. Daddy – we remember.