When I first met SMH (the other cook on this blog) he told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t like baking. “Why?,” I asked, incredulous, unable to see how someone who was such an accomplished cook would turn up his nose about baking. Now, I know, baking is its own animal, especially when you start to get in to really complicated breads and pastries. But for everyday baking and eating it did not strike me as so different as everyday cooking and eating. “It’s too fussy,” he replied.
Well, I have to admit that over the past year I have not been baking that much. I’ve never eaten much sugar and when I do indulge I tend to go for things that are greasy and salty, as opposed to sweet. But I do enjoy the baking process and I like the positive reaction I get when I bake for other people. So with our New Years party on the horizon I decided to try some winter desserts that looked mouthwateringly beautiful in Stephane Reynard’s “365 Bonnes Raisons de Passer a Table” book, in the “l’hiver” section (that’s winter for you non-French speakers). It also gave me a good reason to try out my new kitchen scale, which measures in both ounces and grams. If you don’t have a kitchen scale it makes everything easier, so I recommend going and getting one now!
I chose first a “Pain D’Epices” and then a Buche de Noel. Before I go further let me say I searched many cookbooks and websites for a Buche de Noel recipe that was not overly complicated. Reynard’s “Easy Buche” fit the bill. It has 4 ingredients! And you know what I found I was saying to myself while I carefully measured and weighed ingredients? “Wow, baking is so fussy.”
Easy Buche de Noel with Chocolate Maple Cream Frosting
The Buche de Noel (or “Yule log”) is a dessert served in francophone countries around Christmas time. While they are often decorated to look like real logs, this cake goes more for taste than for looks. However, because I am now such a slow baker, the Buche became a bit of kitchen theater while I beat the eggs into peaks by hand and rolled the cake up to the cheers of my party guests. I highly suggest making easy baking a part of your evening’s entertainment. Apparently now no party is cool or complete without a bartender, but what about a baker? Thankfully, my favorite photographer Dominick Mastrangelo was there to document my buche triumph.
For the cake (with thanks to Stephane Reynard):
4 eggs, whites and yolks separated
3/4 cup powdered sugar (I make powdered sugar by buzzing organic sugar in the coffee grinder)
1 cup flour
1 tsp vanilla
Pre-heat the oven to 390 degrees F. Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Mix the yolks with the sugar and the vanilla until the mixture becomes white. Add the flour. In a separate bowl whip the egg whites until they are very firm and then fold them delicately into the yolks/sugar/flour/vanilla mixture. Grease and flour a baking tray and pour the batter on the tray (it may not take up the whole tray, just make sure it’s rectangle). Bake 7 to 8 minutes and then remove from the oven and cool. When cool carefully slide the cake onto wax paper. Frost the top of the cake (frosting recipe below) and then gently roll it up, using the wax paper to help you (think of a sushi roll here). Place on a serving tray and frost the top and the sides. Sprinkle with maple sugar. Slice and serve. Bonnes Fetes!
Chocolate Maple Buttercream Frosting
12 Tablespoons butter (1 1/2 cups)
2 Tablespoons coco powder
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons milk
Pinch of salt
In the food processor, with an electric mixer or with a fork cream the butter and then gradually work in the sugar, coco powder and salt, alternating with the maple syrup and milk.
And now… the Pain d’Epices, which didn’t turn out quite as planned and I ended up inventing something new… Spiced Honey Bread with Dried Apricots and Walnuts.
Spiced Honey Bread with Dried Apricots and Walnuts
(inspired by Stephane Reynard)
While I read the news in French and can hold a pretty good conversation in French, this was one of the first recipes I followed en francais. Unfortunately I didn’t read it very carefully and as I cooked and felt suave I realized that basically what I was making was… gingerbread. But this is a little lighter than gingerbread because you use honey instead of molasses. Thus it also makes a great bread for breakfast, brunch or afternoon tea. The recipe suggests you use Miel de Chataignier, which is a bitter, strong honey from the south of France. I used a darker honey from my Mom’s bees in Maine, but you can use any honey, I think.
3/4 cup of sugar
1 cup of honey
1 1/2 cups butter (soften to room temperature)
3/4 cups milk
2 2/1 cups flour
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp powdered ginger
1 tsp powdered anise
Zest of 1 lemon or orange
1/2 cup dried apricots chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
Pre-heat the oven to 320 degrees. Mix the sugar and the egg until it becomes white (I used a food processor). Warm the milk in a saucepan and add the honey and mix. Add the milk and honey mixture to the sugar and egg mixture. Add the vanilla. Add the butter, flour, baking soda, powdered spices, citrus zest and salt. Butter and flour a loaf pan or a 8 x 10 pan and pour in batter. Sprinkle walnuts and apricots on top. Bake for 1 hour at 320 degrees.
Note: If you are a vegan that eats honey this recipe could easily be made vegan with egg replacer, margarine, and soy milk. Easy!