Prior to this class, I guess my view on buche (or log cake), was steeped in a few prejudices. I immediately think of a roulade-style sponge cake when hearing the name. My earliest memory of log cakes are Hostess Ho-Ho’s, those highly industrial cream-filled cakes that have a shelf life of several decades yet still drop all of their waxy chocolate coating down the front of your shirt when you bite into them. (bib please!). Beyond that, log cakes were always of the Yule variety served only at Christmas time. These typically took roulade one notch higher on the presentation scale…with a final appearance that very closely resembled (surprise, surprise!) a real log….complete with chocolate ‘bark’, meringue mushrooms and even plastic woodland creatures (just in case there was any lingering doubt on the theme objective). So for me, all my memories of this cake lean heavily into kitsch … almost a pink flamingo/garden gnome genre of patisserie. Not necessarily unpleasant to eat, just well…a bit imposed, artificial and contrived.
In my travels I have since seen several other interpretations on the buche concept, the oddest of which has been in Switzerland. A patisserie near Geneva sells a variety each December consisting of a semicircular log of fruit mousse, usually with a contrasting fruit mousse filling in the center; all of this is then placed atop a layer of sponge cake. Mind you, neither the cake, glaze nor mousses never coordinate in color, and so it becomes a visual shouting match between kiwi green, purple cassis and maraschino pink, often topped with some screaming orange fruit garnish and chocolate decors just in case your corneas had not fully melted by this stage. This Genevois type buche has definitely departed the plastic woodland forest, yet the color eccentricity (not to mention the prices) always make me cringe. But evidently the patisserie accepts advance orders, so I guess quite some people are enjoying to eat the rainbow.
So based on my assorted histoires, all in all I was feeling blasé about buche. But during the demo I already started to shed my prejudices as I watched Chef Tranchant prepare a gorgeous combination of pistachio sponge cake layered with dark chocolate ganache. And it is right to say layered…because this buche wasn’t rolled at all! It was baked in a semi-circular log shaped mold, then sliced horizontally into thin layers, which were then well-imbibed with a kirsch infused syrup. Re-using the same pan as for baking, the cake is reassembled using alternating layers of ganache and imbibed sponge. This is then placed in the freezer to solidify the form, it is then unmolded and covered with a couple ladles of dark chocolate glaze. Small flourishes of ganache are piped out to skirt the base of the log and decorate the top, and pistachios are used for the finising touch.
But the real beauty of this cake comes in the cutting. Indeed, the buche reveals its inner personality during the final presentation, when the ends of the cake are removed to expose the beautiful layered effect inside before it is placed on the golden cardboard.
By the time I got to the practical, my mind had been opened and I found working with this recipe to be a very enjoyable experience with fewer challenges than I expected. Slicing the freshly baked sponge into thin layers with that wicked, serrated Wustof was indeed the most worrisome aspect, but we all came through the process unscathed and with properly sliced layers. Building up the cake in the pan was the messiest part; between applying the syrup, piping out the still runny ganache between layers, applying gentle pressure to each layer to ensure properly distributed ganache, and of course the final glazing led many of us to stained uniforms and sticky hands. But it was all worth it when the glossy cakes sat before us and Chef Tranchant re-entered the lab carrying blowtorches! These were used to heat the blades of our serrated knives, to ensure a super clean cut when the ends of the buche are sliced away. Yea! A small Flashdance-inspired moment in the middle of a Paris afternoon to reward us for all the heavy whisking! What a feeling indeed…I was giggling happily by this point.
We all proceeded with our decoration, some people getting quite elaborate in using their remaining ganache and pistachios. I should have taken photos of my classmates’ work as some of the decoration efforts for this were really beautiful. A few folks got quite clever with finely chopped pistachios, which provided an electrifying effect atop the dark chocolate. I chose to keep my presentation a bit more muted, piping out a delicate cornice pattern in ganache on the top and keeping my pistachio accents contained to this area only.
So in terms of personal enjoyment, this practical didn’t turn out to be ‘wrestling with Hulk’ but more like an afternoon of watching Shrek. I enjoyed myself and the company of my classmates, we learned a lot of new techniques, and we all left with a beautiful cake. I really want to continue experimenting with this pistachio cake…it indeed provides an unusual but not unnatural color and has a really nice flavor, even without the syrup and ganache. I’d like to socialize this cake with some new flavor partners like white chocolate and lemon to complement the slight fruitiness of the soaking syrup. Whilst the dark chocolate ganache was a good accompaniment that gives beautiful color contrast, it can be an overpowering flavor for some. So maybe it's time to turn the flavor volume down a notch.
Meanwhile I can't stop wondering, at what point will I invest in a blowtorch for my home kitchen...?