For as long as I've lived in France, I've wanted to make my very own bûche de noël, the traditional roll cake served at Christmas. I was tired of being disappointed by store-bought bûches, which are almost always as dry and heavy as they are elaborate and gorgeous. Year after year, I drooled over the pictures in my cookbooks and wondered to myself, and if this year I gave it a try?
It was the ultimate pastry challenge. But then I looked closely at the recipe and despaired. There was no way I'd find the time to make and assemble génoise, butter cream, and chestnut mousse for 11 people by the 24th of December.
So 2008 was going to end without me fulfilling my pastry-making dream. We were planning a very small celebration for New Year's Eve, just me, my husband, a friend and a bottle (or two!) of Champagne. New Year's Eve is a big deal in France, however, and even those of us who are too old and lazy to party on the Champs Elysées or even stay up much beyond midnight still make an effort to do something special.
After waiting in line for thirty minutes at the overcrowded fish market to buy scandalously expensive monkfish, narrowly averting a le Petit meltdown at the end by singing and pantomiming "Little Bunny Foo Foo," I took one look at the line outside the boulangerie and thought the hell with it, I'll just make chocolate pots de crème. But once le Petit was down for his nap and I stood in my kitchen leafing through a pile of cookbooks, I couldn't resist.
The time had come for me to throw caution to the wind. I had the eggs. I had the chocolate. I was ready.
The most promising recipe looked to be in one of my French cookbooks, but I didn't have any idea what one of the ingredients, fécule, could be. So instead of opening up a dictionary, I opened up the Joy of Cooking and started following an American recipe. It was only once the batter was mixed and pan lined and buttered that I realized I had a problem: my American jelly roll pan, just the right size for the recipe, was too big to fit in my French oven.
I took out my French cookie sheet, a good three inches shorter than the American version, and lined it with parchment paper. I eyeballed the correct amount of batter, eating most of the excess, and then popped it into the oven. It came out looking about right. Close enough, I figured.
My husband came home.
"Something smells burnt."
"It's not burnt, it's génoise," I replied, hurt.
"Maybe it smells more like pâte à choux. Like my grandmother used to make. What are you filling it with?"
Since I didn't have time for butter cream, I'd been planning on making a simple whipped cream filling. My husband talked me into attempting a chestnut mousse. It sounded simple enough, until I came to the ambiguous instruction to "faire fondre la gélatine dans un peu d'eau."
Melt the gelatin in un peu of water. How much is un peu? Apparently a little less than I used, because my mousse soon turned to soup.
"It won't be a problem," I insisted, "There's gelatin, so it'll harden." I dribbled a layer of the mousse on top of the génoise. "This the moment of truth. It's time to roll."
My husband and I hovered nervously above the cake pan. We lifted a corner, bended it slightly.
"It isn't going to roll," my husband announced.
"It's breaking apart."
Sure enough, the génoise appeared to have the consistency of cardboard.
"Oh, no! That's it, c'est foutu!" That was it, everything was lost, my dessert, my honor, a full can of chestnut paste and six eggs. I started yelling at my husband for no good reason while we debated the fate of my dessert.
"We'll put it in the refrigerator, maybe that'll help," my husband said hopefully.
"No, I tell you, it's ruined!" I was in tears.
"Why don't you cut it carefully in squares and stack it? It can be a millefeuille."
"I don't want a millefeuille! I've waited five years to make a bûche, and it is going to roll, dammit!"
And so, while my husband protested and the startled le Petit looked on, I grabbed the cake and started to roll it. Or fold it, really, as it broke in three pieces and chestnut mousse oozed out the sides. I sobbed, and swore, and yelled at the top of my lungs that I couldn't possibly serve this disaster.
"It's not so bad," my husband tried to console me. "It looks like a pyramid."
"It does not! It looks like a merde de vache!"
"But at least it tastes good."
My husband spooned mousse over the flattened bûche and I threatened to throw it out the window. But by the time my friend arrived, I'd started to see the humor in the situation.
"You see, I've learned that the art of pâtisserie is all in the presentation," I told her as I opened the refrigerator and showed off my creation.
After a few glasses of champagne we waxed poetic. "It looks like an iceberg! All that's missing is a tiny almond paste polar bear. It's a cake to build awareness of global warming. The Al Gore bûche!
We ate it. It was edible, if a big heavy, and the chestnut mousse was actually tasty.
There are still leftovers in my refrigerator if anyone is interested.
Bonne année 2009, everyone!