We’ve been talking a ton about soup round here. Specifically, the health benefits of the homemade broth. Lest you think we don’t value balance, we’ll offset the healthy and savory by tossing in some sweet indulgence. You may think this post, from our know-it-all editor and my partner at Kaplifestyle, Stephanie, is about dessert. It’s actually more about a concept we often preach here, trial and error. See for yourself.
The holiday celebrations in my family mean Christmas Eve and Christmas Day festivities with the family. (For anyone who read the holiday cocktail post, the sangria was a hit and went quickly. I recommend it.) Because I enjoy baking, I usually claim the dessert part of the Christmas meal. One year I did a croquembouche. We refer to it somewhat lovingly as the croquemvolcano. This year, I wanted to tackle the traditional bûche de Noël, or Yule log. What can I say; I’m partial to showpiece desserts.
I worked from this recipe, though it’s not the most traditional. Originally, the dessert called for a yellow cake (genoise) and chocolate buttercream, but I thought the family would appreciate the olive oil chocolate cake and raspberry ganache flavours.
This may be a post about a cake, but it’s also about making mistakes in the kitchen and faking your way through it. Gabe posted on the value of experimenting in the kitchen. Baking doesn’t lend itself to true experimentation in quite the same way (at least, not until you’re significantly better at it than I am), but the theme of trial and error still rings true.
I started out making the meringue for mushrooms. Bench presses have nothing on the workout I get from making meringues the way the recipe calls for. French meringues are the most common, involving whipping together sugar and egg whites, easily done with a stand or hand mixer. Swiss meringues, like this one, are best for meringues that will be baked, but involve continually whisking for 10-15 minutes over a double boiler. They also provide no end of entertainment in my household, as I have to stand on a stool in order to reach.
The recipe was thorough in the steps described, but the actual technique involved in piping mushrooms requires a bit of finesse – finesse I didn’t have. The tops of the mushrooms piped out just fine, but the stems were more of a challenge. Next time, I would pipe them out much shorter and thicker than I did.
We’ll just say my mushrooms were more chanterelle and less button.
The nice thing about something like a bûche de Noël is that it is made in stages. Once my mushrooms had cooked off, I was able to wait until the next day for additional steps. Spacing things out reduces some of the last minute scrambling that always accompanies big dinner parties.
The next day, my ganache came together just fine. Heating cream, then stirring into chopped chocolate or chocolate chips is one of the easiest things you can do on the pastry side, and produces nearly fool-proof, but stunning, results. Drizzled onto basic cakes, cookies, or brownies is the easiest way to dress up a dessert and impress your friends and loved ones. Buoyed by my success, I went on to the cake portion.
Here is where I invite everyone to laugh at me. I don’t have the exact right type of pan for this operation, but I hate the idea of buying specialty pans I’ll use once. That’s not to say I don’t have and want plenty of specialty equipment, but generally I only buy things I intend to use frequently. Nevertheless, I forged ahead, made my batter, and popped my cake into the oven. Now, my oven is particularly finicky. When I pulled it out, after double the recommended cooking time, I had serious doubts. Nothing to do but push forward, however, so I crossed my fingers. After cooling overnight, I attempted the rolling.
It failed. Miserably. The cake was not fully set in places, due to hot spots in the oven and was a moist cake to begin with, so it turned to mush. I was expecting it, but it was still pretty disappointing.
My suggestions in this case are two-fold. First, have a backup plan. Identify areas that are your most likely points of failure and make sure that you can recover. Not a bad suggestion for life, actually. Second, don’t tell anyone about your mistakes. Clearly, I’m not good at this one.
I left my disaster of a cake (caketastrophe, but that’s probably trademarked) sitting on the counter and got back to work. I redid the cake batter and tossed another into the oven. Since it’s such a simple cake recipe, this wasn’t an onerous process. I also wasn’t confident I would have enough ganache, so I made half the recipe again and mixed it into the original batch. I made sure the second cake was thoroughly cooked through, rotating 4 times and cooking it for nearly 80 minutes.
The second time around, it turned out better. It still wasn’t perfect – this cake is incredibly moist, and by not using the traditional pan, getting a tight roll was impossible. Luckily, it’s a frosted cake, so no one would really notice. But my errors weren’t quite done yet. My mousse frosting turned out a much lighter shade of brown than I was going for. I have enough food colourings in the house that I could have fixed it. I should have gotten some fresh rosemary to act as my “branches” during my presentation. By having to keep my mushrooms in the fridge and then transporting them, they weren’t nearly as crispy as they were fresh. Plus, I made one for each person, so my log was perhaps more fungus-y than might be appropriate for display.
Now that I’ve exposed all my failures, I can say with confidence that I’m very happy I didn’t let them stop me from presenting my finished product. The cake mush? It’s currently packed up and sitting in the fridge. Everyone who walked by it on the counter tried it…then tried it again…then wanted a spoon to keep eating. The mushrooms were a big hit, even with their long stems. The 10 year old came to the table, clamouring for dessert, took one look at the cake, and said “ewwww, mushrooms!” He was thrilled to discover they weren’t actually close to a vegetable. Not a single person commented on my too-light frosting or lack of realism in my woodland scene.
It is incredibly easy to hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. I’m not a pastry chef, and I don’t get paid for my desserts. I’m making them for my loved ones, something to demonstrate that I believe they are worth the time and effort. It’s easy to lose sight of this. We see something on the internet or TV, a vision of perfection. We try to replicate it, whether in the kitchen, in our bodies, or in our minds, and we fall short of picture perfect. The temptation to scrap all our progress is strong. I’m not suggesting that we overlook our mistakes or be content with less than our best. We should continually strive to better ourselves. Focusing only on the flaws is an equally incorrect perception, however. I’m going to work on those tendencies in myself.