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How to Make a Champ de Noël

Impress family and friends with this modern twist on a classic bûche de Noël

December 2019/January 2020 Issue
photo: Scott Phillips
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Over the years, I’ve made more variations of a bûche de Noël than I can remember. The flavor profile never varied (chocolate and espresso are de rigueur), but the exterior styling changed from year to year and—dare I say—decade to decade.

This year, though, I’m ditching the classic log shape and really branching out (pun intended). From the exterior, my holiday centerpiece dessert looks like a traditional layer cake, but there’s a surprise: The layers are vertical rather than horizontal, making for a very dramatic reveal.

While this version looks crazy-cool, rest assured all the classic elements and flavor pairings are here, so it’s guaranteed to be delicious. The vanilla sponge cake has a delicate texture, yet it’s sturdy enough to (literally) stand on its end. The layers are doused with a boozy soaking syrup before they’re coated with a smooth-as-silk, espresso-spiked white chocolate ganache filling and coated with a dreamy, creamy (and also eggless) double-chocolate buttercream.

Like the traditional bûche, the garnishes for this cake can be rustic, whimsical, or elegant. I like to use the tines of a fork to create a barklike design in the buttercream around the side of the cake. Just before serving, I may top the cake with a cluster or two of small meringue mushrooms along with chocolate shavings for bark. If I’m feeling really fancy, I add silver or white dragées for ice crystals, sugar-coated cranberries for a pop of color, a mint sprig or two for signs of spring, chopped pistachios for lichen, and a dusting of confectioners’ sugar for snow. Extra meringue mushrooms look great arranged around the base of the cake.

Vertical variation

While the garnishes make the cake look spectacular, what people really want to know is how I make those magical vertical layers.
All in all, it’s a straightforward process: I use what I call a “wrapping” technique to assemble the cake. After baking the sponge cake in a large rimmed baking sheet, I cut it into five strips. To train the shape of the innermost strip of cake and avoid cracking in the final product, I roll up one strip in paper towels while it’s still warm, just as you would when you’re making a jelly roll. I then roll the remaining strips up in a tight spiral together to train them. The ends of these strips are cut on an angle to create beveled edges; this step helps the strips to lie flat as the cake is assembled.

I start building the cake by brushing the innermost strip with soaking syrup and then coating it with white chocolate-espresso ganache. After this center piece is rolled and positioned on a plate, I brush, fill, and wrap the remaining four beveled cake strips one at a time around it. The technique sounds complicated, but as you’ll see, it’s an easy-to-follow
process.

I love many things about this flavorful cake, but I especially appreciate its make-ahead components. This cake is an ideal project for this busy time of year, and the oohs and aahs you’ll hear at serving time make it worth the planning and effort.

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