Sunday, December 11, 2005

Yule love this

For the last two years, I have celebrated an extra Christmas day with my London friends because I go to my parents’ home for the holidays.

Everyone contributes to this dinner in some way and unsurprisingly, my donation has always been dessert, in the form of the Yule Log (in truth, a chocolate roulade). Someone has bought a Christmas Pudding each time, but due to the unsurpassable popularity of chocolate over fruit in the camp, it never even makes it out of its wrapper. This year is no different, except that I’m catering for a smaller crowd. Strangely, the dessert has managed to stay the same size. I’m not sure at what point exactly things become ‘a tradition’, but I figure that the third occurrence of this Yule Log means it is now my very own Christmas custom.

This is roughly a third of the entire log

If your Yule log could speak it would tell you that its origins are rooted in pagan, Viking tradition. The festival Jol/Jule (pronounced “Yule”) was celebrated around the winter solstice to big up the Norse god Jolnir (aka the notorious Odin), and, as typical of those merry-making Scandos, involved copious drinking and feasting and a little random arson. Ok, not so much arson as burning a log for twelve hours, which was supposed to usher in ye olde magiks pertaining to health and fruitfulness. Anyway, history lesson over – it’s time to get back to the food. If you want the full story, check out wikipedia’s account.

The recipe for the sponge is adapted from a Good House Keeping Chocolate and Prune Roulade recipe by Henry Harris, ripped naughtily from my Mum’s magazine collection years ago. The ganache is a Linda Collister formula from the divinely compact ‘Heavenly Chocolate’ and it makes a darkly dense, truffle-like filling which melds moussily with the whisked sponge. The chestnut puree is my optional addition, but adds a grainy sparkle of festivity. I choose not to slather the outer side of the roulade with any kind of icing since its interior has creaminess aplenty and the cracked sponge is gracefully reminiscent of tree bark. However, if you do want that kind of 70’s cookbook styling, you could double the ganache, or find a separate icing recipe that will spread fluidly.

The beauty of this cake is that it gets better as the days go by. The filling and sponge somehow ripen and mature together, becoming symbiotically thicker and more complex. It pays to make this a couple of days in advance, and leave it wrapped up tightly in parchment (helping to set its shape) somewhere cool. Dare I say it, this recipe could be eaten at other times of year, perhaps even flavoured with any of the plethora of ingredients which marry with chocolate. I’ve never done so though. I can’t bring myself to part with tradition.

Christmas Chocolate Roulade

For the sponge:

  • 175g good quality dark chocolate (like Green & Black’s), broken into pieces
  • 6 free range eggs, separated
  • 175g golden caster sugar (if you can’t get hold of it, normal caster sugar will do), plus a little extra for dusting

For the filling:

  • 200g dark chocolate (as above)
  • 175ml cream
  • 1x 250g tin of crème de marron (sweetened chestnut puree)

You will also need to make sure you have plenty of baking parchment. Rather than a swiss roll tin, I use a shallow tefal patisserie tray (37cm x 27.5cm), which makes a vast vista-like sponge of perfect thickness. Whatever tin you use, line it with the parchment and preheat the oven to 180C. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Once melted, remove from the heat and leave to cool down slightly as you beat the egg yolks and sugar together until thick and airy. Beat the chocolate into this mixture. In another bowl, whip the egg whites until they peak softly. Fold a large tablespoon of the whites into the chocolate mixture to slacken it in preparation for the careful, gentle addition of the rest of the cloudy mass. Fold until combined, but do not worry about blending the entire thing together perfectly as you’ll knock all the air out –small flecks of egg white should still be visible. Spread onto the lined tin and then bake until firm to the touch (around 20-25 minutes). Let the sponge cool for 15 minutes and then cover with a sheet of parchment/greaseproof paper and a tea-towel that has been wetted through and wrung out thoroughly. Leave covered for at least 4-6 hours or overnight.

The most important thing I’ve found is to not uncover the sponge until you absolutely need it, i.e. not until you have made the ganache icing and let it thicken. If you leave it uncovered whilst you make that cup of tea and go to the loo, it will begin to dry, harden and consequently will break clean through when you try to roll it. Trust me, I know.

Tip the crème de marron out into a bowl and stir to make sure it’s soft and spreadable.

Chestnut puree

To make the ganache, heat the cream to just below boiling point and whilst you do it, chop the chocolate finely - food processors and those whizzy mini-mills are stars for this job – and place it in a small heat-proof bowl. Pour the heated cream over the chocolate and stir continuously until the molten mixture is glossy and uniformly mixed. Leave to cool completely. Once cooled, whip it briefly to thicken it ever so slightly. The mixture should still be entirely spreadable so don’t let it thicken and harden too much – if you’re not sure, it is better to be a cautious wimp and keep it a runnier consistency.

This is where the fun commences. Uncover the sponge still in its tray and sprinkle evenly with a light dusting of golden caster sugar. Place the parchment (you may need a fresh piece as it must be bigger than the entire tray) over the sponge, cover back with the teatowel, and grabbing the sides of the tray so you’re holding the two coverings tightly over the top, flip the entire thing over and place onto a large flat worksurface with the short end closest to you. The more room you have to manoeuvre here, the better. Lift the tin off, and carefully peel the parchment from the sponge. If you’re nervous, it’s easier if you do this tearing big strips off, rather than one swift magician-like motion.

Dollop on the ganache and spread it evenly over the sponge, keeping it a centimetre or so from the sides. Now smear on the chestnut puree in a similar fashion. If you’re really lucky and your ganache is perfect consistency, it will form a second layer over the chocolate, but do not worry if it marbles in with it instead.

Take a deep breath, relax and smile. If you’ve had an argument with someone: go make up. If you’re worried about where your life is heading: stop. Like dogs and horses, roulades smell fear and negativity and they will absorb your pain, break, and in turn magnify the awfulness of the aforementioned life-events. You need to be a zen master/mistress. Holding the end of the parchment and tea towel that’s closest to you, start lifting and pushing it away from your body, so that the sponge rolls up back on itself (see the action shot below). Points will be deducted for hesitation here. The steadier and more consistently you do this, the less chance you have of the whole thing cracking messily.

As the ganache may still be a little liquidy, if you remove the roulade to somewhere else immediately, it may begin to gently collapse. In which case (and this is particularly helpful if yours has cracked or seems a bit angular) wrap it firmly but not tightly in the parchment so it forms a proper roll and leave to set (which is what I had to do this time).

To finish it, dust liberally with cocoa powder and a little snowy coating of icing sugar. The entire roll could easily serve about 8-10 people. This year it’s serving 5.

If you would like the original Good Housekeeping Recipe, email me and I’ll send you a scan. I apologise in advance for the grubbiness of the page.