May it Please the Palate: "Jacques Pepin"

By Nick Roumel Jacques Pepin is one of the granddaddies of the celebrity chef world. French born and classically trained, Pepin once served as the personal chef to French President Charles DeGaulle. He has written for the New York Times and Food & Wine and authored numerous cookbooks. An early one is La Technique. The idea behind this 1976 tome was to provide step-by-step illustrated instructions for nearly 200 cooking tricks, from the proper way to hold a knife, to folding napkins. His recipes range from making rabbits out of olives, to cooking brains (in black butter). The steps in each "technique" are illustrated with black and white photographs of Pepin's hands, performing the described step. There is not a single picture of his face anywhere in the book, but several hundred of his hands. The man has the hairiest wrists and forearms I've ever seen - and I know plenty of swarthy Greeks. I'd wondered if they used a model, thinking that those hirsute limbs would be arousing to budding chefs. But I found several photos of Pepin on the internet, and even at 76, he's still got some impressive carpetry below the sleeves. So it must be Jacques himself, butterflying those veal brains in Technique # 109. A much more pleasing recipe is his Bûche de Noël, or traditional French Christmas Yule Log (Technique #137). It's essentially a chocolate buttercream cake that looks like a log. (Nothing like a coating of bark to whet the appetite, assuming you're a deer.) I have tried my hand at this several Christmases with success, and hope to this year as well, assuming my December 21 trial is adjourned (did you hear that, Judge Connors?). Bûche de Noël This impressive recipe is assembled after making four separate recipes: a rolled cake, a rum syrup, a custard cream, and a chocolate buttercream. So let's get cracking, shall we? The first step is to make a "Biscuit Roulé," or a rolled cake, which is similar to a génoise or sponge cake. Place 3 large eggs, 1 egg yolk, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/4 tsp vanilla in a mixing bowl, place over boiling water a few seconds to warm, and then beat at medium/high speed for 5-6 minutes. Add 1/2 cup flour and 2 tbsp melted butter while continuously folding the mixture with a wide spatula. Butter a 16 x 12 cookie sheet in a few spots to serve as "glue" for a piece of parchment paper placed over it. Butter and flour the paper; bang the pan to get rid of excess flour. Spread the mixture over the paper and bake at 330° for 11-13 minutes. Let it set for 5 minutes, then turn it onto a piece of wax paper. Loosen the parchment paper on what is now the top side and leave it covering the cake until it cools. Roll the cake in the wax paper and refrigerate until ready to use. The second step is to make a simple rum syrup. Mix 3 tbs lukewarm water, 1 tbs dark rum, and 1 tsp sugar and set aside. The third step is to make a crème pâtissierè, or vanilla custard cream. Boil 2 cups whole milk and set aside. Place 6 egg yolks, 2/3 cup sugar, and 1 tsp vanilla in a bowl and whisk about 3-4 minutes, until it forms a ribbon on the surface. Add 1/2 cup flour and mix well. Then add ? of the hot milk mixture, also mix well, and then pour this mixture into the remaining milk, mixing as you go along. Boil on medium heat, stirring constantly with the whisk. When it reaches the boiling point and thickens, reduce heat and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Cover with plastic wrap until needed. This recipe makes about 3 cups. Whip 1 cup heavy cream until stiff, and combine this with only 1 cup of the crème pâtissierè. (This is where I screw up every year. Don't be like me. Use only one cup for your Yule log, and save the other two cups for your morning granola.) Your final step, before assembly, is to make the chocolate buttercream. Melt 3 oz. chocolate (1 semisweet, 2 bitter) over a double boiler. Mix 1/3 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a saucepan and boil for 2 minutes over medium heat. Place 3 egg yolks in the bowl of an electric mixer, and pour over them the sugar syrup you just made, mixing at medium and then high speed for several minutes, until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Add 2 sticks softened butter, bit by bit, mixing at low speed until the cream is smooth. Take 1 tbs of the buttercream and mix with 2 or 3 drops of green food coloring and set aside, to decorate your log (at about 3 AM when you're finally done making this painstaking recipe). Reserve 2 more tbs of white buttercream and set aside. To the remaining buttercream, add the melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Set aside. Now finally you are ready to assemble! Unroll the Biscuit Roulé and remove the paper on top. Sprinkle with the rum syrup, and spread the crème pâtissierè on top. Roll the cake back up, removing the bottom wax paper as you go. Place it on a serving platter. Trim one end of the cake and form a little amputated stump, and place it on top of the log. With a spatula, spread the chocolate butter cream all over the log. Spread the reserved white buttercream on both ends and on top of the stump. Drag a fork down the full length of the chocolate buttercream to simulate bark. Finally, decorate. Pipe a bit of the leftover chocolate cream over the white part to imitate the rings in the wood. In a different paper cornet, pipe the green buttercream over the log to simulate an ivy vine, and then some little green leaves. Refrigerate until ready to serve. The hairy-armed Jacques goes on eagerly to recommend the making of meringue mushrooms to complete the woodsy illusion (Technique 129), but unless you're billing at your usual hourly rates, I'd skip this step. Your friends will still be impressed, and I'm sure they'll be speaking French in exclaiming "Oo-la-freaking-la! Joyeaux Bûche de Noël!" And the same to you, my friends. May the holiday season and New Year treat you kindly. Published: Mon, Dec 26, 2011