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I made Julia Child's Bûche de Noël for Christmas and the Yule log recipe was trickier than I expected

Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert   

I made Julia Child's Bûche de Noël for Christmas and the Yule log recipe was trickier than I expected
  • I'm an experienced baker who loves to try new recipes, especially from icons like Julia Child.
  • Inspired by the Amazon show "Julia," I attempted to make a Bûche de Noël for a work holiday party.

'Tis the season to attempt to impress your loved ones with intricate baked goods and fabulous festive recipes that you hope will be so well-liked they'll be requested again next year.

Or at least that's what the holidays mean for me. Your mileage may vary, but I'm always keeping up on the latest on "The Great British Bake Off" and looking for my next showstopper.

Inspired by a recent episode of the Amazon show "Julia," this year I pulled out my piping bags and attempted my first Bûche de Noël, or Yule log cake, based on the Julia Child recipe.

Despite my cooking chops, having worked in various kitchens and a bakery over the years, I found the classic French recipe challenging. My results were not as precise as I'd hoped — but, as you can expect with an icon like Julia, the flavors were delicious, and everyone who tried it seemed to love it.

Before coming to Business Insider, one of the many service industry jobs I had was as the front-of-house manager of a bakery. While I wasn't up with our full-time back-of-house bakers at 5 a.m. prepping doughs and frostings, one of my main responsibilities in the trendy cupcake eatery was to handle what we called "second bake" when inventory was low and we needed a refresh of our top sellers.

That summer, I baked cupcakes and bread puddings, loaded up piping bags, frosted and decorated cakes, and generally fell in love with baking. My family all gets down in the kitchen, and I'd worked in fast casual dining before, so I was no stranger to cooking at that point — but that's the year pastries became part of my repertoire.

Since then, I regularly challenge my baking skills with breads, bars, pies, and cookies. I generally avoid tricky laminated doughs that make iconic treats like croissants, but I feel comfortable tackling most cakes. That said, I'd never made a roulade — or rolled cake — before.

As usual, Julia gave me a run for my money. Her original televised version of the Bûche de Noël recipe featured spun sugar moss and meringue mushrooms atop the orange-flavored cake and chocolate frosting.

Over the years, the master French chef released several versions of the recipes used for her cake and frosting in this festive holiday creation. I, realizing I couldn't find exactly the version she used when she aired the original episode in season 3 of "The French Chef," used a slightly modified version from a cooking blog following along with the recipes from one of Julia's later books, "From Julia Child's Kitchen."

I chose to take on the meringue mushrooms, but since the cake would travel nearly two hours by car with me to attend a holiday party at work, I omitted the spun sugar moss.

I've made multiple recipes from Julia's triumphant "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" series and am always amazed at how the flavors evolve as you go through the prescribed steps. This cake was no exception.

When I first pulled it from the oven, carefully turning it onto a piece of parchment paper, my partner and I tasted a few of the crumbled edges and the flavor was nothing special. The texture was a little unusual, too.

Grainy, I think he called it. (He definitely did, I remember, just like I remember anything that could be considered even remotely negative that anyone says about my cooking.)

I was worried I'd misread something or that the humidity in my beach town had messed with the bake, especially since my cake felt like it turned out very thin — but I once again put my faith in Julia's process and pushed on.

Rolling the iconic log shape was easier with the large, thin cake. I had worried about cracking, a common pitfall among rolled cakes, but my sponge was workable and moist enough to be shaped without splitting down the middle.

I also worried the chocolate frosting I made had too loose a texture (which, to be fair, it probably did because I mistakenly grabbed half and half instead of full-fat whipping cream at the store).

With less fat in the cream, the frosting didn't whip up as fluffy as it could have or as quickly as it typically would, but with a little extra cocoa powder and time in the fridge, it turned out the right consistency. It was spreadable without being runny and had a delicious, rich flavor.

The meringues were where I started to lose it. It was 8:30 p.m., and I'd already been baking for over an hour and a half, making my way through a recipe with more than forty steps.

To make little mushrooms to adorn the log cake, I piped rows of half-dollar-sized circles and stalks made of pieces that were meant to stand upright on their own. I hadn't worked with a piping bag in a while and was quickly frustrated that my skills weren't as sharp as my bakery days.

When piping the mushroom shapes, I found the sticky texture of my meringue difficult to work with and was worried they wouldn't turn out right. But somehow, as tends to happen with Julia's guidance — no matter how much I doubt her — when I pulled them from the oven, the meringues turned out fluffy and light, melting perfectly in my mouth.

By the time I was done baking, I'd spent just over two hours puttering about the kitchen, dirtying every small bowl in the house, both the electric and stand mixer, piping bags and tips, measuring cups and spoons, a sifter, multiple baking sheets, mixing bowls, saucepans, a double boiler, and a candy thermometer.

My sink was filled with dishes; I'd spilled powdered sugar and cocoa on the counter, and frosting splattered across the stove. Still, I was left with the same warm feeling of accomplishment I usually experience when I've completed one of Julia's recipes.

I trimmed the edges of the rolled cake before starting the decorating and shared the bonus bites with my partner — after the cake had rested and rolled with the frosting inside, the sponge was no longer grainy. Instead, he said, the whole thing was "delightful."

That's more what I was looking for.

As happens with most of her recipes, Julia took me through feelings of defeat and victory, ultimately leaving me feeling very proud that I'd tried something new, overcome challenges in the kitchen, and that the process had left me with something delicious to share with my colleagues the next day.

I saved the final decorations to complete just before serving in the office to prevent the sugar from melting. I assembled my mushrooms with small globs of frosting to act as glue and dusted them with cocoa powder, then I raked the cake's outer layer with a fork to mimic the texture of bark and gave it a little powdered sugar snow on top.

Unfortunately, the Bûche de Noël, or log of Christmas, is intended to look like a festive tree branch — so it wasn't much to look at, even with the tedious little mushrooms.

Still, my colleagues gave me a huge thumbs up.

Together, they spent a few moments working to identify the orange flavor in the sponge, and the consensus was that it turned out beautifully.

While there were things I'd change if I made it a second time, I'd be willing to give this extensive recipe another go, and there was not one crumb or meringue mushroom cap left over.

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