I have a friend who is male, single and (at the moment) house sitting in his ancestral home. (He is also quite a catch, in my humble opinion, and if you are looking, I’ll hook you up if you can establish your worthiness). Although he is a fine cook in his own right, he sometimes IM’s me while trying to decide what to cook for himself using the ingredients available in the house. He could, of course, go shopping, but that would take all the fun out of the game. First, I saved him from ordering a pizza after discovering that he had in his possession canned black beans, onion, garlic, and 7-grain Kashi pilaf. He declared the resulting rice and beans so good that he did not have to put cheese on it. Yesterday we worked out a plan for making pasta with nothing but spaghetti, a “somewhat acceptable red onion” and tomatoes. (Being half Italian he was positively stricken by the absence of garlic and opted to go without rather than use the powdered stuff). Could he figure these things out for himself? Absolutely. Did I enjoy the hell out of playing Iron Chef Instant Messenger? I did.
I like to fancy that I can make a decent meal out of what’s around in any situation, provided I have no significant handicaps like a picky 5-year-old or a vegan. The proposition is, however, easier with cooking than with baking. When I “cook” I can add, subtract and alter ingredients to my heart’s delight provided I adhere to basic laws of food science. Things also tend to happen faster and are more readily fixed; I can tell is a risotto is not getting tender and let it cook longer with more broth, or that I need to correct the seasoning in a sauce. Once I have put a cake or batch of cookies into the oven, I have to endure an anxious gestational period of baking and cooling before I find out whether I have created something wonderful or something destined for the composter. Its a rare sodden cream puff, cardboard-crusted pie or brick-like loaf of pumpernickel that can be restored to culinary sexiness by the addition of a sprinkling of good paprika or a little pan sauce with wine and mushrooms.
Its because of the non-flexibility of baking that the what’s-in-the-pantry game that works so well with “cooking” is generally a bust when it comes to baking. (See “composter,” above). On Christmas day, however, I was able to play the game with a failed baking experiment, and in the process to salvage a quantity of hideously expensive ingredients. I am not presenting this as a recipe, and don’t suggest that you try it at home intentionally; view it as an object lesson about what can be done in a bind if you are willing to think outside the box. We’ll call it…The Parable of the Buche.
So for Christmas dinner, one of my contributions was to be the traditional French dessert called a “Buche de Noel,” or “Yule Log.” I had made one before, and although I knew it was a pretty labor-intensive undertaking I reasoned that I had done it before, and could do it again. I had lost the original recipe, so I found another from a reputable source, and bought enough eggs, butter and chocolate to make Paula Deen blush. On the 24th I made the ganache, which turned out splendidly, and the meringue mushrooms which were photogenically adorable and perky. On Christmas day, after the gifts were opened and the waffles inhaled, I moved on to the roulade and the filling.
It was at this point that I remembered that my previous buche de noel had involved two failed attempts, and that both failures were caused my my pathological inability to roll any kind of cake, from a pumpkin roll to a jelly-filled sponge. We are not talking, here about a couple of minor cracks that can be spackled with icing; we are acknowledging a multi-system failure involving everything from spatial relationships to basic engineering concepts. I didn’t have time to start over if I couldn’t roll the damed thing, and the odds were seriously against me.
As is often the case (unless one is in a Disney movie) I did not beat the odds. I baked the roulade, I cooled the roulade, I carefully spread the filling on the roulade, and as I began to roll the edge veeeeery careful, the edge began to separate into sections reminiscent of the phone number tabs cut into the bottom of an apartment-for-lease sign. There would be no hiding this problem, but I had a fierce determination to make something edible and possibly even good from the component parts of the buche-that-wasn’t.
Here’s what I did, dear reader. While eating the meringue mushrooms (stress makes me hungry and I really didn’t need them any more) I got out my trifle bowl, 2 pints of whipping cream, powdered sugar, vanilla, cherry preserves, a bottle of Chambord liqeur and a bag of slivered almonds. I made vanilla whipped cream, topped of the preserves with a shot of Chambord and microwaved them, and set about assembling a sort of Black Forest trifle. A layer of chunked-up roulade and filling, a layer of spiked cherries, a layer of whipped cream and so on until I reached the top. I then microwaved the ganache for 30 seconds, poured it in a smooth layer across the top, toasted the almonds and scattered them about.
Was it good? It was. Will I try again? Hard to say. I do know that I learned a lesson (this is the important part, if you’ve been skimming): “Stump the Chef” is generally best played in the context of cooking rather than baking, but if you have a well-stocked kitchen and an open mind, you may beat the odds….