Home baking frustrations with the French classic rarely stem from the cake recipe, which is essentially a chocolate sponge cake with chocolate filling and dark chocolate ganache frosting. It's those marzipan mushrooms. For starters, they're so dense and saccharine sweet, they don't pair well with such a rich chocolate cake. And by the time you finish sculpting the icing into edible chocolate tree bark, those Black Friday lines sound like more fun than making tiny mushrooms one by one. But what would a holiday forest be without mushrooms? And they're so darn cute.
For professional help (yes, baking frustrations do sometimes require therapy), we turned to L.A. chocolatier and master pastry chef Yvan Valentin, formerly of L'Orangerie fame, who supplies his handmade Buche de Noël cakes to local high-end hotel restaurants (Casa del Mar, L'Ermitage, Andaz West Hollywood among them). Get his mushroom tricks and the easy do-ahead (and tasty) recipe after the jump.We stumbled upon Valentin's technique when visiting his bakeshop earlier this week, where dozens of sheet pans speckled with tiny cocoa-dusted mushrooms already line baker's racks for the holiday rush. Like marzipan mushrooms, these last for several weeks, so you can make them well in advance of your Buche de Noël centerpiece needs. But because these are meringue mushrooms, light and airy little bites, they complement rather than compete with the dark chocolate cake. And they actually taste good.
But what's really great here is Valentin's baking technique. "When I taught a UCLA extension class [on pastry] with all of these things about chocolate and everything I do, the students were most excited about these little mushrooms," says Valentin, astounded by his students' obsession with the meringues."Look closely," he says in a thick French accent, pulling out a sheet pan filled with the tiny meringues. "The head is attached to the feet, but they are not baked in one piece. See?" He breaks the tiny cap from the base of a meringue mushroom and continues. "You only bake the top [of the mushroom] until it is still soft in the center because when it is still warm, you can attach the top to the feet," he says, demonstrating how the meringue cap and base fit snugly together.
The beauty of baking the two meringue components separately isn't simply structural. You can attach the caps at various angles, giving each mushroom its own pastry personality. Happy (Buche de Noël) Black Friday.
Yvan Valentin's Buche de Noël Mushrooms
From: Yvan Valentin
Makes: Five or more dozen, depending on the size of the mushrooms.
Note: The meringues will last for several weeks in a well-sealed container.
8 ounces (about 5) eggs whites
8 ounces sugar
Sifted cocoa powder, for dusting
1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Place the sugar and egg whites in a medium saucepan over a bain marie (water bath) until lukewarm. Rub a small amount of the mixture between your fingers to make sure the sugar has dissolved.
2. Transfer the mixture to a stand mixer and beat at high speed just until the eggs hold stiff peaks. Spoon enough meringue into a pastry bag fitting with a plain tube (1/4 to 1/2-inch wide, depending on the size of mushrooms you want).
3. To make the mushroom bases, pipe pear shape meringues onto one baking sheet. On the second baking sheet, pipe small balls to make the mushroom caps. Sprinkle the caps lightly with cocoa powder and place a second baking sheet beneath the caps (this helps them cook more slowly than the mushroom bases so they will be soft enough in the center to stick to the bases).
4. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, just until you can place the mushroom heads on top of the caps without breaking them. Once you have placed the caps on all of the bases, return the meringues to the oven to bake for another hour (you do not need to double up baking sheets at this point as you did for the caps).
5. Bake for about another hour, or until dry throughout, depending on the size of the mushrooms.