Tradition gets a tune-up

Photographs by Brigitte Bouvier

Pradeep Sultania, pastry chef at the Fairmont Château Laurier, offers yule log alongside fruit cake at tea time.

Loathe Christmas fruitcake? Chefs at the Château Laurier and the Courtyard Restaurant offer tasty takes on tradition.

Have you ever met anyone who shrugs their shoulders with indifference when asked about that dark, moist, berry-laden concoction that traditionally appears on Christmas Day and for weeks, if not months, thereafter? No. It’s passion or poison. And in Canada, more often than not, the reaction is that it’s a waste of time, calories, space and effort.

No matter the festive, glistening white icing adorned with decorative holly leaves and berries, leaping stags and even snowmen, Canadians seem to feel that the marzipan layer and cake inside is best left untasted. So we asked two chefs for their take on Christmas cake, one traditional and the other contemporary.

At Zoe’s at the Château Laurier, Yule logs are served alongside slices of traditional fruitcake for the holiday season afternoon tea. The logs are a customer favourite with their light-as-air cake in the middle, wrapped up with generous quantities of butter cream icing and whimsical decoration.

Historically, the yule log was made of wood. It was large, extremely hard, inedible and was burned in an open hearth at Christmas. But as open hearths died out, it became difficult to burn such a large piece of wood. Now all that remains of the tradition is an edible replica made from flour, eggs and sugar, crafted with plenty of artistry.

Pradeep Sultania, pastry chef at the Château Laurier hotel for the past 17 years, makes many yule logs for the holiday season, served at Zoe’s for afternoon tea and to accompany the take-away Christmas turkey meals that the Château offers through the holidays. The secret to a successful yule log, says Sultania, “is to make the Swiss roll, fill it with butter cream icing and roll it the day before you want to decorate it. That way it is not so soft and is less likely to fall apart.” Each large log takes Sultania, an expert who has been in the business for nearly 30 years, between 45 minutes and an hour to decorate with icing. The whole process, from creating the parts for the meringue mushrooms to final decoration, takes two days.

Just a stone’s throw away at the Courtyard Restaurant, British chef Murray Wilson, who grew up eating traditional fruitcake covered with white icing and marzipan, has a very contemporary take on the ubiquitous cake. “Not a lot of people here in Canada like a traditional Christmas cake,” he says, “so we’ve deconstructed it to isolate the flavours, textures and temperatures.” Wilson, with his sous-chef, Francis Thibault, has created a sticky toffee pudding cake with dates, which can be served for afternoon tea or dessert with cinnamon custard, crumble and ice cream.

The secret to creating a really sticky, moist cake to serve as a dessert is to break it up before tossing in the toffee sauce. If you prefer to eat it with a cup of tea for a snack, simply pour the sauce over the cake, sprinkle with hazelnut crumble and slice.


Sticky toffee pudding with dates, 
custard and hazelnut ice cream

Chef Murray Wilson, Courtyard Restaurant

For the cake:

5/8 cup (150 mL) chopped dates
1 1/8 cup (270mL) hot water
1 teaspoon (5 mL) baking soda
1/4 cup (50 mL) butter, room temperature
1/4 cup (50 mL) sugar
2 eggs
5/8 cup (150 mL) self-raising flour

1.     Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
2.     Mix dates with the hot water and baking soda and soak 10 minutes.
3.     In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
4.     Slowly stir in eggs and fully incorporate.
5.     Add the flour.
6.     Add the date mixture.
7.     Pour the mixture into a buttered 9-inch-by-
5-inch cake tin.
8.     Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown It will spring lightly back when gently pressed.

For the toffee sauce:

7/8 cup butter
1 1/3 cups brown sugar
1 vanilla pod
1 1/8 cup or 252 mL heavy 35-per-cent cream

1.    In a saucepan, slit open the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out seeds. Add empty pod. Combine ingredients and simmer over low heat 5 minutes. Remove the pod before serving.

For the hazelnut ice cream:

1 1/8 cups (270mL) hazelnuts
2 tablespoons (25 mL) hazelnut oil (available at fine food shops)
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup (125 mL) heavy 35-per-cent cream
1 1/2 (375 mL) milk
2 tablespoons (25 mL) skim milk powder
5/8 cup (150 mL) sugar
1/2 cup (125 mL) Frangelico liqueur

1.     Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
2.     Toast hazelnuts in the oven until golden brown and fragrant, about three minutes.
3.     Transfer the nuts to a blender. Add the oil and blend until smooth. Pass through a fine sieve. Refrigerate.
4.     Place the cream, milk, milk powder and half the sugar in a saucepan. Heat to dissolve the milk powder and sugar.
5.     In a medium mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks with the remaining sugar.
6.     Slowly whisk the warm cream mixture into the egg yolks
7.     Transfer to a clean saucepan.
8.     With a spatula, stir the cream mixture in a figure-8 motion over medium-low heat until it reaches 160 °F (70°C) . Continuing to stir carefully, hold the mixture at that temperature for 10 minutes.
9.     Transfer the mixture to a bowl set over ice 
10.     Whisk in the hazelnut purée, followed by the Frangelico.
11.     Churn in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s directions.

For the date purée:

7/8 cup (225 mL) dates, pitted
3/4 cup (175 mL) water
1/4 cup (50 mL) brown sugar
2 sprigs rosemary

1.   Combine ingredients in saucepan. Cook over low heat until water evaporates. Remove herb. Purée well, then pass through a fine sieve.

For the cinnamon custard:

2 2/3 cups (500 mL) heavy 35-per-cent cream
3/8 cup (100 mL) sugar
2-inch (5-cm) stick of cinnamon
6 egg yolks

1.     Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
2.     In a saucepan, heat the cream with half the sugar and the cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer. 
Remove from the heat and let steep 30 minutes.
3.     In another mixing bowl, whisk egg yolks with remaining sugar.
4.     Remove cinnamon stick from cream; discard. Slowly add cream to the egg yolks, whisking constantly to incorporate well.
5.     Pass through a fine-meshed sieve.
6.     Transfer to ramekins, set in a pan of water 
to bake until set (25 minutes).

For the hazelnut crumble:

3/4 cup (175 mL) sugar
1/4 cup (50 mL) butter
2 tablespoons (25 mL) corn syrup
1 cup (250 mL) hazelnuts
Pinch, salt
1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) baking soda

1.    Combine the sugar, butter and corn syrup in a saucepan. Add just enough water to cover the sugar.
2.    Heat the mixture over high heat until a light caramel forms, about three minutes.
3.    Add the hazelnuts, salt and baking soda. Stir.
4.    Transfer the mix to a parchment-lined 
baking sheet. Let cool completely at room 
5.    Transfer the mix to a food processor and blend until it has the consistency of a crumble topping (large breadcrumbs).

To garnish plates:

40 fresh cranberries to decorate
8 sprigs fresh rosemary

To assemble:

1.    In a large mixing bowl, break the cake into pieces and pour the toffee sauce over it.
2.    Toss gently, without breaking up the cake. Smear date purée over the flat plate, sprinkle crumble over the top, put cake pieces on top and add ice cream and custard. Garnish with fresh cranberries and rosemary.


Chateau Laurier Yule Log

Chef Pradeep Sultania, Fairmont Château Laurier

Recipe makes one iced log

For the meringue mushrooms:

7/8 cup (200 mL) egg whites
1 1/3 cups (325 mL) sugar

1.    Divide the sugar into three equal parts.
2.    In a large mixing bowl, start whipping egg whites and the first part of the sugar until fluffy.
3.    Add second part of sugar while whipping, until it becomes very thick.
4.    Add third part of sugar while whipping, approximately 30 seconds. Do not over-whip after adding the third part or the meringues will begin to lose air and will not hold their shape while drying (cooking) and will ooze sugar.
5.    Pipe into shapes to make the tops and stems of mushrooms, or any other shapes you choose to decorate your yule log. Use your imagination! Bake at 140 F (60°C) for 12 to 14 hours.

For the white Swiss rolls (yield 1 Swiss roll):

3/8 cup (100 mL) all-purpose flour
5 eggs
3/8 cup (100 mL) sugar

1.    Sieve flour and set aside.
2.    Fill the bottom of a double boiler with 1 inch (2.5 cm) of simmering hot water. Combine eggs and sugar in the top of the double boiler, and warm, stirring until the mixture reaches 108°F (42°C).
3.    Whip egg and sugar mix until light and fluffy.
4.    Fold in sieved flour so there are no lumps.
5.    Spread the batter over a lined baking sheet and bake at 450°F (230°C) for 5 to 6 minutes, or until golden brown.
6.    Allow to cool.

For the mocha butter cream icing:

2 tablespoons (25 mL) hot water
1 tablespoon (15 mL) instant coffee
2 cups (500 mL) sugar
1/4 cup (50 mL) water
7/8 cup (200 mL) egg whites
2 cups (500 mL) butter, room temperature

1.     Mix hot water with instant coffee; set aside.
2.    Heat sugar and water on medium heat on your stovetop, ultimately to 246°F (119°C). But watch it because when temperature of the sugar reaches 240°F (116°C), you should start whipping the egg whites.
3.    As soon as cooked sugar temperature reads 246°F (119°C), start adding the sugar mixture to the egg whites, whipping constantly until the mixture becomes cold and shiny, about 25 to 30 minutes.
4.    Add soft butter and instant coffee to the egg white and sugar mixture. Now it is ready to use.

To assemble:

1.    The day before you want to decorate your log, spread icing a half-inch thick across the cake you made.
2.    Using the baking paper on which the log was baked, carefully roll the log to form a large sausage. Place log in freezer. Keep the remainder of the icing aside in the refrigerator until you are ready to decorate.
3.    Slice one small piece off the end of the log and use this to create a branch stump on top of the yule log.
4.    Cover yule log, plus stump with icing, using a piping bag.
5.    Decorate with meringue pieces, using icing to glue any pieces together to make meringue mushrooms, or any other shapes.

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