There’s an alchemy to what goes on in the kitchen; a mystery that is perhaps particularly relevant at this time of year.
Take egg whites.
Transparent and slippery when they slide from a cracked shell; opaque and white, stiff and yet airy after being whipped. Such a transformation.
The day before Christmas Eve, my cold in full flow after having returned with a vengeance, it was time to finally roll up sleeves and get going with the Yule log I’d long promised The Other Half, since he doesn’t like any cake containing dried fruit.
There’s been a vast Swiss roll tin in the cupboard for a couple of years now, but procrastination is an effective shield against new culinary challenges.
So, after having found flu drugs in the medicine cabinet and with Annie Lennox singing carols in the background, I sat down with caffeine and the recipes and notes I'd printed out last week.
“I can’t promise it’s a doddle,” she had written – words that, in my mind’s eye, I could see being delivered to the accompaniment of a certain look to camera, “but it works easily”.
And it certainly looked far from difficult. Indeed, the main question seems to be the rolling bit.
While searching for general advice, I’d come across Felicity Cloake’s recent article in her Guardian ‘how to make the perfect’ series, where she tests a number of recipes and then comes up with a perfect one.
The key here was the rolling question.
Nigella – like Delia – let’s the cake cool before rolling. Research suggested that this was not best, and Cloake's own tests backed this up.
In the event, I used Nigella’s recipe – with a tweak or two. Besides, her amounts were more realistic for the tin I have than any that Cloake used.
You start by separating half a dozen medium eggs, then whisking those whites until they peak, before adding 50g of caster sugar and mixing a little more. Then a teaspoon of vanilla extract goes in, along with 50g of sifted cocoa powder.
In another bowl, the yolks are whisked up with 100g caster sugar, until they’re the texture of a mousse and a lovely, pale yellow.
A couple of “dollops” of the white mix are added and beaten in, before the rest of the egg white mixture is carefully folded in.
Everything goes into your carefully-lined Swiss roll tin and is popped into an oven (160˚C fan) for 20 minutes.
Once removed, it gets a moment or two to rest – and then comes the bit everyone dreads.
Turn it out onto more baking paper and gently roll up, before leaving to cool.
There are mentions of clean tea towels and dustings of icing sugar. I managed thus: a little icing sugar was sprinkled on the sponge, then it was covered with another large sheet of baking paper.
The inverted cooling rack went on top and then it was quite easy to turn over. The tray came away easily and it was only a matter of taking my time to ease the bottom layer of baking paper away.
It doesn’t matter if you tear or lose a bit of cake – you’re going to cover those.
Using the baking paper that’s now beneath your sponge, you slowly roll the thing away from you. The paper is a great help, because you can use that rather than putting pressure on the warm sponge.
Slip the paper out from underneath and leave on the cooling rack.
Later, it was a case of bashing up 175g of 70% cocoa solids chocolate as the sound of Bing Crosby singing that song drifted through the flat, before melting gently over a pan of hot water.
Butter and icing sugar was beaten together, before the melted chocolate joined them, once it had cooled a little.
Now at this juncture, Nigella calls for another teaspoon of vanilla essence to be added to the mix, but I decided to take a leaf out of Cloake’s book experiments.
I split approximately a third of the mixture into another bowl and added a substantial squeeze of chestnut purée, then spread that over the unrolled cake.
By this time, we’d hit Jingle Bells – in French – on The Other Half’s Christmas playlist. And people imagine he’s all ‘bah humbug’ at this time of year.
Once the filled sponge was rolled back up, I cut off a piece from each end and placed them alongside it, at angles, on a silver cake board.
Then it was a question of plastering over the chocolate buttercream mix – with vanilla now added. There was a massive amount of the mixture and it wasn’t quite as easy as you might imagine, because the sponge is really quite delicate.
Next, take a skewer and try to make it look like a log. A line here; a whorl there. I realised that it’s a long time since I drew cartoon logs, but it sort of came back to me.
Then dust with sieved icing sugar and decorate with whatever you’ve got available. I’d managed, only a few days ago, to get my hands on some sugar flowers, a little Christmas tree and a robin, so on they went (the tree on a sugar-dusted ‘hump’ of extra buttercream to one side of the cake itself.
And there it was – my first Yule log. Looking suitably Yuleish. Even by my standards, this is not health food – but it is Christmas, after all!
Then onto the day’s next task – making orange dust and lemon dust. There was to be no repeat of last year’s debacle, when I misread the temperature as centigrade when it was actually fahrenheit.
A small orange and a lemon were sliced as thinly as possible – oh, the value of a new, really, really sharp Zwilling Henckels paring knife – and went on to a lined baking tray, to spend the hours n the oven at 100˚C (fan).
They’re then blitzed (separately), each with a pinch of sugar and a touch of salt, before being sieved into small containers, where they keep very nicely for some time.
And that was entirely enough prep for one day: there’s still Christmas Eve to go, and plenty more to do. But that can wait.