A Bûche de Noël is Serious Business

by Sylvie Bigar

Beware chocolate cake served in menacing style. Photo:Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

“Funny how the thought of food puts us in a better mood,” Hansel and Gretel sing.
“Into the cave of Aladdin,
a place a child could go mad in!

apple tarts,
meringues like snow.

chocolate mousse,
black forest gateau…”

         Even before the curtain rose there were cakes lined up just outside the theater on the Grand Tier - and the mood was tense. Pastry wunderkind and matinee idol Johnny Iuzzini of Jean Georges (New York’s sexiest chef according to the Daily News), arrived to judge a pastry competition for New York high school students enrolled in culinary programs.

        Many of the young bakers looked intensely stressed. The task was to replicate Iuzzini’s signature Bûche de Noël with his recipe but they were given freedom to dream up sugary details of their own.

         Iuzzini made the rounds, shaking every contestant’s hand. Boys froze, girls giggled. “He’s very cute…is he married?” whispered a hopeful teenager. Fork-poised Iuzzini studied the presentations alongside Richard Grausman of the Careers through Culinary Arts Program.

         “I wanted a challenge,” confides Santo Saitta from Port Richmond High School on Staten Island, gritting his teeth. “It seemed like a step-by-step easy recipe, but if you didn’t pay attention, you could mess up.”

         “The kids worked for three weeks,” culinary arts teacher James Ryan told me. “At first, we tried to spread the process over several 45-minute periods, but we learned that unless you just do it straight through to the finish, the cake unrolls and breaks. Instead of a log you get a flat sheet.”

         Iuzzini did a monologue on the virtues of a good Bûche de Noël.  Not at all ironic, but very serious. “The log should be roundish with the branches growing upward, right? Branches usually don’t grow down.” He had compliments for a wintry wonderland surrounding one of the cakes, “Makes me want to go out and play in the snow.” He admired a well-crafted red and white mushroom: “If you see a mushroom like that in the forest, don’t eat it!”

        His criticism was direct but low key: “a bit more egg white next time,” or “I can’t taste the almonds….”  Most important: “A cake should be moist - be it for a wedding or a funeral, there’s no excuse for a dry cake.”

        The students began to relax. Asked how what it was like working from Iuzzini’s three-page recipe, one pastry student made a face of exaggerated weariness. “It was long.”

         With the winners not yet revealed, students took orchestra seats for the Hansel and Gretel dress rehearsal. Iuzzini who had brought his parents and his girlfriend, was seeing his first opera too.

 Best Decoration, Long Island City High.                                                      Photo: Sylvie Bigar

         At the end, after the wicked witch got hers, after a chocolate cake spattering food fight, the gingerbread children coming back to life and everyone eating witch bread, Iuzzini emerged on the Met stage with an announcement that set off wild cheers. “There will be two winners,” he said. “I decided to choose one winner for taste, Port Richmond High School, and one winner for beauty, Long Island City High School - and I will give a private demonstration at both schools.” A roar filled the theater.

         The judging was especially vivid for Iuzzini, who got his own early training going to BOCES/tech culinary training in high school. (Board of Cooperative Educational Services)Many of these kids came from families with pastry shops and bakeries.  They plan on becoming pastry chefs.  I couldn’t believe how many knew who I was and where I work.  It really touched me to be on the other side of it. I could really identify with those kids and how nervous they must be. I baked in competitions with other schools too.

         At one point Iuzzini recalled, he won 2nd place in the city competition but didn’t place in the state finals. He went on eventually to the pastry corner at Daniel.  And the rest is lemon chibouste and cherry clafouti.

      Based in New York, Sylvie Bigar describes her mission as “to intensify the joy of gourmet and travel adventures for like-minded readers.” When not in the kitchen tasting her cassoulet, she delights in sharing her discoveries in print.


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