Limited Addition: Tivoli Bread & Baking’s Bûche de Noël
By Kathryn Matthews
“If it’s not in my heart, it’s not on my counter,” says Mike Gonnella, a.k.a. “Mikee,” the baker and owner of the perennially popular Tivoli Bread & Baking.
This holiday, he shares l’esprit de Noël in his heart by making a limited number of special order (place your order by December 17th!!) bûche de Noël ($54), a traditional French Christmas cake.
Since opening in 2003, Gonnella’s bakery, located in the heart of Tivoli, has been a hot spot for early risers, who queue up daily for his fresh-baked scones ($2.25), muffins ($2.25), cinnamon sticky buns ($2.50), multigrain-walnut bread ($.4.75) and baguettes ($2.75 or $3.25). Giant chocolate chip cookies ($1.25), lemon squares ($2.75) and walnut-studded brownies ($2.50) also draw a devoted clientele of Bard students and faculty, weekenders and some well-known regulars, such as singer Natalie Merchant, artist Brice Marden and actor Lili Taylor.”
Why bûche de Noël?
It was Gonnella’s girlfriend, Laurie Dahlberg, an art history and photography professor and Bard’s Division of Arts Chair, who persuaded him to offer this labor-intensive holiday confection at the bakery. “She loves trompe l’oeil foods, and she wanted me to make bûche de Noël—as she remembered enjoying it in France,” he says.
Bûche de Noël, the edible “Christmas log” created by late 19th-century Parisian pastry chefs, was inspired by the traditional Yule log that burned in hearths across France on Christmas Eve. The classic version is a roulade of genoise (a fine-crumbed French sponge cake) rolled around a thin layer of butter cream or whipped cream. The outside of the “log”, frosted with chocolate buttercream, is topped with more chocolate, textured to resemble “bark”, then typically garnished with meringue mushrooms and leaves made from almond paste.
The couple make bûche de Noël together: Gonella makes the cake and icing, sticking to a mostly traditional format (minus the whipped cream filling); Dahlberg fashions the decorative elements—acorns, leaves, mushrooms—from marzipan.
Gonnella’s chocolate genoise and buttercream icing are prepared several days in advance of its final assembly. It’s a delicate operation: the fragile batter of eggs, sugar, cocoa, flour and melted butter must be carefully folded together; too heavy a hand, and the cake may collapse. The French-style buttercream is made in batches over the course of several days. Once the cake is baked, it is spread with a thin layer of buttercream before being rolled. Gonnella then makes the “bark” by smearing a thin layer of melted chocolate onto wax paper and peeling it after it cools. “It’s a persnickety, detail-intensive undertaking that requires precision and patience,” he says.
The end result—a “log” about 12” long and 6” wide, with a shorter 2-inch long side branch about 3-4” wide—feeds a party of 16-20 people—a steal at $54. “If the log were any bigger, you’d have to split it with an ax,” he says.
Gonnella stumbled into artisanal baking. After dropping out of college (a French and philosophy major until his junior year), he stood behind the counter at Avis for seven years, ran a tire store for another seven, then worked for an organic vegetable wholesaler outside of Hudson. In 1999, he was unemployed when his friend Valerie Nehez, the owner of the now-shuttered Café Pongo in Tivoli, hired him to bake at her restaurant. “Besides occasionally baking bread at home, I had no experience, but Valerie seemed to think that I would make a fine baker,” he says. “She had her pastry chef train me.”
Nehez’s female intuition proved right. The craft has become Gonnella’s passion and his livelihood: “Baking is honest. At the end of the day, I feel good about what I do. My joy comes from having access to fresh-baked goods every day and from making my customers happy.”
Gonnella, who goes the from-scratch distance—everything at his bakery is made “by a human hand,” using regionally produced King Arthur flour and Cabot butter, local Featheridge eggs and, in season, local fruit from Mead Farm and Montgomery Place.
He purposely limits his wholesale business, selling his bread year ‘round to Rhinebeck Health Food store and seasonally to Montgomery Place Orchards farm stand and the Rhinebeck farmers’ market. Quality always trumps quantity. “My breads and pastries are as good as they are because I don’t believe in mass production baking,” he says. He also has zero-tolerance for substitutions: “Everything that I make is what I also enjoy eating, so you will not find gluten-free or dairy-free baked goods on my counter.”
Certainly, Gonnella’s bûche is not dairy-free. Its buttercream filling and icing are, in fact, what makes it freezer-friendly. Gonnella and Dahlberg have recently created their own bûche tradition. They make one before Christmas, freeze it, and serve it at their annual New Year’s Day party. “You’d never guess it had spent a week in the freezer,” he says.
Tivoli Bread & Baking
Wednesday-Friday 7a.m. - noon
Saturday and Sunday 7a.m. - 3 p.m.
Closed Monday & Tuesday