Wednesdays are Chef François Payard’s favorite day at Southold General. The cafe is closed and he’s got the kitchen all to himself; a quiet respite from the usual mania.
“It’s a big day for me. There’s nobody around,” he says. “Can you imagine — having the kitchen to yourself?”
Though it may seem like a day off, it’s quite the opposite for the renowned pastry chef, who’s always in pursuit of perfection. “I always want to create something new for people to try when they come on the weekends,” Payard says.
It’s true: you never know what you’ll find behind the counter at Southold General. In addition to local produce and delicious coffee, the menu features a colorful array of savory and sweet: breakfast croissants; flatbread pizzas with ingredients like caramelized onions, tomato and local goat cheese; and decadent, over-the top pastries: think choux filled with local blueberries or hazelnuts and salty caramel.
The foodie paradise by Chef John Fraser opened in August and is quickly winning over the hearts — and mouths — of North Forkers.
Pastry aficionados know Chef François Payard for exquisite creations that blur the line between conventional and inventive.
That’s why it’s no surprise that, one late October weekday, I find Chef Payard in the kitchen, where he’s been since 5 a.m., at work refining recipes ahead of the holiday season.
“Perfection or nothing,” he mutters while putting the finishing touches on a pecan pie, meticulously filling dollops of fluffy mascarpone cream with caramel and bourbon.
Then, the potent aroma of cocoa fills the room and his face lights up as he unveils his pièce de résistance: a tray of elegant bûche de Noël cakes — among the most revered and sought-after treats at his former bakeries in Manhattan.
“It’s festive, beautiful and exciting,” Payard says of the impressive desserts, a staple in French culture. “The bûche was the only cake for Christmas and represented coziness from the fireplace,” he explains.
Dating back to the 19th century, the bûche de Noël evokes the ancient tradition of burning a Yule log for good luck and prosperity ahead of a new year.
Made with a light sponge cake, it’s filled, rolled, coated in buttercream and often textured to resemble bark.
“In the old days, we’d put Santa Claus or leaves as decoration,” Chef Payard says, recalling memories of his childhood in Nice, France. “When we do the Christmas logs, we have to have one fruit and one chocolate, always.”
It’s a core holiday memory for Payard, the third generation in a long line of pastry chefs.
He’s been cultivating his infatuation with pastry since boyhood, growing up in his grandfather’s acclaimed Au Nid des Friandises on the French Riviera before moving on to Paris in the late ’80s, where he earned a three-star Michelin rating.
Payard ultimately landed in New York, with impressive roles at the acclaimed Le Bernardin and Restaurant Daniel before opening several now-shuttered patisseries of his own. His work has earned him a multitude of accolades, including being named “Pastry Chef of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation in 1995.
This year’s lineup of log cakes at Southold General are a way for Payard to keep tradition alive. “This year, I decided to be very classical … back to basics, farm-to-table style,” Payard says. Two flavors — one chocolate, one fruit, of course — will be available at Southold General for your holiday festivities.
Each features an impressive glossy ganache with edible chocolate stars and shards of “bark” dusted with confectioner’s sugar for a snow-covered effect that’s almost too pretty to eat.
The General, as it’s affectionately called, is quite the change of pace for Chef Payard, who once churned out tens of thousands of macarons per day at his Manhattan bakeries. Now, he and Fraser are focused on curating a small-batch, farm-to-table menu.
The chefs visit local farms and markets multiple times each week to find inspiration as they incorporate seasonal produce into their menu.
“The local selection is incredible,” Payard says, musing about the simplistic beauty of the area’s bounty.
The cafe and market is located within the new Einstein Square, a nod to the summers Albert Einstein once spent in a cottage on Nassau Point.
The theoretical physicist is said to have described his time on the North Fork as his “happiest summer ever,” one that’s depicted in a playful mural in an outdoor courtyard.
To most people, the world of pastry is complex, and viewed mainly with temptation from the opposite side of a glass bakery case.
Chef Payard doesn’t think it should be intimidating. “To be a pastry chef is easy,” he says, and I’m not sure if he’s joking until he follows up with this simple wisdom: “You must follow the recipe, be precise and never change things.”
Like science, cooking is methodical, exacting. Yet both fields require a degree of curiosity and innovation.
“I’m all mathematic. I was never good at grammar at all, in school,” Payard continues, sipping the remnants of a double espresso.
Einstein is famously quoted explaining his genius by saying, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
After a morning in the kitchen with Payard, it’s clear he’s not afraid to break his own rules.
Suddenly, it’s clear from the look in his vivid blue eyes that he’s been struck with an idea. “You have to be creative,” he says out loud, to no one in particular, as he rises from our table. “Why always do the same thing?” he continues, winking as he turns the corner to return to the kitchen, his hallowed ground.
Chef Payard was generous enough to share his chocolate Yule log recipe with northforker readers. You can also order one from the noted pastry chef himself at Southold General this holiday season.
CHOCOLATE YULE LOG
5 large eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 cup cake flour, sifted
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Chocolate Pastry Cream
½ cup sugar
¼ cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder, sifted
1 cup whole milk
½ vanilla bean, split
3 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons cornstarch, sifted
½ cup sugar
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
11 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
Make the génoise
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a 10 x 15-inch jelly-roll pan with parchment paper.
2. Fill a medium saucepan one-third full with water and bring to a simmer. In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the eggs and sugar by hand. Place the bowl over the pan of simmering water and whisk constantly until the mixture is warm to the touch. Transfer the bowl to the mixer stand. Using the whisk attachment, beat at medium-high speed until mixture has doubled in volume and is cool, about 7 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the cake flour.
3. Place the melted butter in a small bowl. Stir a large scoop of the cake batter into the butter until well combined. Gently fold this mixture into the remaining cake batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared jelly-roll pan. Smooth the top with an offset metal spatula.
4. Bake the cake for 5 to 7 minutes, until the top is light golden brown and springs back when lightly touched. Don’t overbake the cake, or it will be dry. Place a wire rack over the cake, invert, and cool completely, leaving the parchment paper on the cake.
Make the chocolate pastry cream
5. Put ¼ cup of the sugar and the cocoa powder in a medium saucepan. Gradually whisk in the milk, about 2 tablespoons at a time, until well combined and smooth. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan, add the bean and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
6. Whisk together the egg yolks, the remaining ¼ cup sugar and the cornstarch in a medium bowl until thickened and pale. Gradually whisk in about half of the hot milk until blended. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the pastry cream boils and thickens. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and remove the vanilla bean. Scrape the pastry cream into a medium bowl, place a piece of plastic wrap directly against the surface of the cream, to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until chilled, about 2 hours.
Make the cocoa syrup
7. Combine the sugar and cocoa powder in a small saucepan. Gradually whisk in ½ cup water until smooth. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and cool the syrup completely.
8. Strain the syrup through a sieve into a small container and set aside.
Assemble the cake
9. Place the cake right side up on a work surface. Brush it generously with the cocoa syrup. Scrape about 1 cup of the chocolate pastry cream onto the cake and, using an offset metal spatula, spread it into an even layer. Starting at one of the long sides, roll the cake up tightly, peeling off the parchment paper as you roll. Rewrap the rolled cake in the parchment paper, twisting the ends tightly to secure them. Freeze the cake for 1 hour.
10. Slice an angled piece from each end of the log. Glue the two pieces together with a small amount of pastry cream to form a small stump. Attach the stump to the top of the cake with some of the pastry cream. Spread the remaining pastry cream over the entire log in a thin layer. Freeze the cake for 20 minutes.
Make the chocolate glaze
11. Put the chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the heavy cream to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and gently stir until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.
12. Place the chilled log on a wire rack over a large baking sheet. Pour the warm glaze evenly over the log, coating it completely. Refrigerate the log for at least 20 minutes, or up to 8 hours in advance.
Garnish the cake
13. Garnish the top of the log as desired with white chocolate stars, meringue mushrooms, chocolate fans and the optional chocolate truffles. Chef Payard recommends serving chilled, with ice cream or whipped cream.