You’ve probably heard of it before. The Bûche de Noël. A traditional French Christmas dessert shaped like a log.
I guess that’s a strange cake. It’s like “MERRY CHRISTMAS, HERE’S YOUR LOG SHAPED CAKE!”
Slow your roll, sparky. The Bûche de Noël has a rich history full of symbolism and one pretty fantastic story (hint: Napoleon may or may not be involved). It’s not just another cake. It’s the cake. As in, the iconic French Christmas cake.
The Bûche de Noël is shaped like the Yule Log. Ya know, that special log that people burn on Christmas for some reason. It’s so important that on Christmas it’s showed on TV on loop for 3 hours.
Here’s the reason.
The Yule Log sprang from the ancient Celtic tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice by locating and retrieving an enormous tree trunk (often with roots still attached) and burning it on the shortest day of the year. The act was a way to celebrate the rebirth of the sun as well as give thanks for the warmth and life it would bring with it. The Celts believed that certain trees, specifically oak, beech, elm, and cherry trees, had certain mystical powers. Often they would use a part of the log to make the wedge for the plow as good luck for the next harvest.
The earliest Yule Log in France can be traced back to Celtic Brittany. When the Catholic Church stamped out the Pagan tradition, it adapted. In the 12th century, the ceremony became more elaborate. Families would haul home enormous logs and in some regions, the youngest child was allowed to ride the log home. As families dragged their logs home, passers by would raise their hats because they knew the log was full of good promises and its flame would burn out old wrongs.
In French culture, this revised Bûche de Noël tradition is believed to have stemmed from a medieval feudal tax taken at Christmas times called the “right of the log.” Peasants were required to bring a large piece of wood to the feudal lord’s manor house. Years later, they began doing it for their own homes. They blessed the log, decorated it with ribbons and greenery, and sometimes sprinkled salt, oil, and wine on it before burning it for several days.
There are different Bûche de Noël traditions. In Provence, the charred remains of the previous years bûche (log) was relit as a starter for the new log. The family would gather around the hearth and say a prayer. In Brittany, the oldest and youngest members of the family would light the log together and say a prayer to baby Jesus. In Burgundy, they tended to get larger logs than most. While children said their prayers in another room, parents would hide small gifts under the log. When the children were done, they would use sticks to roll the log away and get the gifts underneath (nuts, dried fruit, coins).
People would also use the log as a way to predict events in the upcoming year. They would hit the burning log with tongs and the embers emitted would tell them what the harvest would be like. The more embers, the more corn. The fire was read and predictions were made for the coming year based on the sparks and flames they saw, like how many chickens or calves would be born, marriages in the family, health, wealth, etc. If the fire cast shadows on the wall, there would be a death in the family that year.
The remaining cinders would be placed in the soil so they would prevent grain diseases and produce a good harvest. They’d be spread around chicken coops to keep away foxes and in the barns and lofts where corn was stored to keep rats and weevils away. During a storm, throwing a handful into the fire would keep the house safe from lightening. The ashes of the Yule Log were believed to hold magical and medicinal powers that would ward off evil spirits for the coming year.
The custom continued in France and Quebec until the late 19th century. However, hearths eventually got smaller and turned to stoves, and the Yule Log became a smaller branch placed in the center of the Christmas table. It was surrounded by friandises, or little sweets and delicacies that were given to guests as treats.
So, the Bûche de Noël was kind of a big deal.
There are a couple of stories about where the cake originated. One was that the Yule log was supposed to burn the whole evening, a minimum of 12 hours. The log didn’t always burn that long so the cake was invented as a way to stretch it out. There’s also the more reasonable suggestion that the cake came into being because houses were no longer being built with fire places so there was nowhere to burn an actual log, so the cake was invented.
But the best story has to do with that wacky Napoleon I. During his reign as Supreme Ruler of the Universe, Napoleon realized there was a lot of disease in Paris. His solution was to mandate that all chimneys must remain closed during the winter months because the cold, drafty air was causing all this inconvenient illness. With chimneys closed, there was no way for the air to get in. Now people were in a pickle. They had no way to burn their traditional Bûche de Noël. So a Parisian baker got creative and invented the cake as a symbolic alternative of the actual piece of wood.
I really love the French.
Whatever the reason, the cake does date back to the Victorian era, sometime after 1870, suggested by its ingredients and written records. It became the fashion in the 19th century to serve similar thinly rolled sponge cakes with jam or cream filling and covered with buttercream. Around that time the Parisian middle class had more access to the countryside because of railroads and tourism. In the Victorian era, and especially in France, there was a tendency to romanticize peasant traditions, such as the Bûche de Noël. The cake may have been an urban reflection of the provincial Yuletide tradition.
“…while the average Parisian bourgeois could hardly be expected to hoist logs into their 4th floor apartment, they could at least show solidarity for their country cousins by picking up a more manageable Bûche at the local pâtisserie.” (Michael Krondl, a-sweetspot.blogspot.com)
Prior to the log, Christmas desserts were brioches and fruit loaves.
The earliest written mention of the Bûche de Noël is in Alfred Suzanne’s La cuisine anglaise et la pâtisserie, published in 1894. He says it was a specialty of someone named Ozanne, possibly his friend Achille Ozanne (1846-1898). However, According so Stéphane Bonnat, her great-grandfather Félix Bonnat, a chocolatier, had a recipe collection from 1884 that included a roll cake made with chocolate ganache. She doesn’t say that it was the very first Bûche de Noël, though.
The earliest recipe is in a cookbook called Le Mèmorial Historique et Gèographique de la Pâtisserie by a Parisian pastry chef, Pierre Lacam, published in 1898. The recipe he gives is for biscuit (what they called the sponge cake) rolled with either chocolate or coffee buttercream. The earliest recipe that most resembles todays Bûche de Noël recipes was by Joseph Fabre in 1905. It was published in the second edition of his book Dictionnaire universel de cuisine pratique.
Now, the cake is most popular in Québec, Belgium, and France, although some American families are partaking in the tradition. The cake used is a Génoise sponge cake, or other moist, rich yellow cake. It’s baked in a flat jellyroll pan and frosted with some kind of ganache or buttercream. The flat piece of cake is then rolled into a cylinder, covered in chocolate frosting or buttercream, and textured either with a fork, serrated knife, or piping bag to resemble tree bark. Another way to make the cake is with multiple pieces of Génoise. The layers are spread with filling and placed one on top of the other and carved into the shape of a log. Smaller pieces of cake are stuck onto the main roll and covered in icing to represent trimmed branches.
In case you’re wondering (which you might be, I don’t know), a Génoise sponge cake derives its name from the city of Genoa. It’s made of eggs and sugar whisked together over heat until thick. Then it’s cooled and combined with flour and melted butter. It’s occasionally enriched with ground almonds or crystalized fruits and flavored with liqueur, citrus zest, or vanilla. A Génoise sponge is different from other sponges because the eggs are beaten whole. Other sponge cakes beat the yolks and whites separately.
Flavors and types of fillings vary from region to region. In Bandol in the south of France, it’s iced with chocolate pastry cream and filled with coffee butter cream. The most common is chocolate but you can put pretty much whatever you want in it. Other wintertime flavors include hazelnut, chocolate Grand Marnier, pear, praline, exotic fruits, mocha, and chestnut.
After being frosted, the outside of the cake is decorated. The ends of the cake and cut faces of the “branches” may be covered with swirled vanilla buttercream or frosting to represent newly cut wood. It’s often dusted with powdered sugar and cocoa powder for dirt. The rest of the decorations vary depending on the makers tastes and can include berries, holly leaves made from almond paste, small figures of Santa and snowmen, pine boughs, candies, nuts, and sprinkles.
The one traditional decoration, which is always included, is the meringue or marzipan mushrooms. The two are old treats. Marzipan, which is sweet and dense, dates back to the Middle Ages and meringue, light and crunchy, dates back to the 17th century. Sometimes the marzipan is a little too sweet to blend well with the heavy chocolate frostings of the Bûche, but making the tiny meringue mushrooms is a pain in the (scuse my French) ass.
That joke was funny because this is about French food and ass is not actually a French word.
The cake can be finicky to make. The cake, which I mentioned is also called biscuit, starts out like a meringue. It is beaten until or forms peaks, or a bec d’oiseau (bird’s beak). It’s important not to overbake, which can be avoided by baking at a high temperature but not allowing it to darken too much. Removing it immediately from the baking tray will prevent it from drying out. After baking, it’s brushed with simple syrup, which can be flavored but doesn’t have to be.
You can buy the Bûche de Noël almost anywhere in France for pretty much any price. They’re available at grocery stores, fresh or frozen, or you can pick yours up from a fancy pâtisserie. Sometimes a Swiss roll (jelly roll) is used in place of Génoise cake. And of course there are ice cream logs, made with different flavored ice creams. Sometimes the insides are filled with parfait or a bombe mixture. Home cooks tend to make traditional Bûche.
In recent years, the Bûche de Noël has changed. Decorations and shapes, as well as textures have been altered. The flavors have become lighter and fruitier and the colors have changed (imagine seeing a bright green Bûche de Noël with sea foam green accents). This is particularly common in Paris, where pastry making is not just an art; it’s a fashion industry. As a pastry chef, if you are not making something innovative then you aren’t excelling at your craft.
Here are some examples of recent Bûche changes:
“Recent examples include the bûche created by the celebrated pastry chef Christophe Michalak of the Hotel Plaza Athenèe, modeled after the hotel’s cascading staircase. At the tea room Angelina, chef Sebastian Bauer created a bûche that paid tribute to another iconic sweet, the macaron, by casting a chocolate mold in the shape of three of the cookies lined up in a row. And at the restaurant 114 Faubourg, pastry chef Laurent Jeannin dreamed up a version in the form of a white-chocolate mountain peak.” (Gabriella Gershenson, Saveur.com)
Whatever style cake is eaten, the Bûche de Noël still does one thing: it brings families together on Christmas. They may not be telling their fortunes from flames or spreading ashes in fields, but they’re celebrating their togetherness at Christmastime.
Also, during family fights, it’s probably preferable to get a face full of cake than a face full of burning log.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
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