Bûche de Noël
A Yule Log Cake or Bûche de Noël is traditionally served at Christmastime in French-speaking lands such as France, Belgium, Switzerland, Québec, Canada and some former French colonies. It’s no coincidence that countries who are famous for their delicious chocolate use the confection to decorate a cake that is formed into the shape of a log.
The history of the yule log dates back even earlier than the medieval era. It was a Nordic tradition to celebrate the winter solstice and the days getting longer by burning a log (or even an entire tree) decorated with holly, pinecones or ivy. The word “yule” refers to the old winter solstice festivals held throughout Scandinavia, northern Europe and Germany. The yule log’s ashes were then kept throughout the year to ward off evil and for medicinal purposes.
With Christianity, the yule log tradition continued as many families burned a log on Christmas Eve. Families would carefully select a long log and slowly feed it into the fire throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas - from Christmas Day to Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings.
The history of the yule log cake isn’t precise, but in the 1600’s yule log cakes decorated with marzipan and meringue appeared. A sponge cake, on which the yule log cake is based, is one of the oldest cake recipes that is still made today. The first known written recipe for sponge cake appeared in 1615 in Markham’s “The English Huswife.” In the 19th century, Parisian bakers popularized the elaborately decorated Bûche de Noël.
The concept behind making a yule log cake is relatively simple. You make a basic yellow or chocolate sponge cake in a baking sheet (or jelly roll) pan, roll the sponge cake to form its log shape while it is still warm, then set aside to completely cool. The sponge cake only takes 15 minutes to bake, so the entire recipe is a quick process.
While the cake is cooling, make the filling and frosting. Carefully unroll the cake, fill, reroll and then put a thick layer of frosting textured to resemble the bark of a tree. My recipe makes a yellow sponge cake with whipped cream filling, decorated with chocolate-coffee frosting. When you enjoy the cake on Christmas you will reenact a long history and join people across the world in a delicious holiday tradition!
BÛCHE de NOËL or YULE LOG
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
5 tablespoons water
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sifted cake flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting the towel
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
1 ½ tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon instant espresso granules
2/3 cup heavy whipping cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
You’ll also need:
Decorations such as rosemary branches, kumquats, cranberries or meringue mushrooms
15½” x 10½” x 1” baking sheet pan (or jelly roll pan)
Clean kitchen towel – for rolling the cake in
Stand mixer or hand mixer
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease the baking sheet with shortening then line with parchment paper. The shortening will help the paper stay in place.
Beat the egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks until they are pale yellow, gradually adding in the sugar. Add the water, vanilla extract and combine well.
Gradually sift in the dry ingredients (flour, salt and baking powder) and beat to combine. The mixture will be very stiff at this point. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the beaten egg whites into the batter.
Pour the batter into your prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.
Lay the kitchen towel on the counter and lightly dust with confectioner’s sugar. While the cake is still very warm, flip the cake out onto the sugared towel (topside down). Gently and slowly peel the parchment paper off. Roll the cake and towel up together beginning at a short side. Let the cake and towel remain in this shape until the cake has completely cooled.
You must roll the cake up while it is still warm and pliable. If you wait until it cools to roll it, it will crack and tear.
While the cake cools, first make the frosting. Put the chocolate chips, coffee granules, butter and vanilla in a medium heat-proof bowl. Heat the whipping cream in a small pan over medium heat until it just hot and slightly begins to simmer. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and mix well to melt the milk and butter. Refrigerate to chill the frosting slightly – about 30 minutes.
Now make the filling. Beat the whipping cream on high speed until soft peaks form. Add the vanilla and confectioners’ sugar and continue beating on high speed until the mixture is thick.
To decorate the cake. Gently unroll the cake and spread the whipped cream filling on the inside of the roll, leaving a one inch edge all around. Gently roll the cake back up (without the towel) and place the cake seam-side down on a platter.
Cut an angled piece off one end of the roll, about two inches wide – this will become another branch on your yule log cake.
Remove the frosting from the fridge and stir with a whisk for a couple of seconds to ensure the right consistency throughout.
Use a rubber spatula and some frosting to attach the little branch to the main log, then spread the rest of the frosting all over the yule log cake. Use a small spoon to add some bark-like texture to the frosting and perhaps use the tines of a fork for additional texture. Don’t forget to decorate the edges to look like age rings in a tree.
Decorate your yule log cake with a small sprig of rosemary and a couple of cranberries or kumquats nestled where the branches come together. If you’re lucky you might even find some marzipan or meringue mushrooms to add some realistic touches to your cake!
Wishing you peace and joy in this holiday season!