The Log on My Table
Now that the last of the holiday treats has been eaten, the dishes washed, the decorations dismantled, and the gifts cleared from under the tree, Christmas is officially over in my home. Processing that takes a few minutes. Frankly, I spend months planning and preparing to make the day special for my family. That’s the best part. As a child, my parents spared no detail making the day magical for us kids. Santa built the toys and arranged them around the tree, as though our modest family room was an appendage of the North Pole. I will always remember that initial flutter of sheer happiness while poking my head around the doorway to see the incredible spread on Christmas morning. We were lucky children. As an adult, preserving that magical sensation is of utmost importance. Since I do not yet have children to share those particular traditions, I find other ways to make the holiday as opulent and wonderful as I can. Adults need fun too! This year, upon the suggestion of a dear friend, I found the perfect treat that both completed my holiday landscape and satisfied my French obsession- a Buche de Noël. This dessert- the log on my table- is a beautifully crafted sponge cake, rolled and decorated to resemble a dreamy, festive yule log.
The Buche de Noël is a predominantly French tradition that travels back to medieval times in the Iron Age, when Celtic Brits and Gaelic Europeans gathered, feasted, and celebrated the end of the winter solstice. As standard ceremonial practice during this celebration, gatherers held bonfires heaping with festive logs to be burned. The burning was purification, as ashes were said to have medicinal healing qualities. The entire celebration afforded the promise of a healthy and prosperous spring season. With the spread of Christianity, the tradition evolved into a more elaborate practice to ward away the evil and darkness associated with winter- the logs now adorned with holly and other festive accoutrements. Although, toward the nineteenth century large hearths were replaced with smaller stoves, making the yule log burning an impracticality. The logs were then placed as a centerpiece on the holiday table, with sweets and goodies surrounding.
While the exact date of its creation is unknown, the Buche de Noël cake is estimated to have originated around the early seventeenth century alongside documentation of the first sponge cake recipe, and in the early nineteenth century the decadent yule log’s popularity gained significant momentum as a sweet staple on the holiday table. The cake currently is of the genoise recipe, the Italian sponge cake adaptation, deriving from Genoa. The recipe uses whole eggs, beaten with sugar while simultaneously heated. Sponge cake is fundamental in French baking, as it can be easily rolled, soaked in flavorful syrups or liquors, and layered with mousse, jellies, or whipped cream. Though no sponge cake or Buche de Noël is complete without chocolate butter cream frosting. Pure bliss.
Those with a sweet tooth will see the Buche de Noël currently in various states of artistic liberty, as the yule log representation is considered dated. Famed French pastry chef, Pierre Hermé, transformed the traditional yule log cake into a modern art piece by abandoning the log look completely, which resurrected the popularity of the holiday staple in France. Pâtisseries often offer Buche de Noël for all seasons now, in vibrant colors, often resembling a Picasso painting more than dessert. Also, with easier access to tutorials and utensils, ambitious bakers are perfecting the beloved dessert in the comfort of their homes. The craze is as prominent as ever.
As I finish writing this post, my husband and I are finally finishing our Buche de Noël. Every crumb and smear of buttercream now a delicious memory. We ordered ours from Caramel in Salem, Massachusetts- a charming local pâtisserie of which I fully intend to visit again and feature here. For this glorious recommendation, I owe my friend one of their violet macarons. Perhaps it was the perfect merengue mushroom adornments, but even in its traditional yule log form, my Christmas table presentation has never been so artful or scrumptious! The Buche de Noël is a sparkle that will forever add to the magic of our holidays.