On Christmas Eve in France, families attend Midnight Mass and then hurry home for réveillon, a repast that everyone looks forward to all year long. Goose may be served, or turkey; some regions favor seafood. Yet, it is a given that almost every réveillon will conclude with Bûche de Noel, the amazing cake that has been the crowning glory of French holiday feasts for centuries. In and of itself, Bûche de Noel is a wonder, but in Christmas history it represents more than a dessert. The name and shape of this sweet delight pays tribute to perhaps the oldest winter holiday tradition of all.
Ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) by bringing the trunk of a large tree to symbolize their thanks for previous warm seasons and their plea for more to follow. As the Christian Church expanded and essentially absorbed some pagan customs, log burning was incorporated into Christmas festivities. Some people placed one end of a log in their fireplace and pushed it in a bit further each day until the log was completely burned to the ashes on December 25.
In more modern times, people began to find log burning inconvenient. People in Lyon and Paris began baking a Christmas cake in the shape of a yule log and celebrating the holiday by eating “logs” rather than burning them. By the late 1800s, Bûche de Noel had found its way onto the menu of almost every French family’s réveillon.
¾ cup granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch of cream of tartar
¾ cup of cake flour, sifted
The Buttercream Frosting:
4 large egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, room temperature
2 ozs. Semisweet chocolate, cut into small, thin slices
2 ozs. Unsweetened chocolate, cut into small thin slices
2. Remove 2 tbsp. of the sugar from the ¾ cup called for in this recipe and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks and the remaining sugar until blended. Add the vanilla and beat until thoroughly mixed
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until the mixture holds soft peaks when the beaters are lifted. Add the reserved 2 tbsp. sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks
4. In two additions, gently fold the flour into the egg yolk mixture. Add one-quarter of the beaten egg whites. Then fold in the remaining egg whites. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly into the corners. Bake for 15 minutes.
5. While the cake is baking, spread a dish towel flat on your kitchen counter. Lay a piece of parchment paper slightly larger than the cake on top of the towel. Sprinkle the paper with sugar.
6. When the cake is done, invert it onto to paper on top of towel, lining up the cake with the sides of the paper as closely as you can. Then gently peel off the parchment. Beginning at one shorter end of the cake, slowly roll up the cake with the new parchment paper still inside. Wrap the dish towel around the cake, place it on a wire rack, and let cool.
7. While the cake is cooling, make the frosting: Using an electric mixer, blend the egg whites and sugar in a large bowl. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and whisk gently until the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites are hot. Attach the bowl to the mixer and whip with the whisk on medium speed until cooled.
8. Switch to the paddle attachment and beat the softened butter until the buttercream is smooth. Then add the chocolate pieces and whisk until melted and smooth.
9. When the cake has completely cooled, unroll it. Spread the frosting evenly over the top. Roll the cake up again, removing the parchment paper from the bottom as you roll. Cover the cake loosely and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Check out Santa’s North Pole Cookbook by Jeff Guinn for more information on this recipe and other traditional holiday recipes from around the world.