One of my favorite Christmas traditions is the bûche de noël, a roll of sponge cake and buttercream decorated to look like a yule log. It’s as if the Yodel went to France for the holidays, in a ball gown and tiara. In the classic style, it’s covered with coffee or chocolate buttercream which is combed to look like tree bark and then it’s decorated with meringue mushrooms, snowmen and holly leaves. Modern versions have elaborate and delicate decorations made from sugar, chocolate, and almost every type of sweet you can think of. It’s fantastic to behold, but a bit like pumpkin pie — a special treat that I look forward to but always find that eating it just once a year is enough.
This year, I was fortunate to be teaching a class on genoise, the classic French sponge cake, a few days before Thanksgiving. There was no pumpkin pie at my house. Instead a beautiful, chocolate bûche de noël stood proudly in all its woodsy glory, tiny mushrooms and all. I was pretty excited. It wasn’t Christmas but for me it was close enough. My students however questioned my sanity for a moment and were confused as to why dessert would ever want to emulate a log and mushrooms.
It is said that the tradition of bûche de noël began when Napoleon issued a proclamation that all of Paris keep their chimneys closed during the winter because the drafty air was thought to cause medical problems. This prohibited Parisians from using their fireplaces, so bakers invented this dessert as a symbolic substitution around which the family could gather for story-telling and other holiday festivities.
Now most of the time New York is a pretty stand up kind of town when it comes to competing with French cuisine, but when it comes to the bûche I find it sadly lacking. It’s not a tradition that very many Americans embrace. You can find them at Bouchon Bakery, Francois Payard Bakery and Petrossian by special order but I think you would be hard pressed to find many others (although shockingly I did see one at the Food Emporium). The bûche is a tradition that is best embraced by its creators and in honor of the season here are some of my favorites from the masters.