As far back as the Iron Age, people have gathered to celebrate December’s winter solstice and welcome the lengthening days. As part of the earliest Nordic rituals, Yule logs were decorated with evergreen and holly, pinecones, berries and other ephemera of the forest, rubbed with fat, salt and wine, then set on fire. Even the ashes from these logs were valuable, considered to have medicinal benefits, guard against evil, and even ward off lightning.
Over time, the Yule log became more decorative and less imbued with magical properties. In England, it’s oak; in Scotland, it’s birch; and in France, cherry wood logs are sprinkled with red wine to scent the air before lighting.
For generations, families have gathered around the hearth to burn a particularly beautiful and large log on Christmas Eve, and (perhaps because of the resulting heat), they began to bake cakes that resembled that very log. Recipes for cakes, for marzipan and meringue as decoration, and for fanciful pastry designs appear as early as the 1600s.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that elaborate bûche de Noel began to fill patisserie windows across the city of Paris. Each year, the constructions are more delicate, architectural, and amusing. Above all, they are delicious, generally made of chocolate, occasionally soaked in liqueur, and usually enrobed in buttercream frosting or ganache.
While most of these cakes are made to resemble a fallen log in the forest and are surrounded by marzipan or meringue creatures, mushrooms, or other forest flora and fauna, in recent years, Parisian pastry chefs are taking some liberties with design, even skewing away from the log altogether. Paris-based blogger David Lebovitz, pastry chef and author of My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, enjoys this time of year as “each pastry shop tries to outdo the other with over-the-top presentations.” This year, a contemporary rendition by the famed pastry shop, Lenôtre, “La bûche a trèsors,” at 130.00 Euro, was created in partnership with the Hermès fashion house and is covered with tiny edible renditions of their classic jewelry, saddlery references, and inimitable design elements.
The bûche itself is a humble cake. The cake is a genoise—a moist sponge that, when fully enrobed with frosting or ganache, will stay fresh for days. For a bûche, the cake is rolled around a lightened whipped cream filling, but if spiraled around a fruity spread, it would be called simply a jelly roll.
Without a doubt, it is the frosting and decorating that makes each bûche a piece of art. Parisian bakers may compete with their fanciful decorations, but home bakers are artfully attempting their own variations with examples peppered across Pinterest.
Washington, D.C. pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, soon to open Buttercream Bakeshop in the Shaw neighborhood, thinks we should be lighting the yule log for holiday breakfast, too. In her Breakfast Buche, instead of the genoise, a fruity banana bread is spiraled with candied pecans and cream cheese icing. To gild the lily, the whole beauty is covered in maple buttercream.
MacIsaac encourages home bakers to jump into making and decorating their own breakfast bûche. Her recipe is sensitive to time constraints during the holidays and is constructed with components that come together quickly and hold in the refrigerator awaiting construction.
The chef’s tone is conspiratorial. “The cake is moist and full of butter,” she says, “so when it gets cold and is unrolled, it’s going to crack.” She readily admits the frosting covers any imperfections and once rolled back up, those imperfections are imperceptible.
MacIsaac recommends filling and rolling the cake then chilling thoroughly before frosting.
She is relaxed about decorating, making fanciful meringue mushrooms, leaves and berries, then dropping them randomly across the platter for a just-out-of-the-forest look. “I have fun when decorating,” she says, while running a dinner fork gently through the frosting, creating a rugged bark-like grain and sprinkling cinnamon gently across the surface of the log.
For the non-conformists out there, the “suche de Nöel” is another path. This newer style resembles a stump, with the cake log placed upright and the decorations forming roots, attaching the log to the ground. MacIsaac is already eyeing the suche as next year’s challenge.
This year, if a trip to Paris isn’t under the tree, make a bûche for breakfast, throw a decorated log on the fire, and wish everyone a Joyeux Nöel. The cake can be made in stages, but is definitely a project worth planning.
Tiffany MacIsaac’s Breakfast Buche
10 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature (2-1/2 sticks)
1-1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons very ripe, mashed banana, about 3 medium
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
2/3 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350 F. and place the rack in the center of the oven. Prepare a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan by spraying with cooking spray and lining with parchment
In the bowl of a stand mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping the bowl once. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing to combine and scraping the bowl between each addition.
In a medium bowl, stir together the buttermilk, banana and vanilla extract. Add to the bowl of the mixer and slowly combine. It will look lumpy and as though it has separated. Don’t worry.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, powder and salt. Add to the bowl of the mixer, turn to low, and combine until there are no more streaks of white remaining.
Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and set. While the cake bakes, place a clean cotton tea towel on a flat surface and sprinkle generously with powdered sugar.
Remove the baked cake from the oven and let it cool for no more than two minutes. Flip the cake over on to the towel and remove the pan. Immediately, starting at a 9-inch edge and using the towel, roll the warm cake and towel into a spiral. Set aside to cool.
Once the cake is completely cool slowly unroll it. Don’t worry if the cake breaks, the filling will hold it together and the frosting will cover any imperfections. Fill with Cream Cheese Filling and sprinkle with Candied Pecans. Roll the cake up again. With a serrated knife, slice off a bit from each end, to square it, then slice one-quarter of the spiral in a large chunk and place decoratively on the top of the log, to emulate a cut branch. Hold in place with toothpicks if necessary. Transfer to the serving tray and chill for an hour or more before frosting.
Slather the Maple Buttercream Frosting over and around the log. The ends, if the spiral is particularly winsome, may be left bare. Using a dinner fork, make log-like rivulets in the frosting. Dust here and there with cocoa or cinnamon, if desired.
Decorate the cake, forming a woodland scene, using Meringue Mushrooms, Holly Leaves and Berries, or even cuttings from evergreen and berrying plants in the winter garden.
Cream Cheese Filling
8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1-1/3 cups powdered sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter, cubed, room temperature (1 stick)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of kosher salt
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and powdered sugar for 1-2 minutes. Add the butter along with vanilla and mix on medium-high, until fluffy, stopping to scrape the bowl once or twice. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
1 cup whole pecans
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon water
Pinch of kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 300 F with the rack in the center.
In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients and mix until the nuts are evenly coated. Spread on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake 12-15 minutes or until the sugar is dry and crystalized, stirring well halfway through. Cool thoroughly, then store in a covered container for up to 5 days.
1 cup maple syrup
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons bourbon or whiskey (optional)
16 ounces unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature(4 sticks)
In a 3 quart saucepan, add the maple syrup and clip on a candy thermometer. Bring the syrup to 240 degrees (watch carefully as it will want to boil over)
In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip yolks on high until they ribbon, about 6 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the hot maple syrup in a stream. Add the cinnamon, salt and whiskey, if using. Increase the speed and whip on high for 5 minutes to cool the mixture.
Add the butter slowly, whipping between additions, until the frosting is light, fluffy and all the butter has been incorporated. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, then bring to room temperature. Buttercream will hold in the refrigerator for TK days and in the freezer for up to one month.
Meringue Mushrooms, Holly Leaves and Berries (optional)
3 egg whites (large eggs, room temp)
¼ tsp cream of tartar
¼ tsp salt
1 cup granulated sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup melted chocolate
Preheat oven to 200 degrees with the racks in the top third and bottom third of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer, add the egg whites and whip until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and continue to whip until soft peaks form. Add the sugar by tablespoon slowly and continue to whip, adding sugar until shiny stiff peaks form. Stir in the vanilla.
Divide the meringue into 3 bowls: in one bowl add half the meringue and divide the remaining portion between the other two bowls. Stir in a drop of green food coloring into the smaller bowl and a drop of red in the other smaller bowl. Work quickly so as not to deflate the meringue but make sure the color is well distributed.
Begin with the white meringue, adding it to a piping bag fitted with a medium round tip (#8 or #10) Pipe round mushroom caps and upright cylinders for mushroom stems onto the baking sheet. Pipe leaves using the green meringue and a leaf tip and berries using the red with a round tip (#8 or #10).
Place the trays in the oven for about an hour or until a cap removed from the oven and left to cool is firm. Turn off oven and allow the meringue to dry out and cool for 20-30 minutes.
Melt the chocolate and allow to cool slightly, then attach the stems to the caps. Decorate with cocoa powder, cinnamon, powdered sugar or any edible dust.
(Note: Crisp meringue mushrooms, holly leaves and berry clusters contribute to the woodland setting. They’re fun to form and delicious to eat, but will be soggy if the weather is damp, humid or rainy.)
Cathy Barrow is the author of the food blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. She has also written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Garden and Gun, Southern Living, and NPR, among others. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, Dennis, two schnauzers, and an all-white cat. In 2015, she won the prestigious IACP Award for best single-subject cookbook for Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry. She’s on , , and .