From chestnuts roasting on an open fire to dreaming by the fire in a winter wonderland, the holiday season is filled with references to crackling warm fires and the comfort that they bring to young and old alike. So, how did the traditional (and necessary!) fires of winter come to be represented by a cake? Let's find out...
Long ago, the winter solstice was celebrated with bonfires honoring the god Thor and reminding the people that the sun and warmth were again on the way, even during the darkest hours of winter. The tradition was carried on in private homes with the burning of the Yule log, often a piece of the family's Christmas tree. The log was intended to burn all night from December 24th on into the 25th, and the ashes were often saved for the year and used in medicines and poultices.
As the populations in Europe grew and smaller homes were built without fireplaces, the French began to replace the real log with roulades of cake and icing, decorated with "mushrooms" of meringue and "pine cones" of sugar work. You have to love the French. Not many people will look at something as common as a log, and think "I can make that into dessert!"
I first learned of bûche de Noël as a high school sophomore in French class. It was an assignment to make a traditional French dish for the class potluck. Now a buche is basically a sponge cake with a creamy filling, and sponge cakes call for beaten egg whites in the batter.
Back in those days at my mother's house there was no stand mixer so whipping the egg whites involved standing with a bowl of whites and a hand mixer for at least 10 minutes. The recipe I had then called for a full dozen egg whites and plenty of sugar, plus a pint of heavy cream for the filling. It's a good thing we only made it once a year; it was a big investment in ingredients for our small household.
Outside of that recipe, I had never seen another bûche de Noël in person. I used to see one in a cheese catalog we got every holiday season, I think it had a chocolate raccoon on it but we never ordered one. The next bûche I saw in person was here at King Arthur in our bakery case. We still make them every year here, lovely chocolate-y logs with marzipan snowmen in their merry red caps. Check out the "army" ready to do their duty this season. An attack of cuteness!
Each year, the test kitchen team likes to offer a cake recipe for the holiday. Whether you're celebrating a birthday in the family, or a birth event in your religion, a cake is always welcome. Let's get started on this unique cake, the bûche de Noël.
Separate the eggs. Keep the yolks in a small bowl, and place the whites in the bowl of a stand mixer.
Beat the whites until foamy. Add 1/2 cup sugar gradually and continue to beat to stiff peaks. Place the whites in a clean bowl, and set aside.
In the same mixing bowl, blend the egg yolks, oil, milk, and sugar until well combined and lightened.
The mixture will be pale yellow, lemony in color. Add the dry ingredients and blend for another minute until well incorporated.
Take about 1/3 of the whipped whites and add to the batter. Don't worry about folding gently at this point. This first addition of whites is just mixed in to lighten the batter so it accepts the folded whites more easily.
Add another 1/3 of the whites and fold them into the batter gently. A wide spatula is your best tool here. To fold, cut down through the center of the whites to the bottom of the bowl and lift, turning the spatula over as you come back to the surface of the batter. Give the bowl a quarter turn, and repeat until only the barest traces of whites show in the batter.
Add the last of the whites and fold in again.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake at 325°F for 15-18 minutes.
The cake is done when it is golden brown and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan slightly. Use the parchment paper to help remove the cake from the pan.
Trim the crusts off of the 4 sides of the cake. I served these as "cake snakes" for the test kitchen crew to munch on.
Invert the cake and peel the parchment off gently.
Using a large clean kitchen towel or two, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar and roll the cake up, as if the towels were the filling. Go slowly to avoid cracking the roll. If it does crack, don't sweat it. You can always fill the cracks with icing! Cool the cake in the rolled shape about 20-30 minutes.
After the cake has cooled, unroll it and brush generously with simple syrup, flavored syrup or even liquor. I used hazelnut flavors throughout this particular cake, but you can use flavors that you like, such as almond, or orange.
For the filling, which you can make while the cake bakes, we're making ganache. Heat the cream to boiling, and add the chocolate. Stir until well melted. I chose Merckens bittersweet buttons for this ganache, but you can use your favorite dark or milk chocolate. It even works with chocolate chips!
Cool the ganache until it's lukewarm and slightly thickened. Pour this into the bowl of your stand mixer.
Using the whisk attachment, beat the ganache until it's light and fluffy, like cake icing.
Spread the whipped ganache on the cooled cake. A large offset spatula is "da bomb" here.
Gently roll the cake back up, filling snuggled inside. This earlier version used about half as much ganache, so if you like a thinner filling, go for it. Chill the cake for 20-30 minutes to firm up.
To ice the outside of the cake, melt 8 ounces of white chocolate over low and slow heat, preferably in a double boiler, stirring constantly to avoid scorching.
Spread a thin layer of the white chocolate on the cake. It will set quickly on the cooled cake. Let this layer firm completely, then coat the entire cake with a second layer of white chocolate.
As the second layer of chocolate sets up, you can use a butter knife to make wide bark, or a fork's tines to make thinner bark lines on your bûche.
For the decorative elements on this cake, I've used sugared cranberries and sugared fresh bay leaves. Here's how:
With a fork, lightly beat one egg white in a small bowl.
Add your washed and dried fresh cranberries and coat well with the whites. Pick up a berry and wipe off any excess whites, leaving a thin coating.
Place the berries one at a time into a small bowl of granulated sugar. Toss to coat well, and remove with a fork to avoid squishing the wet sugar. Set aside on parchment paper to dry.
Oooh, pretty! Sparkly!
For the leaves, I found these lovely FRESH bay leaves at a local store. and cheap too! Coat the leaves in the egg whites as you did the berries, wiping off the excess and sprinking with the sugar.
A touch of frost, a sprinkle of sparkle. If you use different leaves, please be sure to check that they're food-safe. I don't think anyone is going to eat these bay leaves, but I do at least know they're food-safe.
Gently transfer the cake to your serving tray. Dust with confectioners' sugar for a snow-dusted look, or dust with cocoa for a more rustic look, as in the top photo. Arrange your sugared berries and leaves around the bûche. Your Yule log is now ready to grace the buffet table and bring joy to your family, friends and guests.
Joyeux Noël, Mele Kalikimaka, Feliz Navidad, and Happy Holidays!