While the traditional Yule Log is associated with Great Britain – as its television broadcast/DVD version is associated with America – it seems to have originated in the misty past of Central Germany and Westphalia. It is certainly of pagan origin as are many of our Christian customs. To quote Sir James George Frazer in “The Golden Bough” his remarkable treatise on religion and ritual:
“In modern Christendom the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive, or to have survived down to recent years, in the old custom of the Yule log, clog, or block, as it was variously called in England. The custom was widespread in Europe, but seems to have flourished especially in England, France, and among the southern Slavs…”
Apparently, a gigantic tree log was fitted into the floor of a fireplace where it burned for nearly a year. Its ashes were then spread across farmlands on Twelfth Night to ensure a healthy crop. The log was then replaced and the custom reoccurred the following year. Other beliefs of the efficacy of the Yule Log were that it prevented thunderstorms, healed swollen glands and cured sick chickens. Of course, ancient people also bought the inevitable theory that it promoted fertility.
As it survived into the medieval period, the Yule Log was one of the centerpieces of England’s splendid and grandiose Christmas celebrations. One remembers the prim annoyance of King Richard the Third’s priests during the month-long bacchanalia that proceeded the day of Christ’s birth. Along with the giant burning log, there were Yule candles to illuminate the great hall, mistletoe (the original golden bough), the kissing bush, frumenty and posset, Yule dolls and mulled wine. Games were played, including Hunt the Slipper. One can only imagine Richard’s poor priests as they watched tipsy guests seated on the floor of the castle passing about a lady’s slipper while at least one shapely ankle was on display.
It would take several centuries for the Yule Log to have its imitator in the Buche de Noel. It was either the 19th century French or Swiss who devised the receipt for this enchanting dessert which is served on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. It is, of course, a rolled sponge cake that is surprisingly easy to make if you have the right receipt and the right attitude.
I was initially reluctant to make a Buche de Noel after reading of the experience of one of my favorite authors Joyce Maynard. For many years she wrote the “Domestic Affairs” column in the New York Times detailing her idyllic and bucolic New Hampshire life and marriage. Later on, in her fine memoir “At Home in the World” another view of that life came into focus along with the Buche de Noel. She attempted one – with actual meringue mushrooms – on a hectic Christmas morning when her marriage was falling apart, her children were creating havoc with the Christmas wrapping, the televised football game was blasting and no one volunteered to take out the trash. Into the garbage disposal went the cake, and if I remember correctly, several stuffed toys and a Christmas sweater. Not a recipe for an impatient or stressed person!
Luckily, as always, the calm and beauteous Nigella Lawson came to the rescue. It was Lawson who got me over the fear of rolled cake – if not my fear of meringue mushrooms. Her recipe works perfectly even for phobic cake makers of no discernable baking talent:
Buche de Noel
A Nigella Lawson Recipe
Preheat at 350F
For the frosting:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate
2 cups of confectioners’ sugar
2 sticks of soft butter
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Confectioners’ sugar to decorate
For the cake:
6 eggs, separated
¾ cup of sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ cup of unsweetened cocoa
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Whisk the egg whites until foamy and then add ¼ cup of the sugar and continue whisking until the whites hold peaks. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and remaining sugar until they are pale and thick. Add the vanilla extract and sift the cocoa over it. Then fold it in.
Lighten the yolk mixture with a couple of dollops of the whites, folding, and then add the whites in thirds, trying not to lose air.
Pour the cake mixture into the pan and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Let it cool slightly before turning it out onto another parchment sheet. For easier rolling, sift a little confectioners’ sugar onto the parchment.
To make the frosting, melt the chocolate and let it cool. Put the confectioners’ sugar into a food processor and pulse until all lumps are removed. Add the butter and process until smooth. Add the cooled melted chocolate and vanilla and pulse into a smooth frosting.
Spread the frosting over the cake, going right to the edges. Start folding from the short end, trying to get as tight a roll as you can. Cut the edges off at a diagonal and place them at the sides of the cake to make branches – one towards the front and one closer to the back. Now frost the cake. Taking a fork or a knife, create a wood-like texture in the frosting. Dust with confectioners’ sugar to make a snowlike effect. I sometimes strew a few rosemary sprigs about the cake plate to add to the forest-y appearance.
Now you have a most beautiful centerpiece on your table for your Christmas dinner or lunch.
(For British readers, simply go to Nigella Online where this receipt has the metric measures.)