A Medieval Tradition Turns Into a Cake
I've been wanting to make a yule log, also known as Bûche de Noël, since I read about it as a little girl. I was delighted by the oddness of celebrating the holidays with a cake that looked like a log.
Originally the yule log was, you guessed it, a log. In medieval times people would celebrate the Winter Solstice by burning an enormous tree trunk on the shortest day of the year. The act was a way to celebrate the rebirth of the sun as well as give thanks for the warmth and life it would bring with it.
Some believed the flame of the yule log would burn out old wrongs, while others used it to predict future events. Cinders were saved to help start the fire for the next year's yule log, or be dug into the earth to ensure a good harvest. The ashes of the yule log were believed to hold special powers that would ward off evil spirits for the coming year.
Some time in the 1800s, people changed from burning the yule log to making one they could eat. The reason is lost to obscurity, but some blame Napoleon I who decided that an increase in illness in Paris was best combated by blocking up chimneys so no one would risk the dangerous fresh air that was thought to carry disease. Without chimneys burning, a yule log was out of the question, so enterprising bakers began making yule log cakes for people as a substitute, and the tradition continued long after the chimneys were reopened.
The yule log cake is usually made of genoise (sponge cake) baked in a shallow baking sheet, covered with cream or ganache, rolled up like a jelly roll, and iced to look like a log. It is often decorated with marzipan holly leaves, meringue mushrooms, twigs, and berries.
The Little Yule Log that Could
I made my yule log with a flourless roulade batter filled with a luscious dark chocolate ganache and dusted with cocoa powder. All was going well until I put the cake in the oven.
It rose so much that it spilled out of the pan and all over the oven -- even the door! Once I rescued it and cleaned the oven, I discovered it wasn't cooked through, so I returned it to the oven only to completely scorch the bottom. Humph.
Then I set it on the table to cool and my dog hopped up as soon as my back was turned and happily devoured the corner. Gosh.
In snatching it out of her way and setting it on the counter, I inadvertently planted it in the path of ants marching through. They were delighted to clamber all over it. Ayiyi.
When it was finally assembled I dropped it and it broke in half. Good heavens.
Needless to say, after all that rigamarole, meringue mushrooms and marzipan holly leaves were not happening.
I cut off the burnt bottom, cleaned off the dog-eaten bit, popped the whole cake in the freezer so I could easily sweep off the frozen ants, and turned the break into a decorative feature. I decorated with pine cones and cinnamon sticks, and raided my garden for fern and mint leaves.
Sometimes even the wonky things turn out alright in the end.
- 1 baked and cooled chocolate genoise, sponge, or roulade (or use our recipe, below)
- 1 batch dark chocolate ganache (see below)
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
Chocolate Sponge Cake
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
- 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Directions for Sponge Cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 17 x 12-inch baking sheet or jelly roll pan with parchment paper.
Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl, then cool.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip eggs yolks and 1/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy; beat in vanilla extract. Stir in the melted chocolate until just combined.
In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and continue mixing until soft peaks form, then add 2 tablespoons sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
Gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture a bit at a time, until just incorporated. Do not overmix.
Spread the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 15-17 minutes, or until the sponge is golden and a skewer comes out clean.
Leave on baking sheet and set aside to cool, covered with a clean, slightly damp kitchen towel.
Dark Chocolate Ganache
- 1 cup dark chocolate chips
- 2 cups whipping cream
Directions for Ganache:
In small saucepan, heat whipping cream until hot but not boiling.
Remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring gently but constantly with whisk until chocolate is completely melted.
Scrape into bowl and place in fridge to chill thoroughly.
Directions for Yule Log:
Set cooled cake (still on baking sheet) on counter and use knife to loosen edges.
Dust cake liberally with cocoa powder.
Place a piece of baking paper over the cake and carefully turn it upside down onto another baking sheet. Remove bottom piece (now top piece) of baking paper and throw away.
Remove ganache from fridge and whisk until thick and spreadable (be careful not to overwhip or it will go grainy). Spread evenly over cake all the way to the edges.
Grasp edges of remaining baking paper and use it to carefully roll up the yule log as you would a jelly roll.
Gently lift it onto a serving platter and remove parchment paper. Don't worry if the cake cracks a bit. This gives it a tree bark look.
Decorate as you wish, and chill until ready to serve.
Photos by author, ChuKat600, author, and author.