With Christmas just around the corner, ‘tis the season to indulge in all manner of delicious gourmet treats. Roast turkey, baked ham, Christmas pudding, and that world-famous French version of a Christmas cake, the Buche de Noel. Also known as a Yule Log, Yule cake or log cake, this wonderful French dessert puts in an appearance on dining tables all over France once the rest of the Christmas dinner has been tucked away.
Although there are plenty of variations on the recipe, the Buche de Noel typically features a rolled sponge cake in the shape of a log, with chocolate ganache or some other flavoured filling inside and a chocolate buttercream frosting. In fact, the flavours and types of fillings vary from region to region, while edible decorations like berries, holly leaves and nuts are also used. The end result is a rich, delicious treat that epitomises the best in Christmas cuisine.
But have you ever wondered how and when the French tradition of eating a Christmas cake shaped like a tree log ever developed? The Buche de Noel can trace its origins back to an ancient Celtic and Gaelic tradition surrounding the celebration of the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year was a time for feasting and for welcoming in the spring, and one of the most important rituals was the burning of a huge tree trunk.
The trunk of an oak, elm, beech or cherry tree would be found and burnt, often with roots still attached, to celebrate the rebirth of the sun and give thanks for the life it would once again bring to the earth.
The rise of Christianity saw many pagan traditions die out, but the burning of the Yule log continued to play an important role in French culture. In fact, the pomp and ceremony surrounding the burning of logs became even more intricate and extravagant. Decorations of ribbons and plant cuttings were added to the logs, while the ashes of a burnt log were said to have mystical powers that could cure sickness and ward off evil.
Over time, as large hearths disappeared and small stoves began to appear in people’s homes, the tradition of burning massive trunks shifted as people shifted to smaller logs and branches at home. However, there were different variations on the tradition in different regions. For example, in Provence, the remains of the log from the previous year would be relit to start the fire for the new log, while in Burgundy parents would hide gifts for their children under the log.
As the logs became smaller over the years, they would be placed in the centre of the table and surrounded by sweets to be given to guests. Then, at some stage during the 19th century, actual logs were gradually replaced by the Buche de Noel. There are several theories as to why this happened: perhaps because logs were meant to burn for the whole evening but often didn’t, perhaps because Napoleon ordered that all chimneys be closed during the winter months to stop the cold air spreading illness, or most likely because burning big logs in small stoves in the home was simply impractical.
Whatever the case may be, Parisian bakers popularised this delicious Christmas dessert from about 1870 onwards and turned it into the French institution we know today. And if you’re looking to add a little French touch to your Christmas dinner, it’s relatively easy to bake a French log cake at home.
However, you’ll need the following ingredients for our Buche de Noel recipe.
For the cake:
75g plain flour
125g caster sugar
A pinch of salt
For the chocolate buttercream:
125g unsalted butter
225g icing sugar
25g cocoa powder
1 tbsp milk
1. Beat the eggs and then combine with the other cake ingredients to form a batter. Bake for 12-15 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius, then sit aside to cool.
2. To make the chocolate buttercream, blend all the ingredients together to make a smooth, creamy frosting. Once the cake is cooled, spread the frosting thickly over the log.
3. For an orange-flavoured filling you can use Cointreau or Grand Marnier, or you could opt for a coffee, chestnut or cream flavouring if you wish. This can be baked into the cake to add a whole extra layer of flavour.
4. Then you can sit back and indulge in this ultimate Christmas treat, one with hundreds of years of fascinating history behind it.