Paris at Christmastime is heaven for sweet tooth. Even if, patisseries on virtually every street corner is attractive at any time of year, there’s something magical about windows packed with elaborately decorated little logs. I discovered that few French people celebrate Christmas without one of these Yule log cake, known also as bûche de Noël, a Christmas cake with a ritualistic and interesting past. Cleverly shaped and decorated to look like a 3-D little log, the cake represents a melding of ancient midwinter traditions: one that celebrated the end of winter, and another honoring the Norse god Thor.
The cake is a sponge roulade filled and iced with buttercream in flavors such as coffee, praline, chocolate, and chestnut, which is combed with a fork to create a realistic bark-like texture. Woodsy decorations are a must, and combined in every version, from crushed pistachio moss, to marzipan or meringue mushrooms, or holly garnishes, but also spun sugar cobwebs and any other sort of edible decoration, which give the impression that these cakes were lifted directly from the forest floor.
However, the Victorians bakers who invented this novelty cake had a far older tradition in mind. In pre-industrial Europe, the Yule log was an actual piece of wood. The name comes from the Nordic midwinter festival, a monthlong celebration of the winter solstice observed by Northern Europe’s Germanic tribes, that involved burning logs in honor of the god of thunder and lightning, Thor. Viking invasions spread the tradition across Europe, and the celebration became entwined with Northern European winter solstice rites, especially those of the Celts, who believed that burning a massive log should vanquished the darkness, both literal and figurative, associated with winter. Yule logs had to be large enough to burn throughout the longest, coldest night of the year, with some unburned wood left over, while the remainder of the log would be lit next year, as a symbol of continuity.
These combination of traditions gave the Yule log surprising longevity: according to the writings of folklorist Sir James George Frazer, the practice of burning the Yule log survived long past the introduction of Christianity. Some 17th century French families believed that a piece of leftover log could, if kept under the bed, protect the house for a whole year from fire and thunder. To Frazer, this suggested the pagan belief of being spared Thor’s lightning bolts.
The first known Yule log cake recipe was published in 1895 by Parisian pastry chef Pierre Lacan in Le Mémorial Historique et Géographique de la Pâtisserie. The recipe’s primary elements are sponge cake rolled with either chocolate or coffee buttercream. According to Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention, A History of Dessert (Chicago Review Press, 2011), the buche de Noel is an emblem of the era that produced it. With the advent of the railroad and tourism in the 19th century, the Parisian middle class was having a love affair with the countryside. Krondl believes this cake is an urban pastry chef’s interpretation of a provincial Yuletide tradition. Francophone countries most avidly consume Yule log cakes, although they’re common in many countries that celebrate Christmas, and modern recipes have added eggnog and gingerbread frostings to the original recipe.
However, by the time of Lacan’s recipe, the Yule log tradition was fading. Stoves replaced massive stone hearths, and city life made carrying giant logs out of the woods difficult. Instead, in an ode to provincial life, city-dwellers enjoyed bûche de Noël cakes … and unwittingly paid homage to an ancient ritual. This year, while enjoy your slice bûche de Noël, you can think of the hundreds of years of history behind it!
Images from web.