A traditional French dessert served after the main Christmas dinner is the Bûche de Noël, a roll of light sponge cake, covered in chocolate or coffee butter cream textured to resemble bark as an evocation of the ancient tradition of burning the Yule log. The facsimile is sometimes made more elaborate by molding the frosting to resemble a cut branch and decorating it with sugar leaves and meringue mushrooms.
Until recently France held pride of place in the Guinness Book of Records with the longest Bûche de Noël ever, measuring a very respectable 207.80 meters baked and lovingly decorated by Philippe Gardette, president of the Ordre Culinaire International. The effort took the team two and a half days of work and raised funds for the Enfants du Coeur charity. This record was left in the dust in 2011 by an epic bûche of 1068 meters—made in China.
The origin of the tradition comes from the rather enormous and very dense log that was burned in the hearth as a part of traditional Christmas celebrations. It sometimes consisted of an entire tree trunk with one end burning inside the hearth while the rest of the trunk stuck out into the room. The log was specially selected for the occasion, originally to mark the winter solstice, and carried in the main room to provide maximum lasting and reassuring warmth. It must have been quite an event.
Nowadays every French home will have its Bûche de Noël in the form of the traditional cake made from a Génoise or sponge cake, generally baked in a large, shallow pan, then rolled into a cylinder, frosted and decorated. Many variations of this cake are now available including some that are not cakes at all but made of sorbet, ice cream or elaborate confections and come in a multitude of flavor combinations.
Are you inspired to try your own creation? Here is one version of this traditional French dessert:
Chocolate Bûche de Noël
8 dessert spoons cocoa powder
4 pinches of salt
225g powdered sugar
4 dessert spoons of rum or Grand Marnier
4 teaspoons of powdered gelatin
250g dark chocolate (over 60% cocoa)
80g powdered sugar
4 level dessert spoons of confit chestnuts paste (pate de marrons confit)
250g full fat crème fraiche
Christmas characters, ideally edible ones made from marzipan or icing sugar
For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Remove the baking tray from the oven, and place onto it some grease proof paper coated in a thin layer of butter and flour. In a bowl sift together the flour, the cocoa powder and the salt. In different bowls separate the egg yolks from the whites, then beat the egg whites until they fluff up but don’t let them get too firm. Add 180g of the sugar to the egg whites and beat the mixture until it is firm. Then add the rest of the sugar to the egg yolks and beat until the mixture goes white and creamy. Add the almond extract and the flour mix to the egg yolk mix and blend carefully. Then slowly fold in the egg whites using a metal palette knife, taking care to keep it might and fluff. Pour the mix onto the paper and use the palette to spread it over the paper in an even layer. Place in the oven for 12 minutes, the cake is ready when it starts to brown a little and small bubbles appear on the surface. While the cake is in the oven prepare another grease proof paper onto which you spread a layer of icing sugar. Once the cake is cooked, take it out of the oven and immediately tun it over onto the new piece of paper. Remove the paper used to cook the cake, and then carefully roll up the cake keeping the new paper in place. Allow to cool completely on a grill.
For the cream:
• melt the chocolate using a bain-marie
• in a separate bowl mix the rum and gelatin, then add the melted chocolate to this
• add this to the chocolate mix, and then add the crème fraiche and mix thoroughly
• set the mix to one side for a while to rest
To assemble la bûche:
• carefully unroll the cake, and remove the paper, cover the cake with about half of the cream mix and roll the cake up again, place the cake on a platter and then cover it with the rest of the cream
• use a fork to give the cream the texture of a tree log, sift cocoa powder over the log and decorate with Christmas characters
Place the log in the fridge for 3 hours to set, and take it out of the fridge about an hour before serving.
Photo: Matthieu Aubry