There's nothing like the holidays to bring on the nostalgia of our youth, and this is especially true of the foods that we enjoy this time of year. The holidays bring with them a smorgasboard of meaningful eats, deeply rooted in the culture from whence our families originally came, that give us a deeper sense of culture and place. For the French and folks who hail from Francophile countries like Canada and Belgium, no food is more nostalgic or manditory around the holidays than a Bûche de Noël.
Bûche de Noël, which translates to "yule log", is a cake traditionally made from a genoise sponge (cake that is leavened only by the air whipped into the eggs) and filled with buttercream, pastry cream or jam. The cake is baked into a thin, flexible sheet, spread with filling, and then rolled up like a carpet, creating a layered roulade. The roulade is then frosted with buttercream and decorated to look like a log, complete with rippled patterns in the frosting to resemble bark.
Usually, an end of the cake is cut off on the bias and placed on top of the cake to give the appearance of a branch that has been chopped off. The cake is often finished with decorative elements, mushroom-shaped meringues, fruit, pine branches, powdered sugar, or shaved chocolate.
Beyond its festive appearance, there's another reason that those who enjoy this dessert make it but once a year. Its components—the fillings and buttercream, the meringue and chocolate decor, not to mention the sponge itself—all take time and advance preparation. An organized baker usually makes a Bûche de Noël over the span of a few days, so it's something of an event.
There are quite a few recipes out there for Bûche de Noël, often involving chocolate cakes and frostings. For the brave with the urge for a big project this holiday season, I've created a recipe to re-create a version of the dessert that a French baker described from her childhood. The sponge is plain genoise, which relies on a soaker to impart flavor, and there are two fillings, a chestnut pastry cream and a cranberry compote. The cake is covered in a praline buttercream, decorated with mushroom meringues (from Maida Heatter's timeless recipe) and finished with piped, melted chocolate.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthal has logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evillagekitchen.