One Christmas, too many years ago to count, something (I can only guess that it was an appeal to her imagination) possessed my mother to buy a buche de Noel from our local French bakery. Is there anything more delightful to a seven year old girl than the gleaming pastry case in a bakery? Perhaps the only thing better is when the glass case opens and a fanciful Christmas cake come home in a white box tied with twine. As a girl with a particular fascination with gnomes and cozy forest creatures, this yule log captured every ounce of my imagination. Covered with lichen and mushrooms fashioned out of meringue and carved with bark and rings revealing its age, it was like a toy you could eat, and it was pretty much the coolest thing I had ever seen. But for some reason, probably expense, there was only one year of buche de Noel at the McColl house until we fell back on the tradition of cranberry crunch.
The yule log had to come back this year, I felt. Roughly twenty years is long enough to keep a cake in hibernation that embodies such childlike fun and whimsy. Or maybe I was just hoping to bring some of the wonder back to Christmas. The kids in our family are too old to lay awake in the dark of morning debating whether or not it is yet an acceptable hour to pad downstairs in their pj’s to empty out the stockings and see what Santa has brought. And Christmas, I now think, is a holiday truly for children. The people I know have everything they need and treat themselves to the things they want. There’s not much I can imagine wrapping up and placing under the tree that would excite them the way our Hot Wheels, Casio keyboards, and Care Bears once did. Children bring a bright-eyed wonder and rosy cheeked brilliance to Christmas morning that we just don’t have in us anymore.
But if my eyes danced with bright-eyed wonder this year, it was from the deep thrill baking this cake gave me. I don’t have the patience for baked goods made to resemble people or things — but holy baby Jesus! This buche de Noel looked just like a log and really wasn’t fussy at all. A quick, deft rolling of the slim, flat cake with only one brief moment of panic. From there it was all light and dreamy, covered with a deep dark frosting, and I was hopping around the kitchen proud as a new mother.
The origin of this traditional French and Quebecois cake is debated, but some say that Napolean once ordered Parisian households to shut up their chimneys one winter due to a popular conception that cold air would cause medical problems. Unable to gather around a fire for traditional Christmas merrymaking, clever French bakers fashioned a mock log to serve as a hearth centerpiece. To this day, the fires may well be roaring in your living room, but I promise, if you make this cake, people will delightedly gather ’round it.
Buche de Noel
adapted from Feast by Nigella Lawson
for the cake
6 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
for the icing*
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
2 cups confectioners sugar
2 sticks butter
1 tablespoons vanilla extract
additional confectioner’s sugar for “snow”
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a jelly roll with parchment paper leaving a generous overhang at the ends.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy and thick. Then add 1/2 cup of the sugar and continue whisking until the whites hold peaks.
In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks and remaining sugar until pale yellow and thick. Add the vanilla and sift in cocoa powder before gently folding to incorporate. Next, fold a few tablespoons of the egg whites into the yolks, before gently folding in the remaining whites in thirds.
Pour the cake mixture into the lined cake pan and bake for twenty minutes.
While the cake is in the oven you can make the icing. In a double boiler (or a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water), melt the chocolate and butter. Stir in the vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.
When the cake comes out of the oven, let it cool for a few minutes before trimming both long and short ends (this will make it easier to roll and give a neater look). Spread on a thin coat of icing. Then, starting at the short end, tightly roll the cake into a cylinder. Slice one or both ends at a gentle diagonal — you can use these pieces to make a craggy log. Cover the log in frosting and then drag a toothpick or fork through the icing to make bark and age rings. Sift on confectioner’s sugar for snow. Gather ’round, and after appropriate oohing and ahhing, eat!
*I found that I had a lot of icing leftover over — about twice as much as I needed. Next time I would probably halve the icing measurements for less waste.