France has given the world many iconic desserts, but the Yule log, or Buche de Noel, may be the most intriguing. Come the holiday season; you’ll find this traditional pastry in patisseries and boulangeries in Belgium, France, Quebec, and former French colonies. From its roots in pre-Medieval food-ways, the Yule log has long grabbed bakers and lay peoples’ imaginations alike.
The Yule log’s history is tied up with that of its namesake, a large log decorated with ivy, holly, berries, and pine cones that was burnt by early Europeans on the Winter Solstice. Some historians trace this practice back to the Iron Age, with Celtic British and Gaelic European festivals. All agree that the Yule log, clog, or Christmas block comes from a Scandinavian pagan ritual that evolved from Yule festival celebrations. Over time, it changed from a full tree burned over the Twelve Days of Christmas to a single log burned on the solstice alongside feasts, songs, and prayers for the harvest-to-come. The ashes supposedly held medicinal and supernatural benefits, guarding against lightning, demons, and, with the arrival of Christianity, the Devil. Although the details are unclear, the cake likely arose alongside these traditions, potentially as an alternative to the original logs that became impractical with smaller hearths.
The Buche de Noel’s earliest recipe comes from Gervaise Markham’s The English Huswife in the 17th century, around the same time marzipan and meringue became common. It has always been a rolled, filled sponge cake frosted with buttercream and other adornments to resemble an actual Yule log. Later, 19th century Parisian bakers popularized the cake as part of a larger trend toward thickly-rolled sponge cakes filled with jam or cream. However, Yule logs would fall out of favor in the first half of the 20th century. Still, by 1945, the term was used almost exclusively for the pastry, and, in the 1960s, it was regularly served at midnight feasts after Christmas Eve mass.
Yule logs are baked in a large, shallow Swiss roll pan before being iced and then rolled. At that point, they are covered with buttercream and cut so one end can be placed on top like a branch. The ends of the roll are finished with vanilla cream to look like fresh-cut wood, while a fork gives a bark-like texture to the buttercream. Additional decorations might include:
In contemporary francophone cultures, you can now buy individual Yule logs in whatever sizes, colors, or flavors fit your fancy. Alternately, you could try your hand at making a Buche de Noel of your own, including any number of festive decorations or even vegan or sugar-free versions.