A Slice of Christmas
Tradition and innovation converge in France's festive bûche de Noël.
photo by Beth Rooney
The first recorded mention of the bûche de Noël appeared in 1898, in Le Mémorial Historique et Géographique de la Pâtisserie, a cookbook by the Parisian pastry chef Pierre Lacam. The recipe's primary elements are identical to those of Delmontel's bûche de Noël: biscuit rolled with either chocolate or coffee buttercream. According to Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention, A History of Dessert (Chicago Review Press, 2011), the bûche de Noël 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.
Totemic as the Yule log shape may be, in the last decade, on the quest for novelty, many Parisian pâtissiers have abandoned it altogether. Recent examples include the bûche created by the celebrated pastry chef Christophe Michalak of the Hotel Plaza Athenée, modeled after the hotel's cascading staircase. At the tea room Angelina, chef Sebastian Bauer created a bûche that paid tribute to another iconic sweet, the macaron, by casting a chocolate mold in the shape of three of the cookies lined up in a row. And at the restaurant 114 Faubourg, pastry chef Laurent Jeannin dreamed up a version in the form of a white-chocolate mountain peak.
Innovation among Parisian pastry chefs is nothing new, of course. Back in 1873, Jules Gouffé wrote in Le Livre de Pâtis-serie: "In order to succeed in the art of pastry, a youth…must have a lively and inventive fancy, one able to originate ideas." When I was in Paris last winter, several pâtissiers I spoke to cited the game-changing influence of the visionary pastry chef Pierre Hermé on the new exhibitionism in the bûches de Noël. By creating new fall, winter, spring, and summer lines of pastry each year, much like Paris's couturiers, Hermé solidified the notion of pastry art as fashion, and his peers followed suit. Now, the annual unveiling of bûches de Noël by the city's pastry chefs is attended by feverish media buzz. "Every year," said Jeannin, "there's more and more pressure to create for Christmas."
At the same time, even as pastry chefs have pulled out all the stops devising ever more radical renditions of the bûche de Noël, it seems there's been a parallel trend, equally radical in its way, among home cooks. Parisians have, historically, left pastry to the pâtissiers, making simple cakes at home but purchasing more elaborate desserts from the cake shop. In the case of bûches de Noël, it's possible to find versions at every price point; even supermarkets sell them, both frozen and fresh, made from cake, ice cream, and sorbet. But there's a new movement toward professional-style baking at home, spurred in part by the recent abundance of books geared toward home cooks by masters such as Hermé and Michalak.
Pascale Weeks, a French food blogger, makes bûche de Noël for her family. "Ten years ago it was unusual to make your own," Weeks told me when at her house in Nogent Sur Marne, a suburb of Paris. "Now more people do; it's easy to buy all the utensils to make them at home." The day I visited, she had made a chestnut bûche de Noël. Her biscuit was pliant, without a single crack, and she had set a couple of slices at an angle to form the customary stumps. On top of the log swathed in chestnut buttercream, she lined up three marrons glacés (candied chestnuts) and then sprinkled on balls of edible silver "frost." It was as enchanting—and delicious—as any bûche de Noël I ate that winter.
See the recipe for Bûche de Noël »
See How to Roll and Decorate a Bûche de Noël in the gallery »