Holiday desserts are usually about maintaining traditions, but for pastry chefs around the world, the bûche de Noël is a canvas for sweet creativity. "It sounds corny, but it's really all about having fun," says Lafayette Bakery's pastry chef Jennifer Yee, "and I think guests enjoy them more when the log has an over-the-top holiday style." Bûches de Noël have become the elegant, edible version of the holiday sweater. The best ones are quirky and strange, deliberate, and designed to spark conversation. You're supposed to do a double take and you're supposed to go in for seconds. It is, after all, the holidays.
If you want to make your own, let this recipe be your guide. In the interest of eye candy, here are the gorgeous bûches that caught our eyes this year.
S'more Bûche from b. Patisserie in San Francisco
"Who doesn't love the combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow?" Belinda Leong says of her s'more bûche de Noël. "For me, when creating a bûche de Noël," Leong says, "it is all about textures." Leong builds this bûche from top to bottom, starting with chocolate mousse and then adding a layer of flourless cake and vanilla cream. Another layer of cake is added before she finishes it with a chocolate sable (graham cracker) base, which provides an element of crunch that the traditional sponge cake lacks. The meringue is applied after the cake freezes and sets, and it's toasted before it hits the display case. The best part is, if you live in San Francisco anyway, you can get this by the slice.
2821 California St, San Francisco, CA 94115
Buckwheat-Gingerbread Bûche from Lafayette in New York City
Pastry chef Jennifer Yee makes individual mousse-based cakes rather than the classic rolled cakes. "We also build the cake upside down in a long log mold," she says. It starts with a dark chocolate mousse and a thin layer of the buckwheat gingerbread. To that, more mousse and homemade vanilla marshmallows are added and the last layer of gingerbread is placed. These cakes are frozen to set, unmolded, and glazed with a ganache icing. The last step is to decorate, which entails green buttercream piped to look like "grass or moss growing on the log," cocoa nibs that look like bark, and classic meringue mushrooms, in this case painted red and streaked with white like a Super Mario Bros. mega mushroom.
Lafayette Grand Café & Bakery
380 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003
Coffee Hazelnut Bûche from Bouchon Bakery in New York City
"I really enjoy making pastries that have a rich history," says Alessandra Altieri, director of Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery. "People used to burn logs at the end of December to essentially cleanse the air in preparation for a new year." Altieri uses the traditional sponge cake method to make the coffee and hazelnut bûche, but she adds hazelnut and almond flour for a double dose of nuttiness. Once baked, praline cream is spread over the cake and chopped candied hazelnuts are sprinkled onto the cream. It's baked and placed in the freezer to set before it gets covered in a coffee buttercream, which Altieri makes by adding a coffee reduction to a meringue mixed with a high butterfat content European-style butter. The all-important finishing touch is made by using "a fork to create lines to mimic the look of a log."
10 Columbus Cir #3, New York, NY 10019
Apricot Bûche from Vanille Patisserie in Chicago
"This is a cross between a modern and traditional," says Chicago's Vanille Patisserie owner Sophie Evanoff, "as it has an almond genoise with apricot jam, hand rolled in the center and surrounded by marzipan mousse." A genoise is similar to sponge cake, but made with whole eggs, so it's slightly more dense. Evanoff uses an almond streusel crisp as the base of the cake and finishes it with hand-cut white chocolate stars. "The secret is finding the right balance of flavors and textures," she says, "and, of course, making it with the spirit of the season in your heart."
2108 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614
Stump de Noël from Star Provisions in Atlanta
Star Provisions owner Anne Quatrano included her bûche de Noël in her Summerland cookbook two years ago. Now, pastry chef Zibaa Sammander recreates it each year. "We bake three layers of a moist and fudgey chocolate cake," Sammander says. So it's not a traditional rolled bûche, but it's got the bûche spirit in spades. Chocolate buttercream goes between each layer and covers the cake once it's assembled. "Then a fork and a small offset spatula help us give the stump its texture," she says. For the frosted leaves garnish, Sammander lightly brushes whipped egg whites onto rosemary and coats that in sugar. These are left to "dry on top of a warm oven for a couple of hours, or in any dry, well-ventilated spot overnight." Meringue mushrooms finish the bûche and a dusting of powdered sugar means a white Christmas in Atlanta even if it's 65F and sunny.
1198 Howell Mill Rd NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
Caramel Apple Raisin Bûche from Thierry in Vancouver
Vancouver pastry chef Thierry Busset fills his caramel bûche with a savory, spiced apple raisin compote and caramel mousse enriched with mascarpone. It's not overtly sweet, and the raisins give the cake a bit of texture. Busset makes a light, crumbly sable dough for the bottom layer, to which he adds a bit of sugar to balance out the sweetness. The whole bûche is covered with a caramel ganache and white chocolate squares.
1059 Alberni St, Vancouver, BC V6E 1A1, Canada
Calamity Cactus Bûche from Adriano Zumbo in Sydney
Pastry chef Adriano Zumbo channels the warm climes of his native Australia with his cactus bûche. He makes a gingerbread spongecake and steams it, which makes for a lighter, more delicate texture. Ginger-roasted apples and apple mousse are layered onto the bûche before it's rolled, and the whole thing is covered with a green glacage (a fancy word for icing) icing. The cactus is finished with marzipan "branches" and "needles."
Coconut & Chocolate Bûche from The Grill at The Dorchester in London
Ludovic Cuny, The Grill at The Dorchester's pastry chef, grew up in Strasbourg, France. "My father used to make a bûche de Noël every year," he says. Cuny soaks chocolate sponge cake in rum before assembling the bûche. He spreads a bitter chocolate ganache onto the rum-soaked cake, sets in the fridge to cool for an hour, and adds coconut mousse and lime zest before he rolls it into the classic bûche shape. He finishes the dessert with grated coconut and more lime zest.
The Grill at The Dorchester
53 Park Ln, London W1K 1QA, United Kingdom
44 20 7317 6531
Mandarin Bûche from Francois Payard in New York City
Francois Payard has been making bûches de Noël since the ]80s. Now, Payard makes four varieties (available at his four Manhattan locations) each year, three of which are chocolate- and/or nut-based, and one that is fruit-based. "The fruit one is always the worst seller," Payard says. "But I don't know why. To me, it's the best." It's a labor of love too. Payard scrubs mandarin oranges with sugar cubes to extract the fruits' essential oils. Then he slowly melts those sugar cubes and folds the liquid into mandarin juice, cream, and eggs to make a cremeux. That and mandarin mousse are layered with white chocolate and rice crispies ("because I needed texture and thought it would be cool") to form the bûche. The filling is delicate, so Payard uses a pain de gene, which is like the traditional sponge cake used for bûches, but denser and sturdier. White chocolate stars, chocolate ribbons, candied oranges, and orange macarons are the finishing touches.